NASA Aims for Mars `On the Cheap'

UNCOWED by losing the billion-dollar Mars Observer spacecraft three days before it reached the Red Planet last August, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration still hopes to make a detailed study of Mars.

The funding request is in the $14.3-billion NASA budget President Clinton sent to Congress last week. This time it comes with NASA's promise to do such ambitious things ``on the quick'' and ``on the cheap.'' That's an attractive sounding proposition in a tight budget era.

But will Congress buy it? Cheap means mission ``costs on the order of $100 [million] to $150 million instead of half a billion dollars,'' according to NASA administrator Daniel Goldin. Quick means getting the mission on its way a few years after its authorization. That contrasts with the decade-long time frame of yesterday's major projects like Mars Observer.

From a scientific viewpoint, NASA's new strategy is a cost-effective way to do space exploration. Half a dozen small missions spread over a decade keep data flowing to scientists. Also, one or even two mission failures wouldn't be catastrophic for the overall program.

The costs of those missions still add up to big bucks, however. From a budget viewpoint, there's no significant difference between a billion-dollar set of quick, cheap missions and an eggs-in-one-basket Mars Observer.

Either strategy raises the question of whether the United States should spend a billion dollars a decade exploring Mars. That's the question that confronts NASA and Congress.

Moreover, the issue is sharpened by the fact that NASA's new Mars initiative comes on top of another set of quick-and-cheap Mars missions that already is partly authorized.

NASA is proposing what it calls the MARS Surveyor program to ``take advantage of launch opportunities about every two years as Mars comes into alignment with Earth.'' It would start with a Mars-orbiting satellite to be launched in 1996 and arrive in 1997.

Two spacecraft - another orbiter and a surface-probing lander - would be launched in 1998. Between them, the 1996 and 1998 missions would carry a scientific payload roughly equivalent to that of the lost Mars Observer.

NASA wants $77 million for fiscal year 1995 (which begins Oct. 1) to start developing the first orbiter. It promises to hold to ``a cost ceiling of approximately $100 million per year'' after that. That's a half-billion-dollar-plus Mars program for the remainder of this decade right there.

Meanwhile, NASA's MESUR (Mars Environmental Survey) is trying to win full approval. It proposes a set of quick-and-cheap landers to establish a seismic network on the Red Planet. It starts with the $175-million Pathfinder mission - the only part of the program so far authorized.

Scheduled to be launched in 1996 and arrive in 1997, Pathfinder ``will operate independently of the Mars [Surveyor] orbiter'' that also would arrive in 1997, NASA says. All told, MESUR is to cost no more than $500 billion through the year 2000.

There you have it - a billion-dollar Mars exploration scenario for the rest of the 1990s broken into two disparate pieces. This smacks of sloppy planning.

If NASA hopes to sell Mars exploration to Congress year after year, it has to come up with an integrated program that doesn't hide its true cost under a quick-and-cheap label.

There's more at stake than NASA's relations with Congress. NASA's programs are part of a larger cooperative effort by Europe, Japan, Russia, and some other countries to gain a better understanding of a planetary neighbor whose geological and climatic history can give new insight into processes affecting Earth. The United States should hold up its end of that effort.

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