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Of Blue Ribbon panels and a red planet

Artist's concept of the Polar Lander
 

March 22, 2000
Web posted at: 5:29 p.m. EST (2229 GMT)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) -- With apologies to the NCAA, another sort of March Madness is about to reach its apex -- at the corner of 3rd and E Streets, Southwest.

On that corner, you'll find the old NASA "worm" logo etched in granite, above the word "Headquarters." If only the granite could talk, what a tale it might tell about good intentions -- and where they often lead. In fact, these days I am convinced many NASA-istes truly believe that road paved with good intentions leads right up to their doorstep.

Yep, it's hell month at NASA. Blue Ribbon Committees have been popping up like prairie dogs in a carnival sideshow. And like a young man trying to win his date a teddy bear, NASA has been flailing away, trying to smack those dogs silly. (By the way: Do you ever wonder what happens to the Red Ribbon reports?)

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For those of you keeping score at home, the fun actually began in mid-February when the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel released its annual review of NASA. The thumbnail: too few people. NASA's response: We agree -- and no one is available to take your call.

Then out popped the Space Shuttle Independent Assessment Team -- spearheaded by NASA Ames boss Harry McDonald -- after the STS team found orbiter wires bruised and battered. It's verdict: too few people. NASA's response: We really agree already! And say "Amen" somebody! Anybody there?

Taking the 'F' out of F.B.C.

But there was no time for a Hallelujah Chorus, because the main event on this card is that sad confluence of red faces and a red planet.

Wiring flaw that caused a short circuit on the shuttle Columbia last year
 

Last week, a pair of reports hit the street on the Great Mars Debacle of 1999. Pathfinder Project Manager Tony Spear's report on "Faster, Better, Cheaper" (F.B.C.) said NASA should take the "F" out for a while. "Slow down some," he pleads. NASA's response: Not a bad idea.

And then Marshall Space Flight Center Chief Art Stephenson offered a sequel to his look at what happened to the Mars Climate Orbiter (my opinion: pound for pound [or is it Newton for Newton?], among the dumbest mistakes in NASA history to date). The Stephenson judgment: what he (Spear) said. NASA's response: what we said.

Up next for your prairie dog bashing enjoyment: The granddaddy of them all, the Bluest of the Blue Ribbons: The Young Committee Investigation into what went wrong on -- or just above -- Mars, and what NASA should do next. It is due out early next week. Check your local listings ...

Various versions of the Young Report have been floating around headquarters for a while. Slowly, as inexorably as a space probe speeding toward a distant planet, it has taken a shape which can only be described as -- well, maybe it has a good personality ...

Don't believe the hype

Meanwhile there are a lot of rocket scientists with one hand on their backsides (to ensure coverage) and the other pointing at a someone else. The water cooler talk is about a ugly as it gets: NASA knew Mars Polar Lander was a goner and kept mum ... Someone falsified a critical test ... stuff like that. My gut feeling: Martians escaped from Area 51 and shot the thing down while hovering over the Grassy Knoll in a black helicopter.

Take my advice -- don't believe everything you read. Except this: The headline of the Young Report is what many of you have been hearing for a while. The most likely cause of the MPL failure is a tiny switch that was supposed to tell the Lander it had reached the surface.

The Young team is fairly certain the switch triggered prematurely after a landing-like jolt (perhaps when the landing gear went down, or when the back shell and parachute was jettisoned). The net effect: The switch thought the Lander had reached the promised land -- at about 4,600 feet above the surface. No ignition. No touchdown. Ouch.

Using the carbon-copy '01 Lander in the Clean Room at Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver as a test-bed, engineers discovered this exact thrustus interruptus occurred four out of five times. Double ouch.

Time to reinvent

Of course no one can say for certain what happened, as MPL was not communicating on short final to Mars. It was not equipped to do so. That hurts too.

Which brings us to the Department of What's Next. Well, another Blue Ribbon group is looking into that. They have another three months or so to come up with "FBC-2: Picking up the Pieces."

The only thing we can say for certain is the '01 Orbiter is good to go. After all, as dumb as it was, the Climate Orbiter navigation error is fully understood and preventable.

As for the '01 Lander -- and some of the other downstream missions, all bets are off, ladies and gentlemen. No one is saying "bring back the once-in-a-decade billion dollar program," but Faster Better Cheaper will be reinvented, not scrapped.

Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien is a regular columnist for CNN Interactive



RELATED STORIES:
Downlinks Archive

NASA unveils a devil of a Mars photo
March 14, 2000
Report: NASA budget cuts leave shuttle safety in doubt
March 10, 2000
NASA: Mysterious space whisper could be Mars Polar Lander
January 28, 2000
NASA to give up search for silent Mars Polar Lander
January 16, 2000
NASA: Human error caused loss of Mars orbiter
November 10, 1999
Mars Polar Lander team considers back-up landing site
October 22, 1999

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