No time to waver

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 9, 1999

From staff reports

&uot;Cheaper, better, faster.

Thursday, December 09, 1999

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&uot;Cheaper, better, faster.&uot;

These have proven difficult goals for NASA, which lost its third Mars probe, the Polar Lander, this past week.

Yet, NASA’s newfound goal remains one worth pursuing – more launches of smaller, cheaper vehicles than was previously attempted.

Indeed, Congress must not look at recent failures as an excuse to cut funding from the space agency’s budget. Last summer, there were unsuccessful attempts to cut the space agency’s budget by $900 million.

Instead, NASA’s failure review board must discern whether enough was known about the Mars landing site, if the spacecraft was adequately designed and whether NASA had enough money to achieve its goals.

NASA has shifted part of its focus from billion-dollar, once-a-generation space vehicles to smaller, cheaper and more frequent attempts at exploration. This approach is likely to produce more short-term results, and hasten development of space technologies.

Yet, the nation needs to exercise patience. There is no way to know whether a new generation of Mars probes will work, except to try. There will be failures in space exploration, but they must be considered acceptable losses when the broader view – continued expansion of knowledge and technology – is considered.

It is not time to give up, based upon a few failures.

In fact, space-borne competitiveness has never been more important.

Even as NASA assembles the international space station in orbit, private lodging and travel companies are taking a serious look at orbiting hotels and other projects. Hilton Hotels Inc. is looking into the feasibility of a space hotel. And the Las Vegas-based Budget Suites of America lodging chain has committed $500 million into a new company – Bigelow Aerospace – with the goal of building a ”cruise ship” that would fly from Earth orbit to the moon and back. It’s not science fiction, anymore, although technical barriers remain, an area in which the government must lead.

The U.S. is also about to gain a serious space competitor in China, which is expected to put a manned vehicle in orbit in coming years.

The big picture is this: Space has to remain a priority if this nation is to remain a pioneer.

The U.S. must not lose its edge, or nerve over a few small Mars probe failures.