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Lost in Space

by Perry Pezzolanella, MVAS

In an age of great planetary exploration where new discoveries seem to be made every day, it doesn’t seem possible that there is so much difficulty funding planetary missions. Sadly, this continues to this very day because NASA’s budget has to be reviewed and approved or rejected every fiscal year. Most of the time planetary exploration (which includes moons, comets, asteroids, Kuiperoids, and the Sun) has to compete for a dwindling budget exacerbated by Space Shuttle problems and Space Station cost overruns. Some planetary missions have had a stormy road to the launch pad and some have died outright. Other missions were so badly jinxed that it is almost a miracle that subsequent missions were ever contemplated, much less flown. The five most frustrating missions that never were to be, or barely came about, in this author’s opinion, follow. They are not listed in any particular order; each reader may have a different opinion as to which is the largest blunder.

  1. Halley Intercept Mission. This mission was a bold one at the time with goals of flying within several hundred miles of Halley’s Comet in 1986, following it long enough to analyze the dust and ion particles in the tail, and taking high-quality images of the nucleus. Unfortunately it competed with a Venus Orbiting Imaging Radar (VOIR) mission that was being considered at the same time and eventually lost out to the spacecraft that would eventually become known as Magellan. Cost overruns with the Space Shuttle ate deep enough into the planetary budget to not only cut one mission, but also scale back VOIR to the more simplistic Magellan orbiter. Even so, NASA planned to launch several small satellites from the Space Shuttle and also dedicate a Space Shuttle mission during March 1986 wholly to the study of Halley’s Comet. Unfortunately, Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986 killing all seven astronauts, destroying a Spartan-Halley satellite, and grounding the March 1986 mission and all further missions for 32 months. It was left to Europe, Japan, and the Soviet Union to explore the most famous comet of them all. The U.S. was down and out and could only watch as the other countries returned several spectacular images and made historic discoveries. The best the U.S. could do was lick its wounds and resolve to explore Halley’s Comet the next time it returns in 2060-61.

  2. Comet Rendezvous Asteroid Flyby (CRAF). This was a bold and very expensive mission that would be a consolation to the lost Halley’s Comet opportunity with the added bonus of an asteroid flyby. The goal of CRAF was to fly close to a main belt asteroid, study it in detail, and take high-resolution images. Then CRAF would head deeper into the Solar System and meet up with a comet while still dormant. It would carefully match the comet’s orbital speed and follow it as it grew closer to the sun and became active. CRAF would bristle with instruments capable of studying the composition of the particles within the tail and take razor-sharp images of the comet’s nucleus. Even bolder was a penetrator that was to be fired into the comet’s nucleus. It would radio back information regarding the surface to CRAF as it flew by overhead and relay it back to Earth. The mission looked so promising that an itinerary was well established. CRAF would launch during February 1993, fly past asteroid Hestia during January 1995, and meet up with Comet Temple 2 in October 1996. Unfortunately the price tag for the mission was $1 billion and it was in competition with the Cassini mission planned for Saturn that was equally as expensive. One of them had to get the ax. Wisely, CRAF lost out to Cassini with the promise of greater discovery and science at Saturn, Titan, and its moons (although the cost for Cassini would eventually soar to $3.3 billion). CRAF was not a total loss as several smaller missions would eventually fly to the comets and asteroids including NEAR, Dawn, Stardust, and Deep Impact to name a few.

  3. New Horizons Pluto Mission. If ever there was a rocky road to the launch pad, the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto receives the top honor. A mission to Pluto was first conceived in 1989 and from that year forward the spacecraft underwent several redesigns and cost overruns that eventually led to cancellation in 2000. Pluto was so popular in the eyes of the public that petitions were signed to save the mission and this time the people were heard when the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory won a competition to design and build a spacecraft that would be lightweight and cost efficient. New Horizons was born and on January 19, 2006 it began its long journey to Pluto, which it will fly past on July 14, 2015 and then past several additional Kuiperoids around 2020. It promises to map the surface features of Pluto, Charon, and several additional Kuiperoids in exquisite detail along with analyzing their atmospheres and environment. A mission to Pluto was one mission that never completely died, but there were many anxious times and a feeling that Pluto would forever remain terra incognita.

  4. Europa Geophysical Orbiter. Europa, which may have a large global ocean not too far beneath its unusually icy-smooth surface, is a moon that orbits Jupiter. Any evidence of liquid water also gives rise to the possibility of life and a return to Jupiter to place a spacecraft in orbit around Europa has been eagerly sought. Two missions have been designed and both have died on the drawing board. Placing a spacecraft in orbit around a moon of any planet is technologically challenging. Add to this the deadly radiation belts around Jupiter that can disable a spacecraft and a hefty price tag, which may easily exceed $1 billion to explore any of Jupiter’s moons. With such risk, it is hard to justify the expense regardless of how exciting Europa may seem. The Europa Geophysical Orbiter was being developed for launch by 2008 but succumbed to high cost. Project Prometheus was implemented in order to develop nuclear propulsion technology, which would make it easier to place a spacecraft in orbit around a planetary moon as well as give it maneuverability to fly about and orbit additional moons. Jupiter was the target for this project, which was called the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO) and launch was scheduled no sooner than 2015. The mission would place a multibillion dollar spacecraft in orbit around Europa, and would later fly to Ganymede and then to Callisto. (Io lies too deep within the hazardous radiation belt to explore safely). The entire project died in 2004 due to soaring costs and the need to fund the newly announced Moon-Mars Initiative of returning astronauts to the Moon and then to Mars in the decades ahead. There are no Europa missions being currently designed, but petitions are circulating to design one.

  5. Mars Sample Return Mission. No matter what year it is, a sample return mission to Mars always seems to be going to happen sometime during “the next decade”. The technology is tricky and such a mission would be challenging, but the successes of the Spirit and Opportunity Rovers proves that a sample return mission is close to reality now, not ten years from now. At best, the mission will not fly until 2016 and probably not until 2020, ironically due to the increasing budget constraints of the Moon-Mars Initiative, which it is supposed to foster, but there is a major competitor. The European Space Agency could beat the U.S. in returning samples from Mars perhaps as early as 2014 with their new and aggressive Aurora program. Even Russia is getting into the act with a sample return mission being planned in 2010 for Phobos, the largest moon of Mars. A new Space Race may be underway, which might be what NASA needs in order to get going and bring samples of Mars back to the labs on Earth.

The ultimate frustration and agony of planetary exploration is when years are spent designing and building a spacecraft only to have it malfunction before it reaches its destination or soon after arrival. Unfortunately planetary spacecraft can often experience extinction long before being built, victims not of hardware failure, but of poor budget planning. Space Shuttle failures, Space Station delays, and now the Moon-Mars Initiative will compete with planetary exploration for budget funds. Sadly, many ambitious missions have been canceled, others end up delayed seemingly forever, but in most cases it brings about a better fiscal responsibility and newer, sleeker missions that will fly in the wake of those forever lost to the politics of space exploration.