MARS Observer team members have not yet given up on their silent spacecraft. But space exploration planners are starting to assess the ramifications of its probable loss.
Without the data that were to have made Mars the best-mapped planet in the solar system, future missions that depended on those data now must be rethought.
That loss, however, aids the cause of administrator Daniel Goldin as he reshapes the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He is trying to, among other things, wean NASA from its appetite for massive, costly space-science ventures. The Mars mission has cost $980 million. Mr. Goldin wants to put NASA on a diet that features cheaper, simpler, more frequent missions.
Space-policy analyst John Logsdon at George Washington University in Washington says, "You need to differentiate what a rational response [to Mars Observer's loss] would be and the likely emotional response." He explains that the "emotional response" would be to see it as simply an example of institutional incompetence. This could affect the Senate debate on NASA's space-station funding.
The "rational response," Mr. Logsdon says, would be to see this loss as "a sad example of what Dan Goldin is talking about." It highlights the danger in pursuing missions that are overly expensive and take too long to complete. That response should support the reforms that Goldin is trying to make, Logsdon says.
Besides the financial cost, the human investment in the Mars Observer program has been immense. Project manager Glenn Cunningham said at a press conference last week that some of the engineers have worked on nothing else since they graduated from school. That could amount to a quarter to a third of a career. This is also true of some of the scientists, although many have other projects going as well.
As for follow-on programs, analyst Ray Williams at the congressional Office of Technology Assessment says he "can't underscore enough what the loss of information means to the Mars community as a whole."
A number of later missions are being planned partly to follow up anticipated Mars Observer findings. Also, the Russian Mars '94 mission, to launch next year, expected to use Mars Observer to help relay data. This reflects the increasing internationalization and interdependence of long-term Mars exploration planning.
Mr. Williams warns against letting Mars Observer's loss further damage NASA's already tarnished credibility. He repeats the often-stated fact that space exploration is "risky business." He explains that "We need to realize that humans aren't infallible ... and the equipment we build isn't infallible either." He adds, also, that unless the spacecraft is contacted, no one will know what went wrong or who, if anyone, to blame for the failure.
The California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., which manages the Mars Observer program for NASA, has a history of turning apparent failures into successes. Last Saturday, for example, the Galileo craft, now heading for Jupiter, made its second close inspection of an asteroid - the asteroid IDA. It earlier had sent back detailed images and related data for the asteroid Gaspra. Yet Galileo's main antenna has stubbornly refused to open. The JPL Galileo team has
found ways to save at least 70 percent of its mission.
Thus the atmosphere at JPL has been as much that of astonishment as of bitter disappointment at not being able to rouse Mars Observer. Asked when the team would give up, JPL spokesman James Doyle said he didn't know what the procedure would be for declaring a loss. "They've never lost one before," he added.
That possible loss does seem likely to reverberate in Congress. Even Logsdon's "rational response" to it may well influence the space-station debate. Critics have noted an inconsistency in NASA's push for smaller, cheaper missions and its continued support for the station. They contend that station funding squeezes out some of the smaller projects.
Logsdon says there really are two space stations being debated. One is the American-led project currently in NASA's requested budget. The other involves the Russian MIR station as a core element. This could be a cheaper and quicker route to a truly international space station, freeing up NASA's budget for a wide-ranging space science effort. Logsdon says the Russian option really is the leading option.
"It would bring the other country that is a major space player into the mainstream of the future," he explains.