There's opportunity in adversity. So, the explanation now shaping up for NASA's twin Mars debacles is that the space agency was forced to do 'em on the cheap--and that's what comes from penny-pinching in the cruel environment of planetary space.
The prescription that's sure to come: more money for NASA and a return to the construction of monumental, multibillion-dollar satellites instead of the bare-bones models built under the current mandate of "better, cheaper, faster." The economy models are exemplified by the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander, both lost in the vicinity of the Red Planet.
Though widely depicted as calamitous--and acutely embarrassing to the image-conscious space agency--the twin losses are minor blips in space research and vindicate the transition to cheaper hardware in space. Together, the two failed satellites, part of an extensive program of Mars exploration that has produced important results, cost $290 million--minor expenditures in the space market. The scientists and engineers running the program are, naturally, devastated by the outcome, but Mars will always be available for further attempts.
In the political and technical hubbub about the disappearance of the satellites, and the accompanying focus on their thrifty design and construction, little attention has been paid to the origin of the "better, cheaper, faster" strategy, which was forced on an unwilling NASA by Administrator Dan Goldin, the only major agency head from the Bush administration still serving under Bill Clinton.
By the late 1980s, NASA was so addicted to monumentalism in space that virtually all money for planetary research was consumed by one project, the Cassini satellite. After nearly a decade of construction, it was launched in October 1997, and is now en route to Saturn, with arrival scheduled in 2004. Total cost for building, launching, and monitoring Cassini: $4 billion. So far the satellite is on course. But, for research on Saturn, Cassini is the all-in-one-basket venture to the planet. If it fails entirely, write off $4 billion and some 15 years of work and waiting.
Prior to adopting the economy strategy, NASA invested $1 billion in the Mars Observer satellite, which vanished in 1993. Many cheap satellites, rather than a few extravagant ones, make sense in what is still a pioneering period of the space age. Mishaps at launch and glitches aloft persist as sad facts of technological reality in space.
The history of space research is strewn with losses, with no evident connection between the costs of satellites and their fate in space. Expensive and cheap, both kinds have succeeded and failed. As NASA chief Goldin points out, of 32 Mars projects by three countries, only 11 have succeeded. The merit of many bargain-priced satellites vs. a few budget-busting models is that they increase the odds of producing a return on the investment.
Money is eternally a problem on the open-ended frontiers of space, where no budget can satisfy all the dreamers in science and industry. NASA has been held steady or cut back in recent years, and there's no doubt that cheaper is the first among equals in the strategic formula.
But NASA's current annual budget, $13.6 billion, tops by far the space spending of all other nations combined. Moreover, though the budget hasn't changed, NASA has, slimming down from the swollen, bureaucratic enterprise that evolved without restraint or critical scrutiny during the Cold War.
The big drag on the American space enterprise is the International Space Station, a celestial turkey that directly or indirectly consumes more than half of NASA's budget. This relic of monumentalism in space was long ago rejected by university and industrial researchers as useless for their research, and it's of no interest to the Pentagon.
The space station initially thrived as a welfare program for the aerospace industry following the collapse of Soviet competition in space. Then the Clinton administration expanded the space station budget to underwrite an employment program for ex-Soviet space specialists who might otherwise be lured to rogue countries. Along the way, the space station acquired political and economic strength that just keeps it going--though to no sensible purpose.
As inquests seek to ferret out the causes of the Mars failures, opportunism will flourish on the sidelines, particularly in behalf of more big bucks for NASA and bigger and classier satellites. There's no need for either. In space research, cheaper is better and faster.
The writer is a Washington journalist specializing in science, medicine and politics.