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What do you think NASA is? Rocket Science?

The reason space exploration missions sometimes fail is actually quite simple: This IS rocket science.

Published: Thursday, March 7, 1996


Page: 9A

By DANIEL B. CATON, Special to The Observer

Last week NASA lost another experiment. The tether on its satellite snapped just short of its 12.8 mile destination. It was a moment familiar to everyone who has had a fishing line snap. You should have seen the one that got away!

The Italian Tethered Satellite project was to reel out a conductive line and allow it to generate a current as it moves in the Earth's magnetic field, a prototype of a system that could provide power in future missions. A wire moving in a magnetic field generates a current. We wrap such long wires into more wieldy configurations and spin them in magnetic fields to produce electrical power--Duke power is doing that for us right now, using nuclear and fossil fuels for the energy to do the spinning.

This loss disappointed its experimenters for the second time--it had already failed in 1992, when this high-tech Italian equivalent of the venerable Garcia Mitchell 300 fishing reel failed to play out more than 840 feet of line--only 15 feet more than the length of 8-lb test line that will fit on the Mitchell! These scientific fishermen casting for knowledge had that familiar snag or knot on the reel. Luckily, that time, they were finally able to at least reel back in their costly lure. This time it got away, and with most of the line.

Why is it that NASA seems plagued by problems, apparently frustrated routinely in its taxpayer-sponsored scientific fishing excursions? The answer is actually simple: this is rocket science.

If you have been finding yourself asking this question, you may be living under an illusion of how science is done, thinking that all we have to do is follow the simple recipe learned in school: the "scientific method". Come up with a theory, design an experiment, do it, compare to theory. Modify theory. Repeat.

It's not usually quite that simple.

Scientific experiments are often difficult to do, whether in space or on Earth. Instrumentation failures lead the list. At a research lab such as our observatory there are many instruments that are either custom built at our own machine shop, or are one of a few like it essentially custom built by a limited number of manufacturers. They don't pump out scientific instruments like GM does Chevys--instrumentation manufacturers, like NASA, are always climbing the learning curve.

Similarly, each NASA project includes thousands of hardware and software components that cannot be tested in their ultimate and hostile space environment until launch. The have been tested in many simulations: heated and frozen in a vacuum like their destination, and shaken violently to simulate the rough ride up. Such procedures are so thorough that, in fact, spacecraft must be launched with well tested microprocessors a generation older than what is probably in the PC on your desk.

Now imagine lashing your computer under the hood of your car, leaving it outside on a winter night, and driving to work with four flat tires. While the PC is running. In fact, while it is controlling your car. Great efforts are made to build instruments that will survive and take data. The breakdown of the Italian satellite did not happen by fiat--even Ferraris break down!

NASA still does an excellent job with most of its dozens of launches and missions per year. Indeed, most of us probably get a thrill and a chill of pride watching a launch or seeing the latest image from the Hubble Space Telescope. We must remember that we bring home a lot of scientific trophies from space, and we must not lose sight of that fact when one gets away.

Indeed, the 'catch of the day' is available to anyone with access to the Internet. All of the wonderful pictures you see in the Observer are available online from the Space Telescope Science Institute. Try http://www.stsci.edu/EPA/Recent.html for recent images.

The bass fisherman does not come home from every trip with a magnificent lunker. But, that does not mean that he or she should quit fishing. The days spent on the water make us a better person. The trips into space make us a better people. The bass boat will never pay for itself at the going price of fish. Not every space mission will be completely successful, much less yield a space-spinoff product. Occasionally, a boat or shuttle will go to the bottom of the water and, sometimes, some sailors will die.

These are still not reasons enough to stop going fishing.

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