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Into The Deep Space Of Nowhere

all for nothing - despite successfully testing multiple new technologies for deep space flights, NASA appears unable to offer fundable solutions based on what it designs in its own backyard.

by Bruce Moomaw
Irvine - Nov 16, 2001
For the past several years, a strange "Pluto-Europa war" has been raging within NASA -- over whether to launch a Pluto flyby mission in the near future (so that it can utilize a gravity-assist flyby of Jupiter to be confident of reaching Pluto before the imminent freeze-out of the planet's thin air as it moves farther away from the Sun on its eccentric orbit ), or to delay it in favor of first launching a much more expensive and technically sophisticated mission to orbit Europa in preparation for later biological studies of that Jovian moon, thus very likely giving up the last chance for 250 years to study Pluto's atmosphere, as well as to see a good deal of its surface which is starting to fall into 125-year-long continual shadow due to the planet's greatly tilted spin axis.

As a result of that "war", the Pluto mission has been repeatedly cancelled and then given last-second reprieves, like some space going episode of "The Perils of Pauline" -- with the latest such miraculous reprieve for the seemingly doomed mission coming only last week, thanks to Congress.

But yesterday -- during hearings by the scientific advisory group assigned to come up with an official new design for NASA's Solar System over the next ten years -- the war took a totally unexpected and disastrous new twist, when the Bush Administration announced that it will respond to Congress' action by canceling BOTH missions next year and completely eliminating all of America's plans to explore the outer Solar System after the Cassini Saturn mission.

The latest chapter began last year, when NASA cancelled its planned "Pluto-Kuiper Express" -- a spacecraft using the same revolutionary, miniaturized and radiation-resistant electronics that are unquestionably necessary for the Europa Orbiter mission (which requires a great deal of onboard fuel to orbit Europa, and must also resist Jupiter's radiation belts).

The Pluto mission actually requires none of this, and -- unlike the Europa mission -- will suffer scientifically from a delay; but NASA Administrator Dan Goldin single-handedly overruled NASA's science advisors in 1998 to insist that Europa Orbiter be flown first and that the Pluto-Kuiper Express spacecraft then utilize a copy of its design. When Europa Orbiter ran into predictable and serious cost and schedule problems, the Pluto mission suffered with it -- until NASA finally cancelled it completely.

However, under intense pressure from both scientists and the general public, NASA then quickly reversed itself at the end of 2000 and put the Pluto mission out for competitive bidding along the lines of the "Discovery" planetary probes, stating that if outside teams could come up with another design for the Pluto mission that could keep its cost below $500 million, it might be flown after all.

Two promising designs were received -- one from a team combining the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Lockheed Martin, the other from Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory and Ball Aerospace -- both using tried-and-true components from existing small spacecraft.

But then, in its first NASA budget, the Bush Administration again ordered the cancellation of the new Pluto mission, insisting again that Europa Orbiter be flown first -- and that any Pluto mission must be launched after the "window of opportunity" for a Jupiter gravity assist to Pluto had closed, so that the Pluto probe must instead hurl itself into the outer Solar System by using an onboard ion drive similar to the one recently flown on the Deep Space 1 spacecraft, although developing and building this would further delay the mission. Congress, however, immediately ordered NASA to put the cancellation on "hold" until a final verdict from Congress on the Fiscal Year 2002 NASA budget -- and so the appraisal of the two alternative probe designs has continued, with the choice now scheduled for announcement by mid-December at the latest.

Then -- in its final FY 2002 budget, announced last week -- the House-Senate conference committee flatly ordered NASA to restart the project, reinserting $30 million for it which was largely taken out of the Bush Administration's proposed increase in funding for the development of "in-space propulsion systems" such as ion drives.

At the same time, Congress announced that the total cost for Europa Orbiter -- whose cost is very rapidly mushrooming and bleeding off money from the rest of the Solar System program -- must be capped at $1 billion; and that if the Jet Propulsion Laboratory cannot keep it within those bounds, it too should be put out for competitive bidding.

Congress also strongly implied that, if necessary to preserve the Pluto mission, Europa Orbiter -- which, unlike Pluto-Kuiper Express, can tolereate a delay without scientific harm -- should be delayed a few years. Celebrations from Pluto proponents about their "final victory" began -- but swiftly proved premature.

The latest meeting of the Steering Committee for NASA's Solar System Decadal Survey -- a project in which the nation's leading planetary scientists will officially formulate their latest recommendations for the form the U.S. Solar System program should take from 2003 to 2013 -- occurred November 14-16 at Irvine, California.

At the Nov. 15 session, the Committee heard via telephone from two officials of the Office of Management and Budget -- who stunned it by announcing that the Administration's reaction to Congress' reversal will almost certainly be to cancel BOTH the Pluto and Europa missions in its Fiscal Year 2003 budget, and thus to completely eliminate NASA's outer Solar System exploration program for the next few years.

This was the one course of action nobody in the science community had expected. The Committee's members repeatedly grilled the OMB officials as to what course of action the science community -- and particularly the Decadal Survey team -- could take to preserve "some kind of outer Solar System program". The OMB replied, however, that at this point the decision is almost finalized, and that even an immediate recommendation from the Decadal Survey group will probably have no effect on it.

There were two reasons given. First, that $30 million suddenly provided by Congress to restart the Pluto project in FY 2002 is really a drop in the bucket. The mission will cost a total of $500 million -- and since it must now undergo emergency crash funding in order to be ready for a launch at the last Jupiter flyby opportunity in January 2006, fully $200 million of that money must be provided for it in the Fiscal Year 2003 budget alone.

But the Administration's total budget for all outer Solar System exploration in that year is only $86 million, so even totally canceling Europa Orbiter would not even come close to adequately funding a 2006 Pluto mission. And the OMB made it clear that -- that, thanks both to America's growing fiscal problems and the ongoing crisis in NASA from the Space Station's rapidly growing monetary demands and shrinking scientific capabilities -- there is no chance of additional funding for NASA space science as a whole.

But this doesn't explain why the Administration also made its unexpected decision to cancel Europa Orbiter as well. The OMB officials explained that the years-long seesaw battle over Europa versus Pluto had convinced the Administration that the planetary science community itself is bitterly divided over which of the two missions is really important -- and that, since neither mission has all that much support from planetary scientists, their funding should therefore instead be transferred for the next few years to various "more valuable" and universally supported programs within NASA.

This seems to be the result of a misconception among OMB officials, caused by Administrator Goldin's personal years-long insistence on flying to Europa first despite near-unanimous support from space scientists for launching the Pluto probe first

But it will be hard to reverse, especially since NASA officially opposed the 2006 Pluto mission even while Congress was overriding both NASA and the Administration last week to restart the mission. And OMB -- in response to what can only be called stunned disbelief by the Committee members -- insisted firmly that even a quick and unanimous verdict by the Decadal Survey in favor of one mission or the other would not change its mind at this point, suggesting that the Administration has made up its mind to cancel both missions for other unstated reasons as well.

So what now? At this point, it seems that the survival of both the Pluto-Kuiper flyby and Europa Orbiter missions now depends entirely on Congress' willingness to override the Administration in a major way next year.

This is by no means impossible. An unprecedented $548 million in "earmark" funding -- for a long list of projects favored by various members of Congress but not by the Administration -- was inserted by Congress in NASA's budget this year. "Earmarks", however are more often referred to as "local pork", and so in themselves they provide little evidence that Congress will fund an entire generalized new program.

However, there is no doubt that NASA as a whole is now in crisis this year, thanks to the fact that the International Space Station's disastrous design problems and cost overruns can no longer be concealed.

The Young Committee assigned to review this problem has just confirmed that NASA knew about the problems for most of the past decade and worked busily to conceal them, apparently gambling -- wrongly -- that once the Station was already partially assembled, the White House and Congress could be persuaded to continue it even at a much higher cost.

There can be no serious doubt that the simultaneous resignations of Dan Goldin and Associate Administrator for Human Spaceflight Joseph Rothenberg are connected with the official exposure of this scandal.

The Bush Administration's reaction to this revelation is to put the Station on "probation", keeping it at its current 3-man crew level for the next two years despite the fact that this a purely "maintenance" mode which allows very little of the scientific research for which the Station was supposedly built, while studies are done to see if there is any way to make it more scientifically cost-effective before giving permission to expand it to its originally planned 6 or 7-man capability.

In their mutually agreed budget last week, however, the House and Senate went further. They ordered an immediate study by the National Academy of Sciences to "compare and evaluate the research programs of the ISS which can be accomplished with a crew of three and a crew of six; and an assessment of the probable cost-benefit ratios of those programs, compared with Earthbound research which could be funded in lieu of research conducted on the ISS."

This last phrase suggests to this reporter that -- if the Academy does conclude that the Station will simply always be a relative waste of money that can more usefully be spent on other scientific research -- there's a possibility that Congress might order its complete cancellation (or at least its change to a considerably cheaper "man-tended" rather than permanently manned form) as early as next year. And, if so, the Bush Administration might go along.

So, for the time being, NASA's entire outer Solar System exploration program after the Cassini Saturn probe is yet another victim of both the nation's overall fiscal problems and NASA's calamitous internal problems resulting from its chronic tendency toward mismanagement and dishonesty in its funding requests.

As with the Challenger disaster, a really major shakeup is now underway in the agency -- and until its new form is resolved within the next yea or two, it will be impossible to make any predictions as to the fate of the U.S. planetary program.

Even if no funding is provided for either mission next year, however, it should also be kept in mind that the situation is not hopeless -- as the Decadal Survey's own sessions revealed. First, if JPL is unable to keep Europa Orbiter's costs below $1 billion (it seems to be turning into JPL's own version of the Space Station problem), it's possible that a scaled-down Europa mission might still be considered worthwhile, or that another organization might be able to fly the Orbiter for less.

Indeed, the Applied Physics Lab -- which has now established itself as a definite rival to JPL by successfully flying the low-cost NEAR mission to asteroid Eros, and has created one of the two finalist Pluto probe designs -- made the surprising announcement at the meeting that a very preliminary study (made at the request of the Decadal Survey itself) suggests that the design of its coming 2004 MESSENGER Mercury orbiter can probably be adapted to the very different goal of orbiting Europa, for a total cost of only $600-900 million.

APL itself firmly disavows any intention of trying to challenge JPL for management of the Europa Orbiter -- but, if Congress does kill the Orbiter in its current form, the possibility definitely opens up.

Second, it was also made clear at the Meeting that -- if the Pluto probe is delayed beyond the 2006 Jupiter launch window and instead launched directly to Pluto attached to a solar-powered ion drive similar to that on Deep Space 1 -- it might very well still be able to meet the goal of reaching Pluto before the 2020 atmospheric-freeze out deadline.

Indeed, simply attaching it to a copy of the solar-powered ion drive already successfully and extensively used on Deep Space 1 could (if combined with one gravity-assist flyby of Earth itself) propel either of the two Pluto probe finalist designs to the planet in 10 years.

And a revised version combining the same engine with mildly bigger and more efficient solar panels -- which is already under development for a cost of only a few million dollars and won't even need a flight test -- will be ready for a 2007 launch and would send the probe to Pluto in only nine years, perhaps even getting it there a bit sooner than a 2006 Jupiter-flyby launch could do. (The solar-powered ion drive section would be shut down and detached when the plutonium-powered main craft is flying through the Asteroid Belt, having already given it the dramatic fast boost it needed into the outer System.)

The OMB officials hinted that the Bush Administration itself might be willing to accept such a combination of a cheaper Europa mission and a delayed, ion-drive powered Pluto mission.

Such a mission would of course have a moderately higher total cost than a 2006 non-ion drive Pluto mission, to cover the costs of the ion-drive module. But it would allow the probe's funding to be stretched out over another year, dramatically reducing the need for a sudden huge surge in Pluto funding next year. If the 2006 Pluto mission is indeed cancelled, this may well be the best fallback position for Pluto scientists. At any rate, this strange and seemingly endless scientific suspense story is still far from its culmination -- as is the far bigger saga of the Space Station, and the question of whether NASA's entire function and structure will be dramatically changed over the next few years.

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Pluto Mission Gets A Boost With Joint House Support
 Washington - Nov 8, 2001
The U.S. House and Senate conference committee acting on the fiscal year 2002 NASA appropriations have approved $30 million funding for development of the Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission, despite opposition by the Bush Administration. They specifically directed that "funds provided should be used to initiate appropriate spacecraft and science instrument development as well as launch vehicle procurement," and that NASA proceed with selection of a team to develop the mission.

Scientists and Engineers Complete NASA-Funded Phase A Study Of Pluto-Kuiper Belt Mission
Boulder - September 27, 2001
A team led by the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU APL) has just completed a NASA-funded, "Phase A" design study for a Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission.

NASA Selects Two Pups For Pluto-Kuiper Tryouts
 Washington - June 6, 2001
In the first step of a potential two-step process, NASA has selected two proposals for detailed mission feasibility studies as candidates for a Pluto-Kuiper Belt (PKB) mission to explore the only planet in our Solar System yet to be visited by a spacecraft from Earth.

The Perils of Pauline
Cameron Park - May 7, 2001
The extraordinary "Perils of Pauline" saga of the proposed Pluto-Kuiper flyby probe -- which would be the first mission to the last unexplored planet in the Solar System, and then continue optional flybys of one or more smaller Kuiper Belt objects -- continues with one final effort now underway to save the mission from what could be centuries of delay.

What Should We Tell The Universe?
Pasadena - March 28, 2001
NASA's embattled mission to Pluto and the Kuiper belt isn't on firm ground at the moment, but it's far from being totally dead. Even if the project is officially terminated in the short term, the possibility of resurrecting this mission in the future has not been eliminated.

Will Funding Europa Bust The Bank
Cameron Park - March 7, 2001
The funding issue now facing a Pluto flyby is only one aspect of a bigger problem to which NASA's Solar System Exploration Subcommittee devoted much time at its meeting last week. Michael Drake, the committee's chair, described the situation to SpaceDaily as a "Reality Check" -- adding that it's now quite clear that NASA simply has no way to fly most of the sophisticated Solar System missions it had planned over the next 15 years at the funding levels that it can now reasonably expect to be available.

Life's Hell Then There's Venus And Your Extended Mission Budget
Cameron Park - March 7, 2001
After several Russian landers and a detailed radar mapping mission in the 1980s, planetary scientists are starting to turn their gaze back to the Venus which many scientists believe holds valuable answers to our own planet and the danger of runaway greenhouses.

Bush Shakes Up Civil Space
by Bruce Moomaw
Cameron Park - March 5, 2001
Without question, it has been an eventful week for NASA. With cuts across the board as ISS continues to run over budget, and the shuttle's replacement program gets dumped. But among the carnage there is renewed hope that Pluto Express might yet fly following intervention from the US Congress. In this extended report Bruce Moomaw provides SpaceDaily readers with a detailed roundup on what is happening at NASA's solar system exploration committee that was in session when news came of Pluto Express being axed again.

Congress Has Pups As Bush Shoots Down Pluto
by Bruce Moomaw
Cameron Park - March 5, 2001
While the U.S. Mars program wasn't a subject of concern at the latest SSES meeting, the rest of the Solar System exploration program most definitely was. NASA's schedule of missions to explore the outer Solar System was in serious trouble at the last meeting, and the situation hasn't improved.

Pluto Needs An Express Decision
Cameron Park - Dec. 7, 2000
by Bruce Moomaw
Facing a deadline imposed by nature itself, NASA is said to be hearing the message from the planetary science community that due to no other reason that circumstance a mission to Pluto must launch in 2004 to reach the distant world by 2012 before its atmosphere freezes out as the planet moves far from the Sun on its highly elliptic 248-year orbit.

Planetary Mission Cancellations Cause For Concern
Washington - Nov. 16, 2000
NASA has cancelled its fourth planetary mission in the past two years. The latest is the "nanorover" that was to have been delivered to the surface of an asteroid by Japan's Muses-C asteroid sample return mission.

Chaos On The Frontiers Of Sol
Pasadena - Nov. 21, 2000
Efforts by the space science community to get NASA to not cancel Pluto Express appear to be falling on deaf ears. Senior agency officials have decided to ignore the advice of its own committees and the mounting support within the space science community which is in general agreement; that due to a fluke of orbital positions a mission to Pluto must be launch by 2004 in time to catch a gravity boost from Jupiter and out to Pluto before its atmosphere collapses for another 200 years.

Voyages To Outer Sol
Cameron Park - Nov. 15, 2000
In my previous report I noted that members of NASA's Solar System Exploration Subcommittee -- the group of a dozen planetary scientists who advise NASA on the scientific value of its proposed Solar System exploration missions -- they were very pleased with the design of NASA's newly announced plan for Mars exploration.

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