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Launch Begins New Era for JPL

Deep Space 1 inaugurates ambitious plan of six missions in six months. Project rekindles the optimism and excitement of the early space race.

November 12, 1998|MICHAEL LUO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As NASA's manned space program scored a public relations coup with John Glenn's latest historic ride into space, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which launches robots instead of people, was quietly making history of its own.

Kicked off by October's launch of Deep Space 1, a spacecraft running on a revolutionary new fuel drive evocative of "Star Trek," Pasadena-based JPL is embarking on a breakneck schedule of six missions in six months, a record for the NASA affiliate.

JPL's missions have not attracted the public attention of the Glenn launch, or even the Mars Pathfinder landing. But those at JPL say it portends that the lab, which has struggled in recent years with a frozen budget and shrinking work force, is entering a momentous new era in its storied space exploration history.

"It's really a different way of doing business for us," said Larry Dumas, deputy director of JPL. "In the sort of old days, we would typically do one or two very large spacecraft missions every decade. Now, we're getting to the age when we're doing six launches in six months."

The missions--many of which are led by employees who are too young to remember when a satellite called Sputnik ignited the space race in 1957--represent how fully JPL has embraced the "faster, better, cheaper" mantra espoused by NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin. The generation of spacecraft now being readied for launch, along with Deep Space 1, weigh less, cost less and took less time to develop than any other group of spacecraft in the agency's history.

QuikSCAT, a satellite designed to measure winds on the surfaces of Earth's oceans and scheduled for launch in January, took one year and six days from project approval to completion and cost $80 million.

Deep Space 2, destined for Mars and set for a January launch, took longer--three years--but cost taxpayers a relatively cheap $29 million when compared to the $450-million price tag on a typical shuttle mission.

The Deep Space 2 mission is actually made up of two separate basketball-sized spacecraft that will piggyback to the Red Planet aboard another spacecraft, the Mars Polar Lander, then separate and free-fall to the planet's surface.

The two Deep Space 2 landers, weighing 8 pounds each, will crash (by design) into the Martian surface at 450 mph, sending two microprobes burrowing into the ground to conduct soil tests.

In contrast, the 1975-76 Viking missions each hauled 3.5 tons of instruments, backup systems and other cargo to Mars, cost $3 billion total, and took seven years to develop.

More recently, the Cassini mission to Saturn, launched last year and considered the last in JPL's proud line of giant interplanetary spacecraft, took seven years to complete, weighed 6 tons, and had a price tag of $3.3 billion.

More frequent and more affordable exploration of the outer environs of space is the vision behind Goldin's cost-cutting and time-saving mandate.

JPL is fairly pulsating with excitement and anticipation unfelt since the early days of the agency, when the space race had just begun.

"We've gone through cycles," said Bill O'Neil, director of Mars Exploration who arrived at JPL in 1963, when the agency was attempting its first planetary fly-by with Mariner 1. Now "it's like the 1960s and early 1970s when everything was so new and exciting."

Series of Missions During the 1960s

During the 1960s, JPL launched a series of missions in rapid succession to Earth's closest neighbors--Venus, Mars and the moon--in headlong, Cold War competition with the Soviet space juggernaut.

More recently, however, JPL suffered through the lean years of the late 1980s, after the Challenger explosion placed the entire space program on hold.

JPL veterans who came of age during the space race's height are now seeing their careers come full circle with the flurry of new activity, O'Neil said.

He will oversee the launches of the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander in December and January. The missions, coming on the heels of the Mars Pathfinder success a year ago, will allow JPL to remain faithful to its goal of sending a spacecraft to Mars every 26 months, when the orbits of Earth and Mars bring the two planets close to each other. Two Mars missions every two years are planned until 2008, when JPL hopes to return to Earth the first samples of Martian soil.

Technological advances in miniaturization and computing have made it possible for spacecraft to be smaller and, by extension, cheaper. This allows for more frequent missions, as well as a more risk-taking engineering approach.

When missions came few and far between, spacecraft had multiple backups for each part and utilized older, more reliable technology. The missions scheduled for the next six months are bare bones and more likely to use experimental equipment. The hope is to push the engineering envelope for even more spectacular scientific returns.

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