Spaceblazer's View



FOR planet explorer Bruce Murray, the author of ``Journey Into Space,'' Voyager's date with Neptune this week fulfills a long-sustained dream. Yet he savors that satisfaction with his eyes firmly set on a much closer planet - Mars.

Dr. Murray is a Mars enthusiast. He says he ``fell in love ... with planet Mars'' in 1960 when he first studied it through a telescope. Together with Cornell University astronomer Carl Sagan and most of the 100,000 members of the Planetary Society they founded, he now champions the case for a 21st-century, international Mars expedition. This is in spite of his longstanding bitter criticism of what he considers the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's unwise obsession with the shuttle and with space station planning that is ``searching unsuccessfully for justification and purpose.''

His intriguing book tells how he got that way. It is a highly personal, unabashedly biased critique of the first 30 years of the United States' space program written in typically frank and feisty Bruce Murray style. Scarcely a high-ranking NASA official with whom Murray has dealt does not take a few knocks. But the author does try to be fair about his prejudices. An official who shows up as a villain on one page may appear to be a hero later as circumstances and perceptions change.

One also should understand the unique position of the institution Murray serves to fully appreciate his perspective.

The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) owns and operates the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. Three decades ago, JPL was an Army missile research contractor. It designed and built the Explorer satellite that an Army rocket orbited as the first United States entry into the space age. Then JPL became a NASA contractor that conceived, built, and managed many planet-exploring spacecraft, including Voyagers 1 and 2.

Murray is a tenured Caltech professor. Like many of his colleagues, he has also worked at JPL. He headed the laboratory from 1976 to 1982. Thus Murray was JPL director when the Voyagers were launched in 1977. That was the last JPL planetary mission to be launched. The next, the Galileo Jupiter craft, is expected to be sent on its much-delayed way in October.

As Murray describes in poignant detail, the laboratory's mission cupboard was empty when he took over. He also details his many frustrations with roller-coaster support that canceled some cherished projects and delayed others, such as Galileo, at great expense. He explains, with much justification, how such projects became victims of the shuttle program that claimed an increasing share of available funding and which NASA insisted should be the only US launch system. It took the Challenger disaster to show up the folly of that policy.

Murray also had to cope with the fact that JPL is an anomaly for NASA. For all practical purposes, it has functioned as a NASA center such as the Kennedy Space Center in Florida or the Johnson Space Center in Houston. But the other centers are government-owned facilities with civil service staffs. NASA never has been comfortable with the creative, but awkwardly independent, JPL culture that eludes the normal Washington bureaucratic controls. This has always created friction within the NASA family. Early in the Reagan Presidency, it nearly led to JPL's demise as NASA looked for sacrifices to offer on the altar of budget restraint.

Murray gives readers a front-row seat at some of these bureaucratic battles that soured his relationship with NASA headquarters. So when he lambastes shortsighted and self-serving NASA officials, or says ``NASA's constituency is the aerospace industry,'' we know where he's coming from.

But this is not a complainer's book. It's packed with engineering adventure, as Murray tells many a cliffhanger story of rescuing a nearly failed spacecraft so it could complete its mission. It's a great book for anyone interested in the vision of an impassioned space pioneer.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.