Mooning Over NASA's Future

To get off the ground again, the space agency may have to turn its sights back to the glory days, when swift, small spacecraft first brought outer space into our living rooms--and our hearts.

By David H. Freedman|Friday, July 01, 1994
In my opinion, it was a big mistake to land a man on the moon. Now everything else is compared with that feat. --Jerry Seinfeld

Heading east from Houston down NASA Road 1, you ease into the heart of the space agency with an appropriate sense of confusion. First you come to the NASA Cafe, which serves Middle Eastern food. Then there's Space Center Houston, which is not a launching site but a museum-cum-theme park. A bit farther down the road, looking somewhat less inviting, is the real thing: the Johnson Space Center, home of mission control for the space shuttle (as it was for Apollo and all but the earliest manned missions), training ground for the astronauts, and headquarters for the nascent space station.

Just inside the center's gate a bored clerk writes out a pass without bothering to check any ID.

(After all, what's the threat? These days we can't give this stuff to the Russians fast enough.) Then, in a field across the street from the security checkpoint, you confront a staggering sight: a Saturn V rocket of the type that carried Apollo capsules to the moon, lying on its side, its three stages slightly splayed. If the rocket were closer to Houston's urban sprawl, surely someone by now would have spray-painted a message on its side: I'VE FALLEN, AND I CAN'T GET UP.

NASA may be forever doomed to suffer by comparison with that defining moment 25 years ago when an American astronaut first kicked up moondust. Until then everything the agency had done seemed to compose a bold arrow upward: from satellite, to man in orbit, to multiastronaut, multicraft maneuvers, to an unmanned moon landing, to a man on the moon. After Apollo the arrow was inevitably left pointing toward a manned mission to Mars. Plans started to take shape at NASA and in the mind of the public. The craft would be launched from a space station, from which materials and astronauts would be ferried back and forth to Earth by a space shuttle. Even as recently as a few years ago, politicians still felt safe in conjuring up this grand vision of our future in space. We could expect to be kicking Martian dust, we were told by President Bush, by 2019, the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11.

But when we look back at what NASA has actually accomplished since Apollo, what stands out is a string of disappointments and disasters: a shuttle that turned out to be too expensive and unreliable and that once blew up right before our eyes, taking with it six astronauts and a schoolteacher who was standing in for every ordinary Earthling who ever dreamed of making it into space; a $2 billion space telescope critically flawed by a trivial manufacturing oversight; an ambitious Mars probe that sputtered out of contact and into oblivion just as it reached its destination; an equally ambitious Jupiter probe crippled by a balky antenna; and a deliriously expensive space station that can't get off the drawing board. The Hubble telescope repair was a rare triumph, but it was the minimum the agency needed to deliver. "If the Hubble repair had failed, NASA would have closed," says Boston College physicist Robert Carovillano, echoing the assessment of many NASA observers.

That anyone can even realistically contemplate the demise of the 36-year-old agency that provided the United States with its biggest collective peacetime ego boost is an indication of how far things have slipped. It's not all NASA's fault. For one thing, its boom years were fueled by a now-all-but-dissipated cold war. "Apollo was motivated by a desire to show the belligerent countries of the world what our military capabilities were in a way that was more benign than dropping a bomb on them," says Charles Pellerin, former head of strategic planning for NASA, "and to prove that free societies do greater things than socialist governments." Apollo may not have rid the world of belligerence, but on the other hand, it's been a long time since anyone threatened to bury us.

Furthermore, in recent years the United States, along with much of the rest of the world, has been mired in a long recession and achingly slow recovery that has led the public to take a colder, harder look at "big science." The same sentiments that led congressional budget cutters to hack at and then finally kill the Superconducting Supercollider last year have also left NASA with a shrinking, ever more tenuous piece of the budgetary pie. After enjoying decades of increases through 1991 that pumped its budget up to $15 billion, the agency has had to plead with Congress just to keep its budget flat; in constant dollars, the budget has been shrinking. This year NASA has asked Congress for $14.3 billion in 1995--the first time in more than 20 years NASA has requested less money than it had the year before--and the budget hawks are likely to shave that figure down to $13.8 billion by the time the final figures are voted on.

The charge that NASA's competence has plummeted is probably overblown--such an assessment is at least partly based on our tendency to forget NASA's past problems. The Challenger accident seems burned into our brains, but how many of us still shake our heads over the stuck thruster that caused Gemini 8 and its crew to spin terrifyingly out of control while in orbit in 1966, or the electrical fire in an Apollo capsule that took the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee during a training session in 1967? "If you look back to the era when NASA supposedly did everything right, you find there were accidents in every major program from Mercury to Skylab," says Aaron Cohen, former director of the Johnson Space Center and now an engineering professor at Texas A&M.; "I was there for Apollo, and I can tell you things haven't just fallen apart since then." (One nasa spokesperson, tired of reporters' fixation on the agency's decline, has put together a 15-page compilation of 30 years' worth of headlines and editorial cartoons decrying NASA's fall from grace. A typical cartoon from 1966 shows workers puzzling over the Gemini 8 capsule; the caption reads: THEY JUST DON'T BUILD 'EM THE WAY THEY USED TO.)

But if NASA hasn't deteriorated, it seems at least to have squandered its dash and verve. Instead of coming across like the forerunner of Captain Kirk's Star Fleet, busy opening up the last and greatest frontier, NASA has come to appear more and more like the sort of bloated, stumble-prone organization that the Postal Service might put together if it were charged with delivering mail to low-orbit addresses. A large part of the problem, claim many observers, is that starting with the space shuttle, NASA's brilliant technical organization was increasingly overrun by administrative bureaucrats who spent most of their time creating paperwork for contractors instead of actually building things. That cautious, foot- dragging bureaucracy only became worse after the Challenger disaster. "Everything NASA does now involves reviews, reviews of reviews, and reviews of reviews of reviews," says James Van Allen, a retired University of Iowa space scientist long involved with NASA, and the discoverer of the radiation belt surrounding Earth that now bears his name. "I still have a favorable view of their competence, but they by no means have the can-do spirit they once did."

Of course, many other organizations contracted bad cases of bureaucratic bloat in the economic boom years of the 1980s, including once- revered U.S. industrial behemoths such as IBM and General Motors. Much like its business counterparts, NASA entered the 1990s with too little to show for its outsize budget. And, like IBM and GM, NASA now finds itself swallowing the same bitter solution: a CEO dedicated to cutting that budget down to size. NASA administrator Daniel Goldin, former head of TRW's space division and one of only two Bush appointees to survive into the Clinton administration, is by all accounts unapologetically ruthless when it comes to hacking away at various elements of the agency, and he often bruises people's feelings in the process. "If you come to a job running a troubled agency like NASA," Goldin says, "and you love to be loved and make people happy, there isn't going to be any future in it for you. The program is under unbelievable stress. Anyone who needs to have his hand held doesn't belong at NASA."

The phrase that Goldin has foisted on NASA managers with such unrelenting fervor that it has become a sort of mantra is "smaller, faster, cheaper, better." But if Goldin has attempted to define a style for NASA, the substance remains a little muddy. After all, while it would be nice for NASA to do things less expensively, it would be even nicer if it were clear just what NASA is supposed to be doing in the first place. "NASA is at a crossroads," says Carl Sagan, the Cornell astronomer who has long been one of the space program's most careful and celebrated observers. "We're seeing the first attempt since the early 1970s to raise questions about its purpose and redefine its long-term goals."

But to understand where NASA is moving on the vision thing, it helps to recognize first that the agency has long been burdened with a sort of institutional split personality. That is, NASA has two coexisting personae with vastly distinct characters: the somewhat romantically motivated manned space program, and the rather more pragmatic unmanned program. Roughly speaking, the manned program exists to fulfill the Star Trekkian dream to boldly go where no one has gone before, while the unmanned program seeks to answer scientific questions about the solar system and the universe at large. In other words, assessing NASA these days requires double vision.

In a large, nondescript square building at the center of the Johnson Space Center is a cavernous room that's a veritable playground of goodies for astronauts in training. There's a full-scale space shuttle nose cone that tilts, allowing astronauts to practice getting into the cabin, sitting for hours faceup during launch delays, and scrambling out of the cabin if something goes wrong. There's a basketball-court-size version of the frictionless arcade air-hockey rink, where astronauts can practice shuffling around heavy loads that, as in space, once set in motion tend to keep on going. And there's a working version of the robotic arm that moves cargo into and out of the shuttle's payload bay, though the version here is heavily reinforced; in space the arm is nearly weightless, but on Earth an unsupported arm would crumple under its own weight.

Dominating this field of space-age toys is a sprawling, gleaming tubular structure with a vaguely submarinelike interior and an exterior painted smartly in gleaming NASA white with requisite red and blue accents. This is a full-scale mock-up of the NASA space station, and it is an impressive sight. There's just one problem: it's already obsolete.

Though $10 billion has been spent on the space station, and though according to the original plan it was supposed to have been completed by now, it still exists mainly on paper and in this sadly out-of- date mock-up, thanks to a seemingly endless series of redesigns. The last one, completed just last fall, was intended to knock several billion dollars off the total expected price tag of $33 billion, largely by replacing the core modules of the station with somewhat simpler components salvaged from the Russians' canceled next-generation space station, Mir 2. The Russians, who join the Europeans, Japanese, and Canadians on the space station, also bring to the party the Soyuz manned spacecraft, which offers a backup "lifeboat" for rescuing crews in case of emergency.

Despite the project's staggering cost, director Randy Brinkley insists the space station can at least partly fit the faster-cheaper mold. "The station is the embodiment of the new spirit of NASA," he says. "We designed the [latest version of the] station in six months, and that's unprecedented in the history of NASA. The closest thing to it is the Apollo days." That may not be a fair comparison, since this is a redesign, but clearly an effort has been made to cut down on the bureaucracy. The station workforce has already been cut from 800 people to 300, notes Brinkley. And instead of burying contractors under a blizzard of management reviews, he says, NASA is learning to work alongside contractors in closely knit teams- -a technique Boeing, the prime contractor for the station, successfully employed in producing the F22 jet fighter for the Air Force. Brinkley predicts the station will be constructed within budget and on time: 1997 for the launching of the first component, a year later for occupation of the station, and 2002 for its completion.

That's all well and good, but the larger question--rarely spoken out loud in the confines of NASA--remains unanswered: Do we need a space station at all? NASA managers often refer to the station's potential as a laboratory for growing extraordinarily pure semiconductor crystals for electronics applications, but in fact there is little evidence that this or any other microgravity activity would have a significant payoff. The stronger argument is the one offered by recently appointed Johnson director Carolyn Huntoon. "We've got to learn to live and work in that sort of environment," she says, "before we can think about taking the next steps in space exploration." Huntoon concedes that the Russians, who have kept cosmonauts floating in the Mir space station for up to a year, have long been compiling information about the effects of spaceflight on the human body--she herself has worked with the Russians on such research--but, she notes, medical research hasn't ground to a halt back on Earth just because we already know a lot. Still, it's not clear what use NASA can make of such information except to improve conditions on the space station, which seems a circular argument. "Why test long-duration human spaceflight," wonders Sagan, "if you're not planning to go to other worlds?"

Originally, of course, one of the chief attractions of the space station was that it could be used as a platform for stepping off to Mars and other exotic destinations. If we were serious about space travel, then it didn't make sense to have to blast off from Earth everything from rockets to crews to supplies. The space station would be an orbiting port-- serviced, of course, by the space shuttle. So asking whether we need the space station inevitably leads to the even less popular question: Do we need the space shuttle?

Not surprisingly, Sagan and others who question the need for the space station tend to be skeptical about its sidekick--shouldn't there be a cheaper and more reliable way than the shuttle for getting payloads, if not people, into outer space? When asked that question, Brewster Shaw, manager of space shuttle operations, looks as if he wants to spit. But the former astronaut hides his irritation behind a wicked grin. "If anyone knows about it, I wish they'd tell me," he says. Then he expands for a minute on the necessity of staying with the shuttle. The essence of his argument is that the shuttle is the best thing we've got for the foreseeable future, so why doesn't everyone quit whining and get on with it?

Fat chance. There's simply too much to whine about. The shuttle, having eaten up some $60 billion over the past 20 years, is good for only about 7 trips a year, instead of the 50 originally envisioned, because of the unexpectedly long time and high costs involved in reconditioning each shuttle after a trip. By now the shuttle was supposed to be towing payloads into orbit at hundreds of dollars a pound, not thousands. More disturbingly, there is a consensus among the space program community that any given shuttle mission stands something like a one in 70 chance of blowing up, thanks to the highly volatile forces involved in burning massive quantities of rocket fuel. "Half of NASA is in denial about that fact," says John Pike, head of the Federation of American Scientists' space policy project and a longtime NASA critic, "and the other half thinks that as long as there isn't a schoolteacher on board when it happens, they can treat the accident as if it were like losing a helicopter off an oil rig. The truth is, the next time NASA loses a shuttle is the last time NASA flies."

Shaw insists the shuttle is safe and notes that the cost of shuttle missions is constantly dropping--the most recent budget lopped another $40 million per mission off the shuttle's operating costs. Critics say it is these very cost reductions that are making the shuttle increasingly unsafe; NASA itself recently found a series of potentially dangerous flaws in the manufacturing of the shuttle engine at Rockwell International's Rocketdyne unit, flaws apparently related to the pressure on the contractor to get the engines out more quickly and less expensively.

Proponents also say that servicing the space station is only a small part of the shuttle's real purpose and point out that without the shuttle we could never have repaired the Hubble. Critics respond that we never would have launched an ultracomplex, finicky telescope that needed a $700 million pit stop if NASA hadn't been so interested in justifying the shuttle. We could have gone with a simpler, less sophisticated version. (NASA doesn't emphasize that the Hubble repair was one of several long- scheduled maintenance missions designed to cope with the telescope's expected component failure rate.) But if nothing else, the shuttle is supposed to represent the state of the art of our space program; it directly and indirectly employs tens of thousands of people. Thus, although NASA has been leisurely studying next-generation space vehicles, like a minishuttle design known as the space taxi, an "aerospace plane" that can take off from a runway, and a single-stage, nondisposable rocket that can land softly, it seems to be planning to operate the shuttle well into the next century.

NASA managers still talk about aspiring to use the space station as a construction-and-launch platform for a Mars mission, but only in a vague, halfhearted way. "We don't specifically see the station as being used for that, but it easily could be," says Brinkley. "We'd have to take a look at power and other requirements." And without missions to Mars or at least the moon on the books, both the space station and, to some extent, the shuttle are orphaned programs. In fact, at a combined cost of $6 billion a year, they are exactly the kinds of program Goldin was hired to kill. "The shuttle and space station represent precisely the opposite of everything Goldin says he wants," growls Van Allen. "They are bigger, slower, more expensive, and worse." Like most other scientists, Van Allen resents NASA's pouring so many billions into projects with little practical payback while forcing far less costly science programs to shave every penny.

Ironically, what has rescued the space station and indirectly helped the shuttle is the bizarre stream of events that have transformed Russia from bitter enemy to assiduously courted ally. What better way to cement our new relationship with the Russians than to cooperate with them in the very arena that once symbolized our mutual distrust? A joint space station would provide a tangible token of the new relationship, a sort of orbiting friendship ring.

But despite its value as a political symbol, the space station program's anemic ambitions will do little to restore the public's admiration for NASA or rekindle the ego-boosting thrill we felt at seeing a human walk on the moon. What NASA really needs to get back on top of its game is a new opportunity to send astronauts out beyond the now-familiar bounds of Earth orbit.

Even Goldin agrees. Though he defends the space station as a valuable source of medical information and a chance to practice international cooperation in space, and though he echoes the all-we've-got- for-now argument for the shuttle, he is also candid about viewing the current manned program as something of a budget placeholder. "In Washington you're only as good as your last budget cut," he says. "If the station is canceled, the shuttle is next. And after that, do you think they'll want to keep the Kennedy, Marshall, and Johnson centers alive? Do you think we'd see any human spaceflight within three decades? If you believe that, you probably believe in the tooth fairy. I've been fantasizing about sending astronauts to Mars since 1962, and that's why I spend every waking hour trying to keep this program alive."

A manned Mars trip would have to be at the top of the list of missions that would bring back NASA's glory days and suddenly make the space shuttle and station seem like necessary elements of a daring vision. Too bad sending people to Mars would cost between $200 billion and $500 billion, or several times what the Apollo program cost in today's dollars. It's hard to imagine the Clinton administration blessing such a spectacular mission with even a moment's consideration, given the president's concern with more immediate issues like feeding the hungry, fixing health care, reducing crime, and improving the economy.

But it's easy to forget how quickly the pendulum can swing the other way. If the economy were to take off, if a new president felt it was once again time to make a strong statement about U.S. capabilities and give our self-esteem a giant boost, who knows? Eventually there might even be sound economic reasons for heading to Mars, such as mining or tourism.

Oddly enough, some of the most severe critics of NASA's current manned program rather like the idea of a big new mission, as long as NASA does it for the right reasons. "The manned program is where NASA spends most of its money, and right now it's the least justified part of its program," says Sagan. "The real reasons for taking people into space should have nothing to do with science, and almost nothing to do with exploration, both of which can be done very effectively with robots and telepresence. But there is a long-term historical reason having to do with not putting all our eggs in one planetary basket, given the claims that global catastrophes have overtaken our planet in the past and that one is eventually likely to occur again, even if the chances of its happening in the short term are very slight."

Sagan particularly supports the idea of a manned mission to an asteroid because it would be far less expensive than going to Mars and because collision with an asteroid is considered one of the leading candidates for global catastrophe. On the other hand, John Logsdon, director of the George Washington University Space Policy Institute, thinks we should go for the Mars mission despite the cost. "It's not the kind of thing that's subject to a cost-benefit analysis," he explains. "It just seems to be part of human nature to want to explore."

In fact, NASA quietly funds a modest amount of research relating to a manned Mars mission. A North Carolina State University group has been busy for six years coming up with solutions to such problems as how to construct a spaceship while floating beside an orbiting space station, and how to keep from burning up while returning into Earth's atmosphere at twice the speed of the shuttle, a speed required by the need to hold the round-trip down to two years. The lab has already developed ultralight heat-resistant materials that can be shaped into a nose cone and other components for a Mars craft and then latched together in a zero-gravity environment.

Needless to say, many scientists and other observers quake at the idea of throwing so much money at what Van Allen calls "adventuresome entertainment with no practical utilitarian content whatsoever." And NASA itself appears to be drifting ever further from the possibility of a Mars mission; for example, the agency has cut the North Carolina State project's annual funding down to $1.25 million from $1.9 million two years ago. "It's hard to tell what NASA's priorities are, but it's fairly clear that a manned mission to Mars isn't one of the high ones," says Fred DeJarnette, the aerospace engineer who heads the group. "But our work could be useful for robotic missions too."

Robotic missions, of course, belong to the other NASA--the one that runs an unmanned science program. And if NASA's manned program is destined to sputter along on an uninspiring, largely symbolic vision, maybe we should look to this other NASA for signs of the agency's potential renewal.

A tour of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, can be a little unsatisfying for the visitor stuck on the grandeur of space exploration. The rockets on display on the sprawling grounds are surprisingly, well, small. Goddard has big things too, but they are rather odd--not the stuff of visionary dreams. It boasts, for example, one of the world's largest thermos bottles (a 60-foot-wide tank that can be emptied of air and then heated to almost 200 degrees Fahrenheit or chilled to near -200 degrees, so that satellites or spacecraft components placed inside it get a little taste of the conditions of space) and the world's highest-tech junkyard (a vast sealed chamber in which a huge array of 1,600 air filters removes particles that could muddle the analysis of the defunct parts of the Hubble and odds and ends retrieved from other missions).

Welcome to NASA's unmanned program. When Goldin talks about demanding faster, cheaper, smaller, better, he is really referring to the realm of the unmanned--and here he means business. The space shuttle might get a little cheaper, but no one expects it to get smaller, faster, or much better. Goddard, however, has relatively little to do with putting people into space or sending substantial, instrument-laden probes cruising through the solar system. It was the lead center for the Hubble mission, but that was an extreme exception, a massive program of the sort the center is unlikely ever to see again. Instead, Goddard will now be concentrating on placing smaller, simpler devices into modest Earth orbits, where these devices can look back down on us with cameras, radar, and infrared and other sensors. It is a far humbler, more introspective sort of program than the ones most of us associate with NASA, and it is one that fits right in with the agency's new style. "Many of the difficult changes NASA faces actually bode quite well for us," says Goddard's Robert Price.

One of the reasons Goddard's star is rising is that the kinds of mission it will be running, most of which fall under the umbrella of the program known as Mission to Planet Earth, or MTPE, are cheap--at least compared with the cost of even modest interplanetary probes. Furthermore, these missions won't be carried out only in the name of pure science, a name that has precious few friends in the administration or Congress. The Mission to Planet Earth is intended to produce a tangible payoff in an area that happens to be near and dear to the White House: the environment. "We don't want to stop asking questions about the universe just because we have problems with crime and health care," says Price, who is MTPE's director. "But these days people are more concerned with ozone depletion, deforestation, and greenhouse gases than they are with space science."

Just because MTPE happens to be low-rent and politically correct, however, doesn't mean it's any less appealing to scientists. By most accounts it is a solid program consisting of some 23 different satellites already in orbit or scheduled for launch by 2002. Typical among them is the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, a satellite that will employ microwave and infrared detectors to measure variations in rainfall along the equator in hopes of better understanding how these variations affect global climate. "Mission to Planet Earth calls for superb instrumentation that will allow us in every flight to learn something new about the way Earth functions," says Van Allen. "I think it should be the central function of the agency in the upcoming decade and thereabouts."

Space probes that sail far beyond Earth's environs also offer rich opportunities to put Goldin's new theme into action. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is the chief NASA headquarters for unmanned spacecraft whose destinations are outside Earth orbit. True, JPL's recent missions do not automatically bring to mind the words smaller, faster, and cheaper. Galileo, heading for a late 1995 rendezvous with Jupiter, was in the works for 13 years before its 1989 launch, at a cost in today's dollars of about $2 billion; Cassini has been under development for five years at a cost so far of almost $1 billion, and it won't be taking off on its seven-year journey to Saturn until 1997. But all that is going to change. "Cassini is probably the last of the big, expensive missions for the foreseeable future," says Edward Stone, director of JPL. "For the next five years we'll be lucky to have a flat budget."

JPL also has to turn around a recent run of duds. The failure of Galileo's antenna to unfold en route to Jupiter will reduce the number of images the probe will beam back from 50,000 to about 2,000. And it was a poorly designed, leaky fuel line in the Mars Observer that, as the craft approached
Comment on this article