Somewhere out there, a billion-dollar spacecraft is careering
through the solar system, apparently oblivious to the frantic
efforts of Earthlings to contact it.
In Pasadena, Calif., demonstrators outside NASA's Jet
Propulsion Laboratory charged that the silence of the Mars Observer
is part of a cover-up of evidence that extraterrestrials have built
gigantic structures 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, science missions of the National
Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) 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, the 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 earlier; 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
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.
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
U.S. 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 10 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
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. …