In the fall of 1990, a bearded astrophysicist named George Smoot received an urgent telephone message in his Tokyo hotel warning that the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration soon would be “pulling the plug” on one of his projects. For Smoot, who was in the Japanese capital to deliver a scientific paper, that terse alert was confirmation of his worst fears: a year after launching the pioneering $240-million Cosmic Background Explorer satellite to investigate the origins of the universe, NASA planned to cut off its funding. Frantic, the senior fellow from the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory at the University of California flew to Washington. There, he marshalled an array of influential fellow scientists to lobby for the project that last month won global praise for helping to solve one of the enduring mysteries of the cosmos: how the once smooth soup of the universe formed into planets and galaxies 15 billion years ago in the wake of the primordial explosion known as the Big Bang. Said Joel Primack, an astrophysicist from the University of California at Santa Cruz, who was in Tokyo with Smoot at the time:
“George was constantly putting out brushfires. NASA is interested in building things—not in science.”
In the wake of the worldwide excitement surrounding the findings of Smoot’s 18-member team and the cosmic background satellite, that damning indictment seemed particularly paradoxical for the beleaguered space agency that was once considered the shining example of American scientific achievement. In fact, to many of NASA’s critics, the dramatic discoveries came not because of, but almost in spite of, the agency. And they saw in Smoot’s battles further evidence that it needs a course correction. But in NASA’s dingy Washington headquarters, there were palpable sighs of relief. The mission’s success could not have come at a better time for an agency in the throes of a management shakeup and tarnished by a series of embarrassing failures. Said Julie Lutz, director of the astronomical sciences division of the Washington-based National Science Foundation: “The success of the satellite mission is very good for NASA.”
Indeed, Smoot’s breakthrough may help obscure the agency’s most notorious recent humiliation. Two years ago, after launching the vaunted $ 1.8-billion Hubble Space Telescope, designed to view the farthest fringes of the
universe free from the distorting effect of the Earth’s atmosphere, NASA scientists announced that, instead, it was sending back fuzzy images. Among its myriad technical problems: the contractor had mismeasured the telescope’s main mirror and only three of its six gyroscopes were fully functioning.
Some astronomers have praised the tele-
scope for offering valuable insights through its other functions. But many blamed the Hubble debacle for President George Bush’s abrupt firing of NASA administrator Richard Truly, a former astronaut, in February. Three years earlier, Bush had appointed Truly to resuscitate the demoralized space agency after the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
Indeed, NASA itself had seemed star-crossed ever since the Challenger tragedy, which killed all seven astronauts aboard. During a nearly three-year suspension of all manned space flights, NASA lost its monopoly on space as the shuttle program was stripped of the commercial satellite-launching business that had helped underwrite its costs. Then, planned shuttle launches were repeatedly delayed or grounded by a series of mechanical failures that further damaged NASA’s image. Some critics, including John Pike, director of space policy at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, told a congressional committee that the agency had become overly obsessed with its costly manned space missions, which Pike said produced more splashy headlines than science. Said Tiffany Tyler, Pike’s research assistant: “Most of the real scientific discoveries are being made not by the manned programs, but by the unmanned probes, which are relatively inexpensive.”
That viewpoint has been shared by Vice-President Dan Quayle, the controversial chairman of the National Space Council, which oversees NASA. As a result, Truly found himself on a collision course with Quayle almost from the moment he took over the space agency. In March, about a month after asking for Truly’s resignation, Bush named Daniel Goldin, an executive with California defence contractor TRW Space and Technology Group, to succeed him. But Robert Park, executive director of the Washington-based American Physical Society, voiced many scientists’ concerns over the appointment of an outsider, who was viewed as “Dan Quayle’s man in NASA.”
Goldin has already embarked on a management shakeup. And NASA is currently facing a tough battle over its $ 18-billion annual budget in Congress. But political exigencies are familiar for the agency founded in 1958, one year after the Soviet launching of the first satellite, Sputnik, set off the superpower space race. In fact, one of the most damaging blows to NASA has been the end of the Cold War, which eliminated the urgency of such scientific oneupmanship. Still, as NASA stands at a critical crossroads, casting about for a new mission, it is unlikely that Bush or any future president would pull the plug on a program that is still charting the farthest frontiers of the cosmos.
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