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International Conference Attendees Examine, Outline Successful Elements of Low-Cost Space Missions

Tighter budgets present challenges for space explorers, but creative mission teams can use new ideas, innovative technologies and sound program management to soar beyond financial constraints.

Such was the message from the fourth International Conference on Low-Cost Planetary Missions, held May 2-5 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. Sponsored by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), the conference gathered more than 200 scientists, engineers and space experts from around the world to discuss the trends and future of affordable and scientifically effective space exploration.

“When we held the first conference here six years ago, every low-cost mission was either a plan or in the abstract,” said Stamatios Krimigis, a conference co-chairman and head of the Applied Physics Lab’s Space Department. “Most people didn’t think these missions were possible, and now we’re talking about their results. These programs have gone beyond the boundaries we set years ago.”

NASA leadership’s “Faster, Better, Cheaper” program adviser said successful low-cost missions, no matter how they reach their goals, share similar traits. Citing the Mars Pathfinder and Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) missions, Tony Spear said people must be well trained, effectively managed, and enthusiastic about a mission for it to succeed.

“The one denominator is that both NEAR and Pathfinder had great teams,” said Spear, the former Mars Pathfinder mission manager who led a May 3 panel discussion on “Faster, Better, Cheaper: Is it Working?” “Advanced technology will be the better in ‘Faster, Better, Cheaper’ . . . [but] the future is about people.”

Pathfinder and NEAR are part of NASA’s Discovery Program of low-cost, small-scale planetary missions. While Pathfinder concluded with a successful Mars landing in 1997, NEAR is three months into the first close-up study of an asteroid. The Stardust spacecraft, launched in 1999, recently wrapped up its first round of interstellar dust collecting. At the conference, program managers presented updates on these and four upcoming Discovery missions – Genesis, CONTOUR, MESSENGER, and Deep Impact – set to launch within the next four years.

“The Discovery Program has been a remarkable success so far, and it’s still a success story in progress,” said Carl Pilcher, director of solar system exploration at NASA Headquarters and the conference keynote speaker. “That is a tribute to the capabilities and ingenuity of the [space science and engineering] community.”

Several conferees cited similar formulas for a successful low-cost mission: reduce the scope of science objectives when necessary; keep the spacecraft simple and easy to test; and use or modify existing technology.

“There are limits beyond which we should not try to push,” Pilcher said. “You have to balance cost, performance and schedule requirements, but try to do too much of all three at once and you add risk. We’re working hard to find the right approach to working with those variables.”

According to several participants, innovation is one way to strike a balance. Scientists from around the world presented detailed ideas for using solar-powered hot-air balloons to analyze the atmospheres of Venus, Mars and other planets; Mars landers resembling water bikes with puncture-proof inflatable tires; rocket platforms capable of launching several small satellites at once; orbiters and landers designed to explore Jupiter’s moons; and small robots able explore the lunar surface or hop between asteroids.

Despite recent setbacks of missions to the red planet, Mars remains a popular target over the next decade. While NASA revises its Mars program, the European Space Agency is moving ahead with its Mars Express mission, set to launch in 2003. Representatives from Japan also presented an update the Mars explorer NOZOMI.

“In different parts of the world, people are following this low-cost strategy,” said Arnoldo Valenzuela, a conference co-chairman who also chairs IAA’s Committee on Small Satellite Missions. “Through these constraints we have been able to develop new technology and new types of management and quality assurance that are more cost-effective than before.”

Some may lament the origin of “Faster, Better, Cheaper,” question the methods to implement it, or even try to fight it, but MIT professor Maria Zuber told conferees on May 3 that low-cost, small-scale missions are a natural evolution from the billion-dollar, once-a-decade space missions of the past.

“Frankly, ‘Faster, Better, Cheaper’ is what we ought to be doing anyway,” said Zuber, who also served on the independent assessment team that studied NASA’s Mars programs. “There is still a place for larger missions, but we are at a point in planetary exploration where conducting small, constrained missions that go to a lot of places is completely consistent with how we should be exploring the solar system. So, if it hadn’t arisen because of budget considerations, it would have created itself and we would be here anyway.”

The fifth International Conference on Low-Cost Planetary Missions is tentatively scheduled for 2003 in the Netherlands.