Archive for Monday, February 15, 1993


February 15, 1993


Thomas Armstrong has been involved with NASA unmanned spaceflight projects since 1969 in the design, construction and test of radiation instruments for various NASA spacecraft. He has participated with teams that have built instruments for Explorers 33, 35, 47 and 50 and Voyagers 1 and 2, Ulysses, Galileo, Geotail and Cassini. The data from the flight observations of these instruments is being analyzed by Armstrong and his students. He also served as branch chief for magnetospheric physics at NASA headquarters in 1989 and 1990.


When last I wrote for this column in the spring of 1986, my subject was the Challenger disaster. At that time, I expressed hope that NASA as an agency and the U.S. society would not be deterred from adventure and exploration by the risks that were so vivdly and violently illustrated by the events of Jan. 26, 1986. I am pleased to report that the recovery from Challenger is nearly complete. Our society has regained most of its badly shaken confidence in our ability to achieve difficult and risky goals in space.

The success of recent shuttle flights and of difficult unmanned scientific launches has demonstrated our capability to continue the exploration of space. The space program has become captive to its successes. Long flights require continuing attention and operational expense. Eminent examples are Voyager 1 and 2, launched in 1977, and yielding observations of the outermost edges of the solar system that can not be made by any other means. Explorer 50, launched in 1972, continues to operate and acquire a record of solar activity that is of unmatched length and quality 1994 will complete the second 11-year solar cycle for Explorer 50.

THE DRIVE for new knowledge of the greatest attainable quantity and quality places technical demands on spaceflight projects that make them complex to perform and very expensive. The Galileo mission to orbit Jupiter and the Cassini mission to orbit Saturn are examples of large, flagship class projects that have been tailored to perform spectacular scientific observations in deep space but are much more complicated and expensive than their Pioneer and Voyager class ancestor. Attempting more ambitious projects while avoiding failure has also driven up the cost of space projects, especially in the instances where astronauts are involved.

Finally, as with other large federal programs, the space program has developed its own powerful constituencies. To a considerable extent, major space programs are viewed by the Congress in terms of jobs generated in home districts. Thus, the space station, despite its limited scientific and technical value, has endured. It is, therefore, not surprising that expectations for the space program can not be met within any realistic share of the national budget.

It is not yet clear whether the Clinton administration will continue the tenure of Daniel Golden, the administrator of NASA under the Bush administration. His proposed solutions for NASA have been to restructure the agency, emphasize a "better, faster, cheaper" approach to missions and to invigorate the agency with morale-building actions. I suspect that much, much more is needed and that the political leadership and the political process must provide the blueprint for our future space program.

PRESIDENT BUSH made an attempt, in the form of the "Moon-Mars" initiative to define such a blueprint. The "Moon-Mars" initiative has failed to capture the imagination of the American people and has actually been treated in a hostile manner by the Congress (to the extent that in the handling of the NASA budget, items that had the misfortune to be linked to the Moon-Mars initiative were hunted down and purposefully deleted). Thus we stand at a crossroads for space, with NASA as an entity having enormous inertia and continuing obligations and viewed by many in Congress as more important for the jobs created than the accomplishments attained and with a remarkable lack of a national consensus on what goals in space should be sought.

The parameters of setting national goals for science and for space in particular have changed. The cold war is over. The remains of the USSR space program are being offered for sale in the West as a means to earn foreign exchange. There does not appear to be a commercial bonanza to be gained from space so our European and Japanese are not seriously challenging the U.S. in large space projects. The dilemma is this: Human exploration of Mars requires more money and time than we can afford and anything less fails to engage the imagination of the world at large. Who recalls the second party to ascend Mount Everest? It appears that the time of the "space spectacular" has come and gone.

IT IS ALSO characteristic of human experience that, despite the fading of the glamour of exploration, new frontiers have not been abandoned. It is also likely to be the case the space program will continue. Development will occur, and gaps in the frontier will be filled in. Unanticipated breakthroughs will be found. How, then, can we maintain the capacity to develop, explore and discover within reasonable cost? How much space program is right for the U.S.?

NASA's fiscal year 94 budget will probably be set at something between $13 billion and $15 billion. These figures are fairly close to FY 93 but could represent a real shortfall for NASA because of the rapidly increasing budget required for projects in progress (space station, Earth observing system, Cassini and others). The resulting choices may mean the cancellation of one or more of these projects in part or in entirety. In the past, delays have been used to avoid the prompt consequences of outright cancellation, and it is not obvious that delays haven't seriously aggravated the present crisis.

It appears to be clear that a major action must be taken soon to bring the projects into line with the available budget and that all future plans fall within level budgets. This blueprint should also include a bipartisan commitment to multi-year budget levels and should forego all earmarking within the NASA budget. It is my belief that the space science community would welcome a more orderly budget process and would serve the country more effectively even at lower budget levels, provided that these were more certain over longer times.

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