Two fiascos in a row may force NASA to rethink the idea that
faster, cheaper spacecraft are always better
By MICHAEL D. LEMONICK
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
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
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Cover Date: December 20, 1999