NASA What Went Wrong with the U.S. Space Program

August 29, 1993|By ROBERT L. PARK

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Somewhere out there, a billion-dollar NASA spacecraft is careening through the solar system, apparently oblivious to the frantic efforts of Earthlings to contact it.

In Pasadena, demonstrators outside NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory charged that the silence of the Mars Observer is part of a NASA cover-up of evidence that extraterrestrials have built gigantic icons on Mars.

In Washington, the usual assumption is that if it's not a conspiracy it must be incompetence. That's probably wrong too.

In recent months, after all, NASA science missions have achieved some stunning successes: COBE's amazing discovery of the microwave remnants of the Big Bang; Magellan's mapping of the entire surface of Venus by radar, revealing a landscape no human eye will ever see; results from the Gamma Ray Observatory that are changing our understanding of the evolution of galaxies.

But the road into space is steep. There will always be failures; risk is the nature of exploration.

Unfortunately, loss of the Mars Observer is only one of a series of costly mishaps that have tormented the space agency in the 1990s: a $2 billion space telescope sent into orbit with flawed optics; a jammed antenna on a spacecraft headed for Jupiter; an electrical malfunction that killed an environmental satellite launched just two weeks ago; a Space Shuttle that can't seem to get off the launch pad.

What is happening? Has NASA lost its technical edge? Is the space agency top-heavy with managers? Are bungling contractors to blame? Are we trying to reach too far? Or is it just a string of bad luck?

Alas, if contact is not re-established, the technical reason for the failure of the Mars Observer will never be known. We can't autopsy the Observer, but we can examine why NASA abandoned its policy of risk management.

How Did It Get This Way?

In a Cold War fought with symbols, the Apollo moon landings were an enormous propaganda triumph for the United States. The adoration bestowed on the Apollo astronauts by a grateful public persuaded NASA officials that humans must continue to play a central role in space.

Their solution was the Space Shuttle; all existing launch systems would be replaced with a reusable manned vehicle. Astronauts would perforce be involved in every space mission.

The decision to rely exclusively on the shuttle to transport objects into space may have been the most expensive technological blunder in history. For three years following the Challenger accident, the entire United States space program was grounded -- there was no back-up. Like some mad general burning bridges behind his army, NASA had eliminated all competing launch systems. Frustrated scientists watched helplessly as the Soviet Union overtook the United States in space.

Even after shuttle flights resumed, there was a long queue of high-priority military missions that had to be accommodated before NASA could return to science. The United States went ten years without launching a single space exploration mission.

But it was clear long before Challenger that a terrible miscalculation had been made; the shuttle would never be up to the job. Although cost overruns during the development brought a halt to space exploration, NASA had promised a shuttle that would be capable of weekly launches, making up for lost time. It turned out to be more like once every two months.

And with so few launches, the cost per launch came to a staggering $1 billion to $2 billion. If lead could be transmuted into gold by just taking it into orbit, it wouldn't pay to do it on the shuttle. The infrequency of shuttle launches, coupled with their high cost, forced a change in NASA's philosophy.

At one time NASA had launched its space-exploration missions the way Noah loaded the Ark, by twos. The theory was that since an accident will strike some fraction of all launches, it would be cheaper to build redundant spacecraft than to start over after an accident. And there were failures, but a back-up spacecraft was always there to complete the mission. With shuttle launches being rationed, however, the policy of redundancy was abandoned.

And since there was no telling when they might get to launch another experiment, scientists sought to hang everything possible on each new mission. The spacecraft became much more complex, and their cost soared. Failures were no longer merely setbacks, they were now catastrophes. Although the Mars Observer was not launched on the shuttle, it was one of the experiments initiated in this environment.

Can It Be Changed?

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