After Voyager 2, Jet Propulsion Lab Seeks Next Mission

PASADENA, CALIF—Two months after its extraordinarily successful encounter with the planet Neptune, Voyager 2 is battling its failing senses and ebbing vitality in an attempt to wrestle yet more science from the cold and barren expanses of interstellar space. The spacecraft has been flung by Neptune’s gravity out of the plane containing the planets of our solar system and is moving ever farther away from planetary science. For scientists and engineers at the National Aeronautics and

Christopher Anderson
Oct 15, 1989

PASADENA, CALIF—Two months after its extraordinarily successful encounter with the planet Neptune, Voyager 2 is battling its failing senses and ebbing vitality in an attempt to wrestle yet more science from the cold and barren expanses of interstellar space. The spacecraft has been flung by Neptune’s gravity out of the plane containing the planets of our solar system and is moving ever farther away from planetary science. For scientists and engineers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which built the craft and nurtured it for 12 shaky years, Voyager’s new trajectory symbolizes their own change in course as well.

After nearly a half-century of unchallenged preeminence in unmanned space exploration, JPL is reprogramming itself for a new role in a harsh climate. Long envied for its expertise in robotic space science, the 7,600-person lab now finds itself increasingly building instruments and hardware for missions—often manned—from other labs. As JPL mission planner William Mcleary U.S. Ice Core Scientists Decide To Go It Alone Two international projects to probe Greenland’s ice now move forward, as American investigators start drilling on their own Laughlin puts it, “We can’t be the old pioneer woodsman anymore.”

But JPL officials aren’t standing idly by as the gush administration plots its strategy for the future exploration of space. Indeed, they have become vocal supporters of the new presidential proposal to send men to Mars. Although it may seem odd for a lab known for unmanned exploration to hitch its wagon to a futuristic manned space initiative, the apparent paradox is just another reflection of a very different JPL from the one that once dominated the United States’ space program.

To the casual observer, JPL appears to still occupy center stage in a program that has not. yet’ fully recovered from the crippling blow of the 1986 explosion of the Challenger space shuttle. This month Galileo, the JPL-built unmanned probe of Jupiter, was scheduled to begin its six-year mission to the giant planet. Last May NASA sent Magellan off to map the planet Venus. And the success of Voyager generated a torrent of praise for the JPL scientists who made it possible.

In fact, however, the current flurry of planetary missions represents a pent-up expulsion of delayed missions rather than any commitment to future unmanned exploration. Rather than a renaissance of planetary exploration, “it’s an artifact that can look like a renaissance,” to those unfamiliar with the cuts and cancellations of the past decade, says George Washington University space analyst John Logsdon. The only new exploration program in NASA’s budget this year is a proposed dual mission that will send a spacecraft to Saturn and another to intercept the comet Kopff near the turn of the century. And even that mission won’t be launched until 1995.

Beyond these relatively dim prospects lies the Mars initiative. President Bush, in a July speech that marked the 20th anniversary of the Apollo mission to the moon, proposed that future space exploration should include sending astronauts to Mars from a manned lunar base. Such a mission could mean an abundance of new work for JPL. But lab officials have leamed from the ugly turf battles of the early 1980s— when they argued unsuccessfully for the importance of unmanned planetary exploration—not to put all their eggs in one basket, Instead, they are repackaging JPLin a "multimission” suit, tailored for the 1990s.

Making Itself Essential

If NASA actually decides (and Congress agrees) to go to Mars, JPL will be ‘ready with a host of robotic explorers and planetary probes. But in the meantime, the lab is carving out an expanded role for itself in a variety of areas, or “missions” in JPL parlance, such as advanced computing and imaging, sophisticated instrumentation, and robotics. Its top priority is selling the lab’s skill in building state-of-the-art scientific instruments as a source of high-tech piecework for other NASA missions and for various Department of Defense (DOD) projects.

Much of the lab’s new expertise has grown out of its planetary work. For example, because of the heavy computing demands of image processing, JPL has become a leader in “hypercube” computing—the use of many computer processors in tandem to solve certain problems even faster than a supercomputer, in the August flyby of Neptune, a JPL team used an eight-processor hypercube to smoothly animate Voyager photographs. One result was dubbed “Neptune: The Movie”—a short film clip of the rotating planet based on images received during the encounter. With more processors, the team hopes to be able soon to animate such images nearly as fast as they are picked up.

The knowledge JPL acquired in designing an imaging radar for the Venus-mapping Magellan mission and an ultraviolet spectrometer for the Landsat project has led to a role in the Earth Observing System (EOS), NASA’s scheduled set of remote-sensing satellites. Both technologies will be among the 11 JPL instruments on board the EOS mission when they orbit the earth in the mid-1990s.

And the lab is also selling its expertise in designing “radiation hardened” computers. Since the 1960s, JPL spacecraft have carried processors that were built to survive the varied hazards of space travel, from the intense radiation belts of Jupiter to the withering heat of Venus. A new JPL division, the Center for Space Microelectronics Technology, is using that experience to support other NASA and Defense Department space missions.

In fact, since 1982 JPL has turned increasingly toward DOD for contract work, even over the protests of faculty at CalTech, which runs the laboratory for NASA. Defense projects already account for more than 20% of the total work at the lab, and lab officials expect that figure to rise to the 30% ceiling permitted under its agreement with NASA.

Troubling Times

Yet for some researchers at JPL, long the mecca of pure space technology and science, the prospects of change are unsettling. “As you broaden [the scope of the projects], your sense of mission becomes less crisp,” wams JPL’s McLaughlin. “Some sandbox stuff slips in,” referring to projects that offer work for JPL staff but do not advance the frontiers of science. Much of the lab’s appeal to top researchers throughout the 1960s and the 1970s grew out of its monopoly on such challenging and novel projects such as Voyager. From initial spacecraft design to analysis of the returned data, JPL’s domination of planetary missions drew a generation of talented engineers and scientists.

“It wasn’t as if JPL was better than its competition—there was no competition,” says Cornell planetary scientist Joseph Veverka. Because of NASA’s policy of defining specific and unique roles for each of its labs, JPL remained virtually unchallenged in its domination of planetary exploration. Even today, with its broadened mission, the lab has little competition in unmanned spacecraft design and engineering.

But while top engineers continue to flock to JPL, its appeal to scientists—who make up a quarter of the staff—may be on the wane.”JPL had its special niche in [spacecraft] engineering, and it’s very demanding work. But it’s not the same for scientists,” says astronomer Philip Nicholson, who worked at the lab for a year in 1981 before leaving for Cornell.

All planetary scientists suffer interminable delays between missions, and even longer lulls while they wait for their experiments to return data. But a job at JPL offers scientists few of the compensatory features of an academic position, such as tenure and greater flexibility in choosing ones research topics. The consequence is that while engineers thrive in JPL’s rarefied atmosphere of high technology, scientists often go here, leaving some “very good people and some yery mediocre people” behind, says Nicholson. Indeed, adds Veverka, “the caliber of scientist at JPL is generally not comparable to an average large university.”

Former director Bruce Murray, who left in 1982 after six years at the helm, but who has remained close to the lab, agrees. “JPL has always been a difficult "place to do science,” he says. Now, without another mission as compelling as Voyager on the horizon, he’s concerned about JPL’s engineering excellence as well. He notes that many of the people and talent that led to nearly a dozen missions culminating with Voyager are gone—retired, transferred to other labs, or simply no longer motivated by JPL’s increasitigly conventional mission.

“The JPL I was concerned about was the cadre of people that was built up over the various missions in the 1960s and 1970s,” says Murray, now a professor of planetary geology at CalTech. “The stability of the group was what the whole fight was about. The planetary exploration has continued, but JPL’s role in it has changed. It no longer has that capability left.”

“The lab has done an exemplary. job [in the years since Voyager], but it hasn’t been the same as a conspicuous JPLs only mission,” he adds. Is like flying, you can read books on it, use simulators, but when you fly a plane yourself, you learn something—that’s why soloing is so important. That’s what I was trying to protect, and What I wasn’t able to.”

Morale at the lab, which has oscillated wildly as its programs were alternatingly axed and revived by headquarters, has also become a concern. Staff reached a low of 4,682 in 1982 after the cancellation of the missions to Halley’s comet and the sun. Since then, the lab has grown steadily, to more than 5,800. Another 1,800 are independent contractors. Lab officials say they have no plans to expand much beyond current levels.

Despite this cautious approach, officials here believe the future now looks relatively bright. The catalyst, they say, was President Bush’s call for a Mars mission. Although the Bash plan has been criticized for its lack of details and budget-busting price tag (it would require nearly a threefold increase in NASA’s annual budget, to over $30 billion), it is the first presidential space exploration initiative since Apollo. “Now, for the first time, we’re seeing a president intent on picking up a NASA [exploration program and pushing it through Congress,” says JPL’s McLaughlin. “Now NASA has a goal.”

As with Apollo, a major new manned initiative means dozens of preliminary unmanned’ missions, in cluding sorties to sample planet surfaces, map topography, and select appropriate landing spots. And that could mean a return to the glory days for JPL. But until the White House puts a budget for the project, and Congress endorses , the initiative remains an estimated $400 billion question mark. ‘In the meantime, JPL's future rests once again in the hands ‘of politicians, not in the ‘work of its scientists and engineers.