Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Why does NASA fail in success?...

According to SpaceRef.com NASA are close to ruining any chance of sending the Deep Impact probe onto another comet to continue doing useful work. As always this comes down to supposed lack of funding. From the article on SpaceRef it appears that action needs to be taken within a month to steer the craft towards the new target. This alone will cost a few tens of thousands, but doing it would at least allow NASA the time to be able to fully debate whether or not to continue onto this new target. A failure to act quickly will completely remove this option.

For Deep Impact to continue onto the new target and complete a mission there will cost significantly more, and with NASA currently trying to juggle its budget to be able to cope with the Bush vision for Moon, Mars and Beyond it is understandable that they will need to think hard. But to fail to act now to at least keep that option open is terrible.

NASA have been on a good run for a while now. The machine exploration side of the organisation has been more than keeping their end up while the human exploration side comes to terms with life post-Columbia. In that period we have had the amazing Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and Titan, the plucky little Mars rovers that are still going and now Deep Impact. All have generated much public interest, also recently renewed thanks to the exploits of SpaceShipOne and the X-Prize. But consistently NASA seems to be trying to shoot itself in the foot.

Take for example the massive public outcry over the threat to cancel the Hubble repair mission and cut short the life of the greatest telescope ever built. Another example comes from the threat to stop support to the Voyager probes, just when they are passing through the very edges of our solar system, a feat that could not be re-created for decades even if NASA decided to go there tomorrow.

NASA do say that every extended mission takes money away from new or proposed missions, which is a good point. But really we should be questioning why it takes so much money to support these missions. It costs almost $4.2M to support the two Voyager probes, mostly this is to cover the expense of monitoring the signals from the craft using the Deep Space Network. This is a series of large (70m) dishes around the world which monitor all deep space missions. The systems of the DSN grab the signals, process them and route them around the world to the relevant scientists that need them. They do fantastic work, listening for the faintest of signals from the furthest reaches of the solar system.

Understandable though all of this is, each of these potential project cancellations has been announced and responded to in an individual fashion, instead of looking to more long term solutions to these problems.

To start off it appears as if NASA got so used to missions failing over the last couple of decades that they do not regularly plan for the potential of missions being a complete or better success. Why is it that the Deep Impact mission planners know exactly where they would go next, and that the first stage of that would have to happen within a month, yet NASA has not been able to decide ahead of time if it would be willing to fund this?

Shouldn't NASA require that all projects plan for such eventualities, provide cost estimates for extensions, and why is there not a way of grouping some of these costs together? Shouldn't there be a department in NASA which is tasked with caring for aging, but still useful missions?

NASA has lost a fantastic PR opportunity, should they have made the decision on the future of Deep Impact, on the proviso that it worked, then this could ridden the wave of popular press that this mission has had over the last few days. Now that boat has sailed and NASA's indecision is just making them look silly.

Should Deep Impact be allowed to continue on to its next target it would take three and a half years to get there. This would be just enough time for the world's comet studying scientists to analyse all of the data returned from the recent encounter, debate it and plan what aspects to look for in the next encounter. I really hope they get that opportunity.

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