NASA to limit sharply manned space flights People will be sent on missions only if science demands it

February 10, 1996|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

People may some day go back to the moon, visit an asteroid or walk on Mars.

But NASA administrator Daniel S. Goldin says it won't happen unless scientists show that the mission would tackle fundamental questions about life and the universe, and that only a human could get the answers. They will also have to do it within a shrinking NASA budget.

"This is not your father's NASA," he told scientists yesterday at the 1996 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Baltimore.

The "new" NASA can no longer afford decades-long, multibillion-dollar projects like the moon race launched in the 1960s by President John F. Kennedy.

Gone, too, Mr. Goldin said, is the time when NASA could afford to allow repeated redesigns or demands for space science jobs in key congressional districts to whipsaw its decisions about space science.

That, he said, is how NASA's space station program has come to spend $10 billion without putting any hardware in space.

"The reason the space station got into trouble in the first place was that we kept debating it," he said. "NASA tried to please the Congress. But a responsible parent sometimes says no."

He said the debate is over and the space station is "a done deal."

The station will give the U.S. a continuous manned presence in space. The first components will fly in less than two years. NASA will spend another $17.4 billion through 2002 to lift the station's first 1 million pounds into orbit.

Mr. Goldin insisted it will provide vital answers to questions about how to sustain humans safely and productively in space for extended periods of time.

Since taking office four years ago, he has championed space science ventures that move in smaller steps, with "faster" development, "better" designs and "cheaper" missions.

He wants proposals with rich scientific potential. And unless there are compelling arguments to the contrary, he favors three-year caps on development and price tags under $150 million for each project.

New missions, he said, must help to answer three fundamental questions: Where did the galaxies, stars and planets come from, and how have they evolved? Are there other places that had, or have hospitable environments? Is life in any form unique to planet Earth?

Before several hundred scientists yesterday, he ticked off some of the first of the new ventures:

* The NEAR mission to the asteroid Eros, set for launch Friday, just 26 months after the mission was approved.

* The Mars Global Surveyor mission and the Mars Pathfinder mission to land on Mars, both due for launch late this year at half the cost of Mars Observer, which blew up en route to Mars in 1993.

* The Lunar Prospector mission in 1998 to study and map the moon, and to search for frozen water at the moon's south pole.

Other missions already in development revive NASA's exploration of the solar system.

There will be no all-or-nothing manned missions, in Mr. Goldin's view. Planetary missions must begin with "robotic precursors" to assess the costs and benefits of further exploration. People will go only if the science demands it.

He threw cold water on a proposal by astronomer Eugene Shoemaker to launch a manned mission to an asteroid. Mr. Shoemaker said the six-month round trip would be easier and cheaper than going to Mars, and yield clues to the origins of the solar system.

Mr. Goldin bristled yesterday at a reporter's suggestion that NASA was "downsizing and breaking itself apart."

"That's old-think," he said. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's vitality must no longer be measured by the money going in, or the jobs it supports. Now the measure will be "science output."

The Galileo mission, which is currently orbiting Jupiter after sending a probe into the Jovian atmosphere in December, cost $1.3 billion. But, Mr. Goldin said, analysts at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory believe they could mount the same mission today for one-fifth the cost and get 10 times as much information back.

NASA's biggest failing, which Mr. Goldin called "festering, nagging and shameful," has been its failure to develop a new generation launch vehicle.

For nearly 20 years, America has relied on the space shuttle, even though the nation's primary launch system has failed to provide the cheap access to space its designers said it would.

The shuttle demands $10,000 to $20,000 to lift one pound of payload into Earth orbit. Mr. Goldin wants a vehicle that will get people and equipment into space for $1,000 a pound.

"We must have a new launch vehicle," he said. But it will not be a warmed-over 1950s ballistic missile, or a multibillion-dollar Kennedy-esque engineering project.

Instead, Mr. Goldin has "reprogrammed" $1 billion to develop a single-stage reusable vehicle that can abort a launch and return astronauts safely during any part of its ascent. (Shuttle launches cannot be aborted during the two minutes when their solid-fuel boosters are firing.)

Called the X-33, the craft should be ready for its first test flight in three years, Mr. Goldin said.

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