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The Next Five Big NASA Failures

A Mars Sample Return mission has been but 10 years away for over 30 years.
by Jeffrey F. Bell
Honolulu HI (SPX) Nov 15, 2004
One of the most annoying things about NASA is that its dysfunctional management wastes a huge amount of effort on projects long after they are clearly doomed.

By "effort" I don't mean just public money, but the time of lots of very intelligent people. People who are often intelligent enough to know that they are working on a lost cause.

In my very first opinion column for SpaceDaily.com, I remarked that the Orbital Space Plane project was so stupid that many of the people working on it must have known that OSP was fundamentally misconceived, and doomed to be cancelled.

Sure enough, it was soon cancelled, and later it turned out that many of the engineers, working for both NASA and the contractor teams, had shared my opinion, but kept quiet, and went on slaving away in their cubicles on calculations that they knew were pointless.

I myself had a small taste of this Kafkaesque lifestyle in the 1980s, on a JPL mission called CRAF (Comet Rendezvous / Asteroid Flyby), which along with Cassini was the first of the projected "Mariner Mk. 2" mission family.

These missions had been sold to Congress as a pair, as part of a strange policy that all NASA science missions should be grouped together in "AXAF Units", that cost about as much as that super-expensive X-ray astronomy mission. The idea was to minimize the number of separate items that would appear in the space science budget.

This mission was doomed from the moment that a senior US Senator clamped down a rigid legal limit on the total cost of "CRAF/Cassini". It was pretty obvious that when the cost cap was exceeded, NASA management would cancel CRAF and keep Cassini.

Cassini went to the most visually interesting place in the solar system; CRAF went to some nameless rocks and ice cubes. Cassini had a much larger international component and would cause more diplomatic complications if it were killed. And Cassini had a neat name, while CRAF was saddled with a bad acronym for its entire unhappy life.

A smart friend of mine realized that the mission needed a sexy name and started an unofficial contest to select one. When this initiative was stifled by the JPL top management, everyone could see the handwriting on the wall.

The last set of CRAF/Cassini publicity brochures sat undistributed for months in a big pile in a JPL hallway with a sign on top: "Do not take!" When the axe finally fell on CRAF, that whole pile of expensive full-color glossy coated-paper propaganda was pulped (except for a few I smuggled out of JPL in my briefcase).

The saving grace of CRAF for me was that rank-and-file university scientists are supposed to be seen and not heard on NASA missions. At first I submitted unsolicited memos and reports about problems with the mission and possible ways to fix them.

But my ideas vanished into the black hole of JPL without visible effect. All the science team members were expected to do was show up at three meetings per year.

Finally a day came when I was scheduled to fly to Los Angeles for another long meeting at which nothing would be decided, and my subconscious mind revolted. That morning I walked past a fully packed suitcase standing by my front door, and went to my university office instead of the airport.

When a puzzled colleague pointed out that my name was listed on the department travel schedule for that day and the next two, I had to sneak back home and pretend to have the flu. I had to pay for that unused plane ticket, but it was worth it just to have escaped those three days in the squirrel cage.

With this experience, I can't even imagine what it is like to work full-time for months or years on a doomed project that is paying your rent and can't be evaded. And right now, NASA has a particularly large crop of hopeless projects that no one has the guts to cancel:

ISS and Space Shuttle

I've discussed some of the severe technical flaws in these programs. But the real problem is purely programmatic: The new Vision for Space Exploration calls for Shuttle to be retired in 2010 - several years before the new CEV spacecraft is ready to replace.

This isn't an accident; the budget wedge for Shuttle operations is needed to fund the CEV once it leaves the viewgraph stage and starts actual hardware construction.

There is no plan to handle NASA's share of the huge up-cargo and down-cargo demands of the finished ISS, except for a thin wedge labled "ISS transportation" in the famous VSE budget chart. There is no plan for a US cargo vehicle.

There is no initiative to do away with the Iran Non-Proliferation Act which forbids NASA to purchase Progress launches from Russia. There is no plan to purchase ATV cargo flights from Europe, or to purchase HTV flights from Japan.

Even worse, there is no plan for crew exchange without Shuttle. The "finished" ISS will require that a total of 12 crewpersons be launched and landed each year. NASA is responsible for the non-Russian share of this.

The INPA forbids the purchase of Soyuz flights; Europe and Japan have no manned vehicles to purchase; and the Chinese Shenzhou program is withering away with an apparent flight rate of less than 0.5/yr.

The announced US policy for the future of ISS amounts to this: NASA will finish assembling the ISS at vast further expense in American money (and possibly dead American astronauts), then dump the whole white elephant on the international partners, who will be totally unable to meet its crew exchange and "junk exchange" needs.

This plan is so stupid that even Congressmen are objecting to it. For some months there has been a series of increasingly less polite requests from Congress that NASA present some kind of plan for adequate logistical support of the finished ISS. But no plan has been produced - much less a budget.

The only concrete thing that has been done is to purchase one more year of Russian flights to ISS in 2006-07 by way of a barter scheme. (This NASA-RSA deal clearly violates the spirit of the Iran Non-Proliferation Act, which might explain that it has been announced only by the RSA and not by NASA.)

One resolution to this problem would be for NASA to keep on flying Shuttles to the ISS after 2010, in defiance of President Bush's directive. One hears this option casually mentioned by Shuttle-huggers as though it were a done deal.

But one never hears it from anybody in a real position of authority at NASA, or in the inner circles of the Bush Administration. And to continue the Shuttle program after this date would suck so much money out of the fixed NASA budget that there would be no hope of starting serious Moon or Mars programs.

Jim Oberg already reports ( http://msnbc.msn.com/id/6357772/ ) that plans are being considered for a drastic reduction in the number of Shuttle flights needed to "complete" the ISS. This clearly implies that the Shuttle program managers regard the 2010 deadline as an absolute drop-dead date, not a goal that can be negotiated.

Some other manned vehicle is needed to support the ISS between 2010 and whenever the new CEV spacecraft becomes "operational". Yet no such vehicle exists!

The only logical answer to this paradox is that the Space Shuttle will be cancelled sometime in CY2005, and along with it will go any further serious US participation in the ISS.

The incomplete International Space Scrapyard will be deorbited due to lack of logistical support. Anybody working on Shuttle or ISS in the USA should be looking for a new salary source RIGHT NOW.

Hubble Robot Repair Mission

People are talking about how Sean O'Keefe has finally whipped NASA's cost prediction and accounting system into shape. This must be the reason that cost estimates have ballooned up far faster in the last year than they did under the old system. Projected costs of returning the Shuttle to flight have almost doubled in that time.

But the champion of all of O'Keefe's massive cost overruns is the robot spacecraft being developed to repair the deteriorating Hubble Space Telescope. It started out at as a $600M project, but the latest estimates are as high as $2200M. Considering that a whole new technology has to be developed on a crash basis, even this estimate seems too low to me.

For $2200M, one could build several more Hubbles and launch them on expendable boosters. It just doesn't make any sense to develop a whole new space robot technology for this one repair job. There is no chance that Congress will pony up this amount of money to save Hubble. Anybody working on this mission is wasting their time.

And for those of you who say that we need to launch some kind of Hubble-grabbing spacecraft anyway to make a controlled deorbit of Hubble, I say that this requirement is ludicrous. Tons of space junk and natural meteorites fall on the Earth every year, and there is no reliable record of anyone being killed.

Look out that window by your airliner seat occasionally and see just how empty Earth really is. The chances of someone getting hit by a chunk of Hubble are absurdly small. The whole mass of Columbia fell in East Texas without hitting anybody or even doing any serious damage.

At the risk of sounding like Bob Zubrin

If we can't tolerate this tiny level of risk to the public, we might as well give up on exploring space, even with unmanned vehicles.

There are a lot of low-probability events possible in the current program that would lead to civilian deaths- for instance a booster veering off course into Miami or Los Angeles with a broken destruct system.

If an uncontrolled Hubble reentry is too dangerous to tolerate, logical consistency requires that all US launch operations be moved to a truly safe location like Wake, Midway, or Howland Island.

Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter

A friend who talked to members of two of the competing industry design teams for this spacecraft tells me that they independently concluded many months ago that the mission is impractical.

Possibly this explains why it was another team that was recently selected by NASA to actually build the JIMO spacecraft.

What better way to get the monkey off your back than to slack off and deliver a technically weak or poorly budgeted proposal, that's certain to be rejected?

The main problem with JIMO seems to be poor communication between the hostile cultures of space scientists and space engineers. This mission has been in concept development for many years under many names. During all this time, it was obvious to every scientist involved that the mapping orbits around the target moons had to be polar orbits.

An equatorial orbit makes no sense, as your instruments would uselessly scan the same narrow strip over and over again. This point is so obvious that it is unnecessary to even mention it - when dealing with other scientists.

Apparently, no one mentioned this obvious fact to the engineers working on JIMO. During all the preliminary studies of this mission, they assumed that the spacecraft would orbit around Callisto, Ganymede, and Europa in the plane of Jupiter's equator.

This makes navigation easier and greatly reduces the total delta-vee required from the nuclear propulsion system. This number was already very high due to Jupiter's steep gravity well; moving between the moons is roughly the same in energy as moving between the inner planets.

But when the polar orbit requirement was finally revealed to the engineers, JIMO became much harder. The extra reaction mass required to make all the needed plane changes seriously increases the mass of the spacecraft, to the point where it cannot be launched by any existing booster (at least into the "nuclear-safe" orbit those girly men at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission insist on).

The currently popular plans for launching JIMO are 1) Launch a supplemental chemical kick stage on a second EELV and automatically dock it with JIMO in orbit or 2) Wait for the manned side of NASA to develop its new heavy-lift booster and steal one for JIMO.

And my scientist friends haven't stopped there. Now they say that the 600kg instrument package on JIMO isn't enough to satisfy them. They insist that at least 1500kg of their expensive toys be flown to Europa - including a whole separate soft-lander!

They back up this demand with a silly calculation based on the relative instrumentation weight on Galileo and Cassini. These are very different and less demanding missions that cannot be used as a base of comparison with JIMO.

Back in the 1960s there was a super-expensive Mars mission called Voyager that would have used a "surplus" Saturn V to launch "real man-sized landers for real science". And while its booster eventually became a lawn ornament, its name was borrowed to jazz up Mariner 11 and 12.

I think JIMO is headed down the same road. There is already an alternative technology (Aerocapture) in development that may allow future spacecraft to slow down at Jupiter without all the complication and expense of nuclear-ion engines.

Of course, JIMO is the mission which was used to justify the hugely expensive Prometheus program for improved nuclear power in space.

But that was back in the pre-VSE environment when it was officially forbidden for NASA to work on or even plan for any post-ISS manned programs. Clearly, the Prometheus 100kw space reactor plant is far more necessary as an auxiliary power source for manned ships and bases than it is as propulsion power for unmanned probes.

I suspect that JIMO was mostly a cover for starting Prometheus, and that sometime in the next year Prometheus will explicitly be shifted over to the manned program and JIMO will be quietly cancelled.

Mars Sample Return

This mission has been ten years from flight for the last thirty years, and will probably still be ten years from flight thirty years from now.

Besides the post-Genesis planetary protection issues, MSR suffers from a fundamental problem: the more we learn about Mars, the more complicated the mission needs to be to provide a useful increment in that knowledge.

At an early planning meeting for MSR, a famous CalTech isotope scientist proclaimed: "Bring a gram of Mars to my lab, and I will tell you the entire history of Mars from it."

Nobody would make such a sweeping claim today. Besides a general loss of confidence in isotope geology, there is the awkward fact that we now have many pounds of Mars in our laboratories.

It wasn't until the early 1980s that scientists accepted the fact that some small fraction of meteorites are actually from Mars. In fact this was probably the most important and unexpected result of the Viking landers. The identification of the odd isotope signature in Mars air provided an unambiguous test for suspicious rocks.

Today it seems that new Mars samples are turning up all the time - in deserts, Antarctica, and even in an old milk crate in Los Angeles.

For a while it seemed that Earth was only getting young volcanic Mars rocks, probably from the Tharsis region. But then ALH 84001 was belatedly recognised as a chunk of Mars' ancient highland crust.

The bogus controversy over "fossils" in this meteorite has tended to overshadow the large amount of real science that was extracted from it.

The most important programmatic implication of ALH 84001 was that if we collected enough Mars meteorites, we might get samples of most of the significant geological units on Mars.

Instead of spending billions on MSR, it might be more cost-effective to expand the existing collection program in Antartica, or offer big cash prizes to rockhounds for genuine Mars rocks in their collections.

To make MSR seem worthwhile in an era of abundant Mars samples, it was made obscenely baroque as the 1990s progressed. Instead of just scooping up some soil or rocks at random like the Soviets did on the moon, elaborate rovers were designed that could wander over Mars for months, drilling cores out of rocks and examining them in a miniature lab.

A selection of the most interesting samples would be packaged in a box, loaded into a return rocket, and lofted into Martian orbit. Then a second spacecraft launched by France in the next Earth-Mars window would hunt down the orbiting jewel case and return it to Earth.

Elaborate measures were to be taken to avoid organic contamination of the samples (this being the main drawback of Mars meteorites; even in Antartica they are saturated with car exhaust products).

The final complication of this mission was that the entry capsule would land in the Australian outback. The NASA manager who came up with this idea seems to have forgotten a key feature of Australian culture: They have a peculiar sensitivity to extraneous life forms Down Under, due to some bad experience with rabbits.

I was eagerly looking forward to a full-scale political battle in Canberra over importing Mars germs to Oz, but the whole mission concept was euthanized before Australia even had time to put together a national planetary protection bureacracy.

Like most cancelled missions, this mega-MSR left a useful heritage. Today, elaborate rovers are wandering over Mars for months, and are drilling holes in rocks.

But we are no closer to a sample return mission. Planners have fallen back to simple pooper-scooper concepts or even atmospheric dust grabbers, but none of these concepts have gathered much support.

There is a simple reason for this: the simple missions only return Mars samples, they don't achieve the real goal of the MSR project.

If you get some meteorite scientists drunk, they will sometimes let slip the real reason for MSR: A lot of planetary materials labs around the world were still saddled with equipment left over from the Apollo program that was becoming obsolete and impossible to repair.

A big, expensive MSR mission would justify a major new instrumentation program, that could be slipped into the NASA budget as a minor element of MSR. The more MSR cost, the bigger this "minor element" could be and the more labs could be re-equipped.

So there was a perverse incentive to make MSR very expensive - so the science community could get better equipment to study meteorites with.

This is a pretty scary list of disasters. The combined impact of these failures and cancellations in the next year or so could be disastrous, on top of the Columbia, OSP, and Genesis fiascos. Possibly NASA needs an "Associate Administrator for Early Warning".

His job would be akin to that of the old court jester - to speak the unspeakable truths that loyal courtiers dare not mention, early enough that these doomed projects could be quietly put out of their misery before they generate too much bad publicity. Jeffrey F. Bell is a retired space scientist and recovering pro-space activist.

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