In a little noticed story out yesterday, NASA had another screw-up.
LOS ANGELES, California (AP) -- A robotic NASA spacecraft designed to rendezvous with an orbiting satellite instead crashed into its target, according to a summary of the investigation released Monday.
Investigators blamed the collision on faulty navigational data that caused the DART spacecraft to believe that it was backing away from its target when it was actually bearing down on it.
The only thing remarkable about this was, well, its unremarkability. Over the past few years, we have seen the failure of several Mars missions, a special probe designed to collect comet dust and return it to earth, and of course the Columbia tragedy.
Of course, there have always been mishaps in space, while pushing the frontiers of science and technology. It is a risky adventure, and those who engage in it deserve our respect. We all saw the Challenger explode ten years ago, and we probably saw Tom Hanks re-enact the now hazily distant but all too familiar saga of Apollo 13.
But what is disturbing is that the numbers have turned around. During the 1960's and 1970's, most of our space missions, manned or unmanned, were successful. The inevitable failures were the exception, but not the rule in the early exploration of space.
Today, we see all manner of failures, and on those rare occasions when we see a success (as I blogged about in one of my very first blog posts), it seems to be the rarity, not the more numerous failures.
What has changed since the 1960's and 1970's compared to today?
How about: The missions are often more dangerous or problematical. Well, not so fast. We sent unmanned probes much farther out into space in the 1970's, including one that managed to swing by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in a sort of giant pinball arrangement on its way out of the solar system. Besides, most of the mishaps have involved Mars missions (with the sojourner rovers being about the only successes of note there). But going to Mars was accomplished with very little complication by the 1970's era Viking landers, and today's mishap had to do with an unmanned mission that was heading towards a satellite in earth orbit. So it's hard to argue that the missions are more dangerous or difficult, because in general they are not.
Well, then, what about the techological changes? What about them? Isn't technology supposed to simplify things instead of making them more complicated?
How about the quality of the engineers? It is certainly true that the geniuses, headed by Werner von Braun, who gave us those early rockets have long since retired. But today we have a whole new generation of geniuses. We certainly have schools who can give them and do give them the same education (or perhaps an even more modern one) than the early NASA engineers had. After all, look at how many of those quality engineers Raytheon has?
Ah, there is the problem. Not that you can blame Raytheon for hiring the best people they can get (or any other company, for that matter), but you can blame our government.
Our government has changed from one where in the 1960's and 1970's a philosophy of 'do what it takes to make it work,' to a philosophy of 'make it work for as little as it can take.' NASA started to suffer budget cuts during the Reagan era, and its budget has continued to decline since. At the same time, additional bureacrats (largely due to unspecified mandates about 'accountability') have popped up more concerned with the budget than with the overall mission of the agency.
Not that the engineers that NASA gets are bad engineers, because they're not, but it is certainly true that NASA gets second pick, after private industry, because of their low relative budget. We may not have noticed (as much) in the 1980's, because many of the original veterans were still around, and even when you starve an agency it takes a few years for the long term effects to be felt. But felt they now have been.
Conservatives love to argue that their budget cuts won't impact the service level of government. Well, at least in this case it appears that they are dead wrong about that.