Pioneers in Space

March 13, 1992

At a time when many question America's ability to do quality work and make competitive products, the spacecraft Pioneer 10 has just completed two decades of solid exploration of the solar system. Scientists involved in a long and complicated argument over "big science" vs. "small science" have observed that Pioneer 10's relatively simple, straightforward design is a key to its success.

Indeed, the whole Pioneer family, designed in the 1960s, is doing well: Pioneer 6, sent to orbit the sun in 1965, is the world's oldest working space probe. Siblings Pioneer 7 and 8 are also still on the job, completing solar studies. Pioneer 12 is circling Venus and Pioneer 11 is shooting out of the solar system after looping past Saturn.

It's an oversimplification to say the Pioneers demonstrate the validity of the "small science" argument. If the spacecraft themselves are small compared to the boxcar-sized Hubble Space Telescope and the others of NASA's planned "Grand Observatory" series, the Pioneer probes were not considered small projects when they were designed. The infrastructure required to lob any space flier out of Earth's gravity represents an investment few countries could afford. Financially, it takes $1 million a month and the facilities of the Deep Space Network to support the Pioneers.

Space studies, properly done, are expensive propositions. The flawed, $2 billion Hubble Space Telescope, is often singled out as an example of over-complicated, over-expensive ideas that cost more than they are worth. But even a flawed Hubble has made discoveries no other instrument could have made. The budget cuts Hubble incurred at the hands of congressional opponents during its early construction stages helped weaken the checks and balances that might have caught the mistakes that surfaced after launch.

What the Pioneers really prove, 27 years after the first shot into space, is that Americans working on the cutting edge of technology, sufficiently challenged and properly funded, can match or exceed any competitors. As U.S. policy makers struggle to re-tool American industry for the challenges of competition in a post-Cold War, globalized economy, it is a point worth remembering.

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