This column was first published in The Tablet in June, 2004, and first published here in 2015… read the end to find out what happened!
The people who design airplanes say that a plane can’t fly until its weight is matched by the weight of its paperwork. The same must be true for launching spacecraft to another planet. Last month [May 2004] I took part on a NASA panel in Washington DC, reviewing five competing plans to build a planetary probe; in the run-up to the panel I was shipped 30 pounds of paper to read.
NASA’s “New Frontiers” program is a development of another project driven by piles of paperwork: the Solar System Decadal Survey commissioned by NASA and executed by the National Academy of Sciences in 2002. After hearing from hundreds of planetary scientists at meetings around the world (and reading white papers solicited and gathered by various international societies) a committee of graybeards outlined where NASA should be spending its money over the next ten years.
Among their recommendations were four straw man missions, detailed outlines of possible space probes that NASA could pull off for about $700 million dollars. They proposed: to measure the atmosphere and surface of Venus; to sample the far side of the Moon; to probe the chemistry of Jupiter’s deep atmosphere; or to visit a comet and return with a chunk of its ice.
NASA issued an “announcement of opportunity” last year , for proposals to do any one of these missions. Five teams responded (one straw man mission attracted two competing groups). Each team had a Principle Investigator, responsible for running the show, and at least a dozen other senior scientists drawn from academia; an equal team of engineers affiliated with whichever aerospace company proposed to build the hardware; and an outfit like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California or the Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland to manage the assembly, launch, and flight of the spacecraft.
The proposals I reviewed outlined the exact instruments the teams hoped to fly, the rockets used to put these instruments on their way, and the kind of scientific results the proposers expected to get. They also included the credentials of the team, and a budget. No surprise that each proposal wound up weighing several pounds.
Fourteen of us met for four days to look over their science and judge if their plans were coherent, convincing, and likely to work. Will that measurement really yield the crucial data point we need to resolve an important conundrum, or is it just something that’s easy to measure, but otherwise meaningless? Will the actions of one experiment contaminate the results of another? If they propose to bring back a sample, have they thought through what they’re going to do with it when they get it back to Earth?
Another team, of engineers, looked over the same proposals from a technical standpoint: can their rocket actually lift their spacecraft off the ground? Do their proposed orbits make sense? Do their proposed instruments actually work the way the scientists claim?
We didn’t rank the proposals against each other, but graded them against an absolute scale (poor to excellent), giving a terse summary of each proposal’s strengths and weaknesses. At the end of the process, a month or so from now, one or two – or none – of these proposals will pass this first hurdle and their teams be given a few million dollars to fill out these plans, shore up the shortcomings, and develop the mission to the point where an actual spacecraft could be built. (Indeed, each proposal we saw already represented millions of dollars worth of time and effort invested by the teams’ institutions.) Only then will some NASA administrator finally choose who gets to fly.
It’s a staggeringly unwieldily and staggeringly slow process. Bureaucracy always is.
The current head of NASA is criticized for being a bean-counter who’s lost sight of The Dream; his predecessor was criticized for being too much a dreamer. NASA has always been plagued by wasted efforts, cost overruns, self-perpetuating divisions, and projects driven by pork-barrel politics. Bureaucracy in general, not just NASA’s, is an easy target for people trying to identify what’s wrong with the world. I can think of many thrillers where the faceless, heartless System is The Enemy; I never read a book where it’s the hero.
But at the end of the day, these enormous piles of paper accomplish what no one individual could ever do: they can send an incredibly intricate pile of pipes and circuits hurtling off the Earth and onto another world, and have it do worthwhile tasks once it arrives. Products of this all-too-human, all-too-flawed System can tell us things we might never have imagined about the functioning of our planetary system.
If you take all of NASA’s paperwork and stack it in a pile, you can climb on up to the top and touch the Moon. Humans had dreamt of space travel since Scipio wrote of sending Roman Legions to Jupiter, but it was only these big bureaucracies — NASA and its Soviet counterpart, now joined by ESA and the Asian giants — that actually got us into the heavens.
It gives me a measure of perspective on certain other unwieldily bureaucracies I deal with every day.
The Juno mission to Jupiter was the eventual winner – and my personal favorite as well. It was launched in 2011 and it arrived at Jupiter in 2016! Follow that link to some spectacular images.