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James Flanigan

Solving a Space Problem

JPL Thinks Small, Cheap to Stay Aloft

September 04, 1996|James Flanigan

"Faster, better, cheaper," watchwords of corporate downsizing, are being used to characterize a new kind of space program at Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory these days.

Pressured by budget cuts but spurred by advances in microelectronics, JPL is launching space probes in greater number and frequency than ever--two to Mars this year, three more in 1998-99, as well as a major mission to Saturn and other missions to test-fly new technology.

The missions, other than the one to Saturn, will be smaller and cheaper than traditional space efforts because JPL leadership, like smart business people everywhere, recognizes that doing more with less is the way to survive today.

The days of taking a whole decade--and spending $1 billion--to prepare and launch a space mission are over, explains Edward Stone, director of JPL. "You can't explore planets taking a picture every 10 years," Stone says. "We need to go several times to different locations."

JPL, headquarters for unmanned space exploration since 1958, has had great success with Voyager missions, which visited four planets and are still sending back information from interstellar space, and the Galileo probe, which goes in for a closer look at a moon of Jupiter in December.

It has also known failure, with the Mars Observer mission that lost contact with Earth as it entered Mars' orbit in 1993. JPL hopes to remedy that with one of its Mars missions going up this fall.

Sound business considerations are behind the new approach, which involves cooperation with private industry. "There is more space business outside NASA than within these days," says Stone, referring to communications satellites and other developments. "We should take advantage of that and not duplicate things others are doing."

Accordingly, JPL now contracts out roughly $450 million worth of the work called for in its $1.1-billion annual budget. Prominent contractors include TRW, Hughes, Rockwell, Lockheed Martin and scores of other companies, many in Southern California.

Its partnerships take several forms. For a mission to Pluto, scheduled to begin in 2001, JPL is working with Lockheed Martin to shrink electronic arrays down to a package smaller than a fist. Advances in microprocessors allow shrinkage, and smaller packages in turn allow probes to be launched by less expensive rockets. Good economics coincide with good science.

JPL also has a program called New Millennium, through which it will invest up to $50 million this year in research joint ventures with private firms, some of them quite small, such as Spectrum Astro, a company near Phoenix.

The aim is to spread development costs of new technology, a smart move for both companies and JPL in a time of straitened budgets.

In other times, big space missions invented their own hardware and software. Cassini, a $2.7-billion collaboration between the United States and 17 European countries that will start for Saturn in October 1997, has brought forth the invention of a new kind of gyroscope from Litton Industries, for example.

By contrast, the two Mars missions to be launched in November and December this year cost less than $200 million apiece and rely heavily on off-the-shelf products.

That includes a Mars Rover, about the size of a large toy truck, that will run around the Red Planet's surface making geological analysis of rocks and beaming the information back to Earth, explains Donna Shirley, program manager.

Like many business people, JPL officials say keeping costs down involves no sacrifice in performance. But that ignores the things that can't be done today.

To bring one of those rocks back to Earth and really be able to analyze evidence of life on Mars, a project with a bigger budget would be needed. But space budgets face cuts, not growth, in Washington.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration budget has already been slashed from $13.6 billion to $11.8 billion for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

NASA hopes to reverse some of that cut at a summit between the White House and Congress to be held after the presidential election. The summit's purpose will be to set goals and stabilize expenditure for the space program.

Stone, 60, a renowned physicist who has led JPL since 1991, showed business acumen in adopting contracting, downsizing and other stratagems. The time may come again for expensive, venturesome programs, but he understood that if you're not a budget cutter today, you risk irrelevance.

That's why Daniel Goldin, the head of NASA who has been critical of JPL in the past, last week called the laboratory "a jewel in the crown."

Still, with budgets tight in all areas of business and public life, why should space get special consideration?

Because it advances knowledge and creates industries. Digital communications began with JPL's processing digital images from space 30 years ago.

Today it is turning its digital-processing skills toward developing long-distance radiology, so that more mammograms can be analyzed by more doctors.

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