Originally created 05/08/00

NASA redrawing Mars exploration plans

PASADENA, Calif. -- After a pair of high-profile Mars mission flops, NASA is rethinking its approach to the Red Planet in an unprecedented review that includes everything from science and technology to management and bureaucracy.

When the soul-searching is done, officials say they will have reinvented the program that helped doom the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter and the $165 million Polar Lander.

A team of NASA experts, contractors and university leaders is working on recommendations they hope to have ready this summer, said Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for space science.

"We'll ask them to develop a plan that makes scientific sense, exploration sense, and we're going to apply that against the budget," he said. "The launch dates will fall where they fall."

Climate Orbiter and Polar Lander were part of a grand plan to launch two spacecraft to the Red Planet every 26 months. By the time the program was over in 2008, scientists figured to have Martian soil and rock samples in their labs.

But a software problem led to a premature shutdown of the lander's descent engine, causing it to fall 130 feet to the ground on Dec. 3. The orbiter burned up in the atmosphere Sept. 23 because critical data were not converted to metrics.

Mindful that dumb mistakes are part of human nature, NASA is concentrating on why they were not caught. Too little money, lack of oversight, poor communication and an unfocused agenda all contributed to the failures, officials said.

Some immediate changes were ordered -- the indefinite delay in the launch of a lander in 2001 and the appointment of managers at NASA headquarters and Jet Propulsion Laboratory to oversee Mars exploration. Only an orbiter -- the Mars Surveyor 2001 -- will be launched next year.

Future missions will likely include equipment to sustain communications during critical landing or orbit insertion phases. It was during these radio blackouts that last year's probes vanished, leaving investigators with few clues.

Weiler vowed to change the system so budget reserves are on hand at NASA headquarters as well as the center where the spacecraft is being managed.

During development of the ill-fated probes at JPL, NASA headquarters ordered changes in the spacecraft without providing extra money, said Donna Shirley, former manager of the Mars exploration program at JPL.

Though money was tight from the start, add-ons like cameras and a Russian instrument made resources even more scarce. The result was less testing, analysis and oversight and more reliance on contractor Lockheed Martin Astronautics, which built the spacecraft and made the mistakes that doomed them.

"It was just a death of a thousand cuts," said Shirley, now an assistant dean of engineering at the University of Oklahoma. "At every single one of those points, I would say this is not good. ... At every point, headquarters would say it's just a little thing."

The technological fixes will be easy compared to the cultural shift that some experts believe is necessary for the program to be successful in the era of "faster, better, cheaper" missions.

NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin said more money will be made available to the program, but there will be no return to the billion-dollar-plus spacecraft of the 1970s and 1980s.

"We're going to make sure they have adequate resources, but we're not going to let the pendulum swing all the way back," he said. "We're going to put the right amount back in."

The overhaul has to start with purpose. It has previously been described as a search for water or life, a test of new technology and a precursor of future manned exploration.

"What I'm asking is the question: Why do we have a Mars program? What is the question we want to answer?" Weiler said. "That's not going to be a 5- to 6-year program. It's going to be a decade-long program."

Firouz Naderi, who was recently appointed manager of JPL's Mars Program Office, said the most important question about Mars is whether the now barren planet supports or ever supported life. Nothing would be more profound than the answer.

"I think we need to better articulate the Mars program as a whole, not as a bunch of separated missions each with limited scientific goals," he said. "It is a very integrated program aimed at a very lofty goal."

Some believe a manned mission should be the ultimate goal, but that raises the difficult question of money, said Bruce Murray, a former JPL director and a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology.

"It doesn't cost anything in the near term," he said. "We have to find a way to have a long-term goal that helps guide the near-term steps."

A well-defined agenda also would help limit the scope of the missions to what is possible given the available money.

The redefined Mars quest also could include two programs -- one focused on projects proposed by scientists from NASA centers or universities and another on engineering and technology development, said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, a space advocacy group.

The greatest impact of the Polar Lander and Climate Orbiter failures is the loss of time and momentum, said Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, which advocates a manned mission.

"Polar Lander sounds like a lot, except when you realize it's 60 cents for every American. It's like you just put the money in the Coke machine and you didn't get the Coke," he said. "We lost two years, which is a lot more serious than losing 60 cents."

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