Space research of future seen as smaller, cheaper Johns Hopkins lab's NEAR project is cited as cost-effective example

April 17, 1996|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Outer space may be the final frontier, but scientists throughout the world will have to explore it without astronomical budgets.

The space race died with the Cold War -- and so did billion-dollar space exploration projects, a top planetary scientist told a gathering of his peers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) yesterday in Laurel.

"Smaller, quicker, cheaper is the model," said Bruce Murray, a professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology. "The imperial epic of the 20th century is over I believe still, despite the downsizing thus far, the number of people have got to go down."

The researchers gathered yesterday for the start of the second International Academy of Astronautics conference on low-cost planetary missions, at which Dr. Murray was the keynote speaker. The three-day conference is aimed at helping space researchers adjust to lean budget times.

Financial pressures have forced Maryland's defense and space-research companies to cut more than 13,000 jobs since 1989.

These industries are likely to continue to shed jobs here and elsewhere.

Even so, governments throughout the world are looking for research facilities to design such projects as APL's recent Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous satellite, Dr. Murray said.

That project -- which will give the first long-term, close-up look at an asteroid's surface composition and physical properties when it reaches its destination in 1999 -- was completed $3.6 million below its estimated cost of $112 million.

APL returned the $3.6 million to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which funded the project, during a ceremony Monday.

"That was a low-cost planetary space craft, and it was a success," Dr. Gary Smith, APL's director, told researchers.

Not everyone, however, warmed up to Dr. Murray's pitch. Some said that research should not be restrained by fiscal pressure.

"I am concerned about too much focus on cost," Dr. Raj Gounder, a program development manager for Boeing's Defense Space Group in Bethesda, told Mr. Murray during a question and answer session. Alan Delamere, a senior technical manager for Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colo., added that too much emphasis on cost could lead to the use of "slave labor -- graduate students."

But Dr. Murray insisted that changes will have to be made.

Gone are the days of such costly projects as Voyagers I and II -- space probes designed to provide information about the creation of the universe, the origins of the solar system and formation of planet Earth, Dr. Murray said. The Voyager project would cost about $1 billion or more today, which government officials would not fund, he said.

"This is a problem worldwide," he said. "I wish it were back in the the good old days of the Cold War, when Armageddon was looming."

That era sparked a boom in space research.

But now, Dr. Murray said, research organizations will have to "bite the bullet."

That's what NASA wants, too. The administration wants more projects like APL's NEAR satellite.

The NEAR project was part of NASA's Discovery Program, which has guidelines requiring that all missions be completed within 36 months with a maximum budget of $150 million for the spacecraft and launch.

NASA also has formed a COST LESS Team to find more ways to reduce spending while continuing space research, said Rhoda Hornstein, who is the head of the group.

"You can do faster and you can do cheaper," said Ms. Hornstein. "I didn't think [Dr. Murray's] statements were so contentious."

Pub Date: 4/17/96

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