Apparent Mars loss has NASA rethinking strategy

August 30, 1993|By Christian Science Monitor

BOSTON -- Mars Observer team members have not yet given up on their silent spacecraft. But space exploration planners are starting to assess the ramifications of its probable loss.

Without the data that was to have made Mars the best-mapped planet in the solar system, future missions that depended on that information now must be re-examined.

That loss, however, aids the cause of administrator Daniel Goldin as he reshapes the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He is trying to, among other things, wean NASA from its appetite for massive, costly space-science ventures. The Mars mission has cost $980 million. Mr. Goldin wants to put NASA on a diet that features cheaper, simpler, more frequent missions.

Space-policy analyst John Logsdon at George Washington University in Washington says, "You need to differentiate what a rational response [to Mars Observer's loss] would be and the likely emotional response." He explains that the "emotional response" would be to see it as simply an example of institutional incompetence. This could affect the Senate debate on NASA's space-station funding.

The "rational response," Mr. Logsdon says, would be to see this loss as "a sad example of what Dan Goldin is talking about." It highlights the danger in pursuing missions that are overly expensive and take too long to complete. That response should support the reforms that Mr. Goldin is trying to make, Mr. Logsdon says.

Besides the financial cost, the human investment in the Mars Observer program has been immense. Project manager Glenn Cunningham said at a press conference last week that some of the engineers have worked on nothing else since they graduated from school. That could amount to a quarter to a third of a career.

As for follow-on programs, analyst Ray Williams at the congressional Office of Technology Assessment says he "can't underscore enough what the loss of information means to the Mars community as a whole."

A number of later missions have been planned partly to follow up anticipated Mars Observer findings. Also, the Russian Mars '94 mission, to launch next year, expected to use Mars Observer to help relay data. This reflects the increasing internationalization and interdependence of long-term Mars exploration planning.

Mr. Williams warns against letting Mars Observer's loss further damage NASA's already tarnished credibility. He says, "We need to realize that humans aren't infallible . . . and the equipment we build isn't infallible either."

The California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which manages the Mars Observer program for NASA, has a history of turning apparent failures into successes. On Saturday the Galileo craft, now xTC heading for Jupiter, made its second close inspection of an asteroid -- the asteroid IDA. Even though Galileo's main antenna has stubbornly refused to open, the JPL team has found ways to save at least 70 percent of its mission.

Thus the atmosphere at JPL has been as much astonishment as bitter disappointment at not being able to rouse Mars Observer. Asked when the team would give up, JPL spokesman James Doyle said he didn't know what the procedure would be for declaring a loss. "They've never lost one before," he added.

Mr. Logsdon says there really are two space stations being debated. One is the American-led project currently in NASA's requested budget. The other involves the Russian MIR station as a core element, possibly a cheaper and quicker route to a truly international space station.

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