Smarter Space Science

GALILEO'S safe arrival at Jupiter is a tribute to the skill of the project's engineers. The craft's hamstrung antenna hampers communications. Its tape recorder has lost some capacity. Yet the engineers worked around these problems. Project scientists expect to accomplish 70 percent of their original objectives.

We share their satisfaction. At the same time, their perils and triumphs underscore the wisdom of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's new emphasis on smaller, faster, cheaper ways to explore space. The kind of billion-dollar, all-eggs-in-one-basket style that Galileo represents is dysfunctional.

Galileo's $1.6 billion cost meant that NASA couldn't afford a sister ship to back up its mission, unlike the earlier Pioneer and Voyager twins that scouted the outer planets. It also focused the attention of congressional budget cutters. The annual funding negotiations led to ''cost cutting'' delays and redesigns.

NASA's new style should help avoid such problems. ''Smaller'' means breaking up scientific objectives into projects handled by several simpler probes and satellites rather than one big spacecraft. ''Faster'' means getting the mission launched and over within a few years time. It took nearly two decades to get Galileo to Jupiter. ''Cheaper'' means doing it for one-tenth to one-hundredth of Galileo's cost. From now on, the alternative to doing space science this way is to do very little space science at all. This has been a hard lesson for old NASA hands to learn. But they are learning. NASA's Discovery series of missions, for example, will exemplify this.

Under study are such ambitious projects as a craft to make a geological survey of the moon and a craft to return a sample of a comet. The latter mission, Stardust, would launch in February 1999 and capture a sample of comet Wild-2 in January 2004, for less than $200 million.

Meanwhile, there's one more of the old big-time missions to go. Cassini heads for Saturn in October 1997. Like Galileo, it will go on a 6.7-year round-about journey. But unlike Galileo, it is an international mission. Here again, the program provides an annual target for budget cutters. They should leave Cassini alone. Budget uncertainty would only expose the mission to more Galileo-like risks. It would also break faith with the European partners.

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