Tuesday, March 07, 2006

New Dawn Fades

If you care about this sort of thing, you've probably already heard about NASA cancelling the Dawn mission to the large asteroids Ceres and Vesta. We're told this was because the troubled project was over budget, which was true, and because it was stumbling over a number of technical obstacles, which was also true. And what's more, the whole point of the Discovery program (which Dawn was funded under) is to control costs and make it easy to terminate projects that go off the rails. So in a sense this shows that HQ means business, and the cost control provisions really do mean what they say. From a purely bureaucratic perspective, then, I guess one could declare "mission accomplished", although the result is that we don't get to see two fascinating places up close, at least for a while longer.

On the other hand, the mission's complexity was due in large part to the need to accomodate various bureaucratic requirements. In particular, the idea of sending one spacecraft to visit both asteroids surely resulted from the Discovery program's focus on funding individual stand-alone missions. You probably couldn't build multiple asteroid probes on a Discovery budget, while a proposal to visit a single large asteroid probably wouldn't have been flashy enough to get the bid committee's attention. Visiting two asteroids meant using not one but two ion engines, and an extremely long mission duration. Even before HQ started cracking the whip a few months ago, the mission was clearly in trouble. News accounts about the cancellation mentioned that the mission would have measured the asteroids' magnetic fields (if they exist), but Dawn's magnetometer had been deleted from the mission back in February 2004, to save on costs, weight, and power consumption, all of which had grown significantly over the original estimate.

The fundamental problem is that, unlike Mars for example, the asteroid belt isn't all in one place. There are far too many to ever contemplate visiting all of them, so the right approach would seem to be to get a statistically significant sample. Cover the really big ones, plus enough hopefully-typical examples that one or two oddballs won't skew your conclusions. This inevitably means building more than one spacecraft. The best you can really do, costwise, is try to leverage your initial investment by using a standardized, simple design. This would be the right approach, but I doubt there's enough political will or interest out there to do it this way.

There's also the matter of agency priorities. We've gotten a solemn promise that science programs will absolutely not be cannibalized in favor of Apollo Jr., the latest bloated and pointless federal jobs-for-Texans program. But nobody really believes that. It's happening already, in fact. Which is exactly the same thing that happened with the Space Station, the Shuttle, and on and on. To justify this, we're always told that human spaceflight is the one and only thing the public cares about. This may have been true in 1965, but it's hard to argue that it's the case anymore. These days the Shuttle+Station program is seen as expensive, pointless, and scary, and the public couldn't care less about it. In contrast, thanks to the magic of the Internet, the public can follow ongoing planetary exploration in near-real-time. It's almost like riding along.

This wouldn't be as big of a problem if it was possible to grow the NASA budget to accomodate the new moon program. But we can't, because our top budgetary priorities remain 1.) Apocalyptic wars all over the Middle East -- and everywhere else, if possible; and 2.) More big tax cuts for rich people. So our hands are pretty much tied, budgetwise. This is strikingly similar to the situation that eventually killed the Apollo program, come to think of it.

But there may be more at work here than budgetary & bureaucratic infighting. Beyond Dawn, other major cuts included projects to explore Jupiter's moon Europa (which may contain a vast ocean of liquid water under its icy crust), and an effort to look for earthlike planets around other stars. Even more than Dawn, evidence resulting from these projects would have the potential to really undermine a fundamentalist, literal reading of Genesis. So now we simply aren't going to study that sort of thing anymore, to make sure that we don't discover anything Karl Rove and the creationist/ID rabble wouldn't approve of. You think I'm kidding? Read my previous post about the infamous Big Bang Memo, and then decide whether I'm just blowing smoke here.

On the bright side, we don't have a monopoly on exploring the universe. If we're going to turn inward and wallow in medieval ignorance, someone else (Europe, Russia, Japan, China, India...) will happily pick up the slack, and get all the credit while we busy ourselves speaking in tongues and burning witches at the stake.

[In case you're wondering, the title of the post comes from an old Joy Division song, which is not to say that I'm that old or anything, of course.]


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