Back on Dec. 14, the crew of the Mars Climate Orbiter was full of hope.
The probe had just lifted off and was hurtling toward the Red Planet. Photographs of hoarfrosted Martian dunes and a peak twice the height of Everest would follow, perhaps clarifying whether life ever clung to the russet world.
But 9-1/2 months later, the probe careened out of control and burned up in Mars' atmosphere.
On Wednesday, a contrite NASA offered an explanation for what had gone so horribly wrong. Over the 416-million-mile journey, officials said, the difference between success and failure had been a mere matter of metric conversion.
Unknowingly, the Mars team had entered data in pounds of force, not newtons - the metric gauge that the computers expected.
The gaffe had been widely known even before the announcement, but the report also pointed up a deeper concern about NASA's new "faster, better, cheaper" strategy. The mantra represents a shift toward more frequent and smaller space missions mandated by shrinking budgets. Yet now, with the $125-million Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO) joining a list of recent missions that have either failed or had major malfunctions, some scientists worry that the opportunity for error may be becoming too great.
In the MCO mission, investigators said overworked and undertrained navigators were unfamiliar with the spacecraft and were juggling several missions.
Among the other problems to recently beset the space program, the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE) satellite has been unable to properly focus its mirrors on distant targets. And, in two lesser July glitches, Deep Space 1 failed to get any close-up pictures when it rendezvoused with an asteroid, and the Lunar Prospector didn't detect water, possibly because it missed its target.
"It's clear there have been some disappointments in the past year," says Kenneth Sembach, a deputy project scientist for the FUSE mission. "It could very well be related to 'faster, better, cheaper.' "
While NASA says the rapid-fire strategy is not to blame, officials said Wednesday that the MCO operation showed classic signs of culture shock caused by the move away from big missions with big budgets and longtime horizons.
"Budget and schedule are important, but safety is No. 1 and mission success is No. 1," said Edward Weiler, associate administrator of NASA's Office of Space Science. "You can't get a billion hits on the Internet until you land on Mars."
For the most part, though, scientists - including Dr. Sembach - remain in favor of the new strategy, saying it allows them to be more up to date and eliminates overdependence on one mission.
More frequent missions allow scientists to deal better with failure. The loss of the MCO is not catastrophic, whereas the loss of the Viking Lander in 1976 would have set back Mars exploration by a decade and cost several billion dollars.
With shorter time horizons to design and launch spacecraft also comes the ability to use the most current technology. "With the older missions, by the time you launched, some of the technology was way out of date," says Norm Haynes, former director of Mars exploration at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Moreover, it allows scientists to more narrowly tailor each probe to the execution of a specific goal. "An astronomer is like a carpenter," says William Blair, chief of mission planning for FUSE. "The more tools he has that are specialized for different tasks, the more efficient he is at doing what he does."
And while the budget constraints have tended to push scientists toward using existing satellite designs, some claim that the constraints force them to be more innovative as well. "Everybody knows there isn't any more money," says Dr. Haynes. "You make the decisions you have to make and you make do with the money you have. I don't think it's hurting anything."
However, it is too early to tell if the quality of science has suffered under "faster, better, cheaper." And the new strategy clearly has some undesirable side effects.
The FUSE mission was originally planned to launch into a high Earth orbit. But to save money, scientists chose a lower orbit. This nearly halved the working observation time for FUSE's instruments.
Other missions have compromised for less-than-optimal efficiency to accommodate budgets. Computers provide more accurate simulation of missions, but redundancies and precautions that might have been taken in the past are sometimes eliminated, say several scientists.
With more missions, everyone expects more failures. While unpalatable, failures may signify that scientists are pushing the envelope and advancing science.
"It's clear that one can't spend as much money on every possible redundancy," says David Helfand, an astrophysicist at Columbia University in New York. "But it's also clear that failure of a cheaper mission is not an unreasonable price."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society