White House

Gerald Ford’s space policy legacy

Yes, he actually has one, but not necessarily as president. Prior to being selected to replace Spiro Agnew as vice president, Ford had a long career in the House and played a role in the formation of NASA in 1958, as he recalled in an April 1975 speech at the presentation of the Goddard Memorial Trophy to the astronauts who flew on the three Skylab missions:

I can recall very vividly when the first vehicle was put in space, not by us but by one of our competitors. And I can recall very vividly the relatively small part that I played thereafter as a member of the select committee, Congressman Teague, in putting together the new organization, which we now know as NASA.

(The reference to Congressman Teague above is a nod to Olin “Tiger” Teague, chairman of the then-named House Science and Technology Committee.) As a Florida Today article reports, Ford also had a reputation as a staunch supporter of the space agency within Congress. Astronaut Vance Brand made note of it in brief comments at an August 1975 presentation of the NASA Distinguished Service Medal to him and other participants in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project: “Mr. President, throughout your years in Congress–your leadership there, your great support of man’s exploration of space…”

Once in the White House, though, it was a different story, largely because of his brief time in office and the other priorities he faced. He did oversee ASTP and the Viking landings on Mars, both projects that had started prior to becoming president. He also continued to support the space shuttle program despite some suggestions that, given the nation’s economic problem, it should be shelved. One minor, but very public, order he made, collectSPACE notes, is to have NASA rename the first shuttle orbiter from Constitution to Enterprise, after an outpouring of fan mail requesting the renaming.

On the shuttle program itself, Ford said the following at a public forum in Evansville, Indiana in April 1976:

I recommended in January of 1975 and again in January of 1976 the full goal on the space shuttle. In 1975 there were a number of applicants because of our economic situation that said we ought to cancel the space shuttle. I said no, it was roughly a third finished at that time, I think it would be unwise, uneconomic to cancel the space shuttle, so I recommended the funding necessary to keep the program going.

I did the same for the next fiscal year, and I am glad to report, I think the first vehicle is going to be made available for public display sometime late in August or early September.

The interesting part of that statement is that it came in response to a question about whether he supported the idea “to develop space stations in which solar panels could be set up and, in turn, supply this Nation with a continued supply of completely clean, free energy”, which the questioner said could be possible provided there was “massively expanded funding for the space shuttle” (which, at that time, still promised to drastically reduce space access costs). Ford missed the space solar power part of the question, talking about expanded funding for solar power research in general. Given that this was still a very novel idea at the time, this is almost certainly the first—and probably to date the only—time a president has been asked a question about space solar power.

4 comments to Gerald Ford’s space policy legacy

  • Dick

    In addition to civil space developments, recent declassificatons of historical documents suggest that several key policy decisions occured in the realm of national security space during the Ford administration.

    According to records posted by the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, President Ford signed three National Security Decision Memoranda related to space:

    NSDM-306, “U.S.-Japan Space Cooperation,” signed September 24, 1975

    NSDM-333, “Enhanced Survivability of Critical US Military and Intelligence Space Systems,” dated July 7, 1976

    NSDM-345, “U.S. Anti-Satellite Capabilities,” dated January 18, 1977

    The NSDM on Japanese space cooperation has been declassified and is available at:

    Portions of the other two directives have also been declassified and were recently published by the George C. Marshall Institute in a compilation of presidential space policy documents.

    The ASAT directive — signed two days before Ford left office — noted Soviet development of a co-orbital satellite interceptor. “In light of these developments, the President has reassessed U.S. policy regarding acquisition of an anti-satellite capability and has decided that the Soviets should not be allowed an exclusive sanctuary in space for critical military supporting satellites.”

    Finally, as the National Commission for the Review of the National Reconnaissance Office noted in a brief history of the NRO, “[t]he first electro-optical satellite reconnaissance system–the name of which is still classified–was deployed by the NRO in 1976.” This system was declared operational on January 20, 1977 — the day that Jimmy Carter walked into the White House as Ford’s successor.

  • Dick

    I finally tracked down my copy of the Marshall Institute’s “Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents,” which Stephanie Feyock and R. Cargill Hall compiled. So here’s two additional notes:

    1. The full text of NSDM-345 on “U.S. Anti-Satellite Capabilities,” of January 18, 1977 was declassified in 2004 and is posted at:

    This was signed by Brent Scrowcroft, who was then serving as President Ford’s national security adviser (hence the references to the President in the third person).

    2. The April 2006 supplement to the Marshall Institute compilation includes the following declassified passages from NSDM-333, “Enhanced Survivability of Critical US Military and Intelligence Space Systems,” signed on July 7, 1976.

    “Policy for Survivability of Space Assets

    “The President has determined that the United States will continue to make use of international treaty obligations and political measures to foster free use of space for U.S. satellite assets both during peacetime and in times of crisis. However, to further reduce potential degradation of critical space capabilities resulting from possible interference with U.S. military and intelligence space assets, the President also considers it necessary to implement improvements to their inherent technical survivability…

    “The survivability improvements in critical military and intelligence space assets should be predicated on the following U.S. objectives:

    “(1) Provide unambiguous, high confidence, timely warning of any attack directed at U.S. satellites;

    “(2) Provide positive verification of any actual interference with critical U.S. military and intelligence satellite capabilities;


    “The plan should develop a range of implementation schedule/funding profiles for Presidential consideration. An initial version of this plan should be submitted to the President no later than November 30, 1976.”

  • Adrasteia

    I liked Gerald Ford. He’s the only person this century in American politics to have realised that the job is simply too important to be taken seriously.

  • Adrasteia

    Last century, rather.