NASA Looks to Slimmer Future Loss of Mars Probe Speeds Push for Simpler Missions and Modification of Space Station

By Robert C. Cowen, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 30, 1993 | Go to article overview

NASA Looks to Slimmer Future Loss of Mars Probe Speeds Push for Simpler Missions and Modification of Space Station


Robert C. Cowen, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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 were to have made Mars the best-mapped planet in the solar system, future missions that depended on those data now must be rethought.

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 Goldin is trying to make, 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. This is also true of some of the scientists, although many have other projects going as well.

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 are being 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. …

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