[meteorite-list] Fwd: The Next Five Big NASA Failures [Editorial]
From: Robert Verish <bolidechaser_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Mon Nov 15 17:22:29 2004
For the part that is relevant to meteorites,
Skip down to the 5th Failure - "Mars Sample Return":
-----Original Message [non-HTML format]-----
Subject: The Next Five Big NASA Failures (Editorial)
The Next Five Big NASA Failures
by Jeffrey F. Bell
November 15, 2004
Honolulu HI (SPX) -
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
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"
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Received on Mon 15 Nov 2004 05:22:26 PM PST