LOSS of the Mars Observer is a bitter disappointment for planetary scientists. But it's a bad rap to blame it on space agency "bungling."
No one knows what has happened to the spacecraft. However, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration space science program has experienced few outright failures. Often, seemingly crushing problems have been overcome. The "flawed" Hubble telescope delights astronomers with its discoveries. The "crippled" Galileo Jupiter probe, whose main antenna won't unfurl, made history's second close-up asteroid survey when it flew past Ida last Saturday. It still can fulfill at least 70 percent of its mission.
If the Mars Observer is truly lost, it will be the first total mission failure in NASA's planetary program in more than 25 years - hardly a record of "bungling."
Still, this episode highlights the need to wean NASA's space science community from complex, costly missions that take a decade or more to launch. Too much is lost when one of these extravaganzas goes awry. Too much is lost when delay after costly delay prevents other worthwhile missions from winning approval.
NASA administrator Daniel Goldin, with White House backing, is pushing for a space science effort based on cheap, simple spacecraft. He sees this as the logical cost-effective way to achieve significant scientific results. He and the Clinton administration should carry that logic to its conclusion and reconsider the space station. The project is taking decades to put on orbit and hogs NASA's budget. It robs the simple, cheap projects of the money needed for a broad effective program.
In an era of budding space cooperation, it is unnecessary for the United States and a few allies to go it alone, with the US putting up the bulk of the money. Already leaders in space station work, the Russians seem ready to become full partners. With their help, it might be possible to loft an international space station within a few years based on the Russian Mir. Then the partners could plan the next-generation facility.
The Clinton administration is considering this option unofficially. It should move ahead with it seriously. This could free funds for the wide-ranging space science program that Mr. Goldin and many scientists want. It also could avoid costly bungling as the currently proposed space station runs the annual budget gauntlet.