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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Mars reconsidered

Two fiascos in a row may force NASA to rethink the idea that faster, cheaper spacecraft are always better


Time magazine

December 13, 1999
Web posted at: 2:25 p.m. EST (1925 GMT)

For most of the 1990s, NASA's Dan Goldin has come across as the very model of a modern government administrator. Facing criticism that the space agency was wasting money, Goldin declared at the start of his tenure that he would turn the problem into an opportunity, finding ways to do more with less--and to all appearances, the strategy was working. The Mars Pathfinder Lander, built for a tenth the cost of its predecessors, riveted the nation's attention in 1997 with its live feed from the Red Planet's surface. And three years after its arrival Mars Global Surveyor is still sending back detailed photos and important data about the water-sculpted Martian landscape, including powerful evidence, released last week, that the planet's north pole was once covered by a vast ocean. It seemed that Goldin's management mantra--"faster, better, cheaper"--was more than just a trendy sound bite.

Or maybe not. With the Mars Polar Lander all but written off as a total loss, and the catastrophic failure of the Mars Climate Orbiter three months earlier, NASA is fast becoming the Dan Quayle of government agencies. Late-night comics have been roasting it mercilessly, while the Washington Post offered a Top 10 list of NASA excuses for the latest fiasco. (No. 10: Be patient. Mars Lander is trying to dial in on an AOL account.) Some cyberpranksters offered the Polar Lander for sale on eBay and got 16 bids.

O.K., so maybe the ribbing is a little unfair. Despite NASA's can-do public attitude, expecting a perfect record when you're sending machines across 50 million miles of empty space to an alien world would be naive. But trying to do it in a slapdash fashion doesn't help. "There's a difference," grouses John Pike, a space expert with the Federation of American Scientists, "between cheap and cheaper."

Evidently, NASA has been leaning toward the latter. Just three weeks before Polar Lander was set to arrive at Mars, a NASA panel issued its report on the Climate Orbiter failure in September. The prime cause of that disaster, as everyone now knows, was a truly dumb mistake: the spacecraft's builder, Lockheed Martin Astronautics, provided one set of specifications in old-fashioned English units, while its operators at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory were using metric.

But the report also uncovered management problems that let the mistake go undiscovered, including poor communication between mission teams, poor training and inadequate staffing. Indeed, the navigation team was seriously overworked, trying to run three missions at once.

Because the Polar Lander was built by Lockheed Martin as well, and because it was to use Climate Orbiter as a communications relay, the panel looked into that probe too--and found the same weak management. "A recurring theme in the board's deliberations," reads the report, "was one of 'Who's in charge?'" It also raised questions about the probe's landing technology, which was complex, risky and largely untested.

With Polar Lander nearing its final plunge, NASA promised to respond to the concerns, and the agency did address a couple of them. But by then, the die was largely cast. Maybe the lander was done in by something unforeseeable--a badly placed boulder, perhaps, or a crevasse--which no probe could have avoided. And given the complexities of getting a spacecraft to Mars and having it work properly, it's no surprise that something should go bad.

One of the big advantages to the faster-cheaper-better approach, in fact, is that when probes inevitably do fail, the loss is relatively small. Mars Observer, which vanished without a trace just before Goldin took office, cost the nation more than $1 billion; Climate Orbiter and the Polar Lander have set taxpayers back only $319 million between them. "We launched 10 spacecraft in 10 months," said Goldin. "We used to launch two a year. We have to be prepared for failure if we're going to explore."

Even NASA's critics agree that doing things faster, better and cheaper makes sense--if it's done right. Says Pike: "This should provide an opportunity for a midcourse correction." Some sort of correction may already be under way. Goldin has launched a new investigation to look into the Polar Lander loss, and NASA chief of space science Edward Weiler said last week the agency would rethink its ambitious schedule of sending multiple missions to Mars every 26 months through 2007. After years of tipping the other way, "better" may finally be getting the same attention as "faster" and "cheaper" in NASA's mind-set.

--Reported by Dan Cray/Pasadena and Dick Thompson/Washington


Cover Date: December 20, 1999

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