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Saturday, 11 December, 1999, 03:16 GMT
Nasa: Lost in space?
By the BBC's Stephen Sackur
The US space agency Nasa faces a crisis at the end of millennium.
High-profile failures and the lack of headline-grabbing manned missions such as the Apollo programme that saw men walk on the Moon have left the public wondering if the billions of dollars spent annually are worthwhile.
Nasa astronauts including Michael Foale, who is in a flotation tank preparing for another journey into space, spent four and a half months on the accident-prone Russian space station Mir. But it did not dim his enthusiasm for life at zero gravity.
This time, the British-born astronaut is on a very specific shuttle mission - to repair the Hubble space telescope orbiting the Earth.
With Nasa still smarting from the failure of two recent Mars probes, Michael Foale is well aware that there is no room for error.
"The thing I am most nervous about is not making a mistake. When we go to the Hubble, all we can do is break the most precious telescope in space. I mean right now, it's working," he said.
The space telescope has six gyroscopes. Three need to be working to accurately point the telescope.
But by mid-November of this year, four of the telescope's gyros had failed, and the orbiting telescope shut itself down as a precautionary measure.
"So we are really in the hot seat as far as doing the right thing," Dr Foale said. Citing the old adage "if it's not broke, don't fix it," he added: "Well, it's almost broken, and so we're about fix it."
He really feels the pressure. "I'm always worried when I'm put into that position because, yes, of course we should be doing the mission, but the people who execute it have a great responsibility on their shoulders."
No one at Nasa needs reminding that public confidence in the space agency has taken a beating.
The disappearance of the Mars Polar Lander craft earlier this month, as it attempted to touch down on the Red Planet, came just three months after human error led to the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter.
Both missions were part of Nasa's commitment to develop a "faster, cheaper, better" space programme - more launches, more bang for the taxpayers buck.
Now the space agency faces hard questions, not least from former Nasa scientist Keith Cowing who runs the lobby group NasaWatch.
Many people at Nasa see the missions to Mars as critical for the future public support of the agency's activities, Mr Cowing said, and both of these missions were critical in that regard.
"Losing one because of a bad math error was just embarrassing. This is almost gut wrenching to lose another one, especially one that was possibly going to get close to the tantalising prospect that there may have been or might be the conditions to support life on Mars," Mr Cowing said.
Nasa is trying to juggle widely divergent objectives, combining its unmanned missions with a costly commitment to developing an international space station.
A little over a year ago, Nasa sent ageing former astronaut and senator John Glenn back into space on a shuttle mission which critics said was a desperate effort to revive public interest in the manned space programme.
It worked, in the short term, but it did not convince Keith Cowing that Nasa has a clear vision of where it wants to go in the next century.
"Nasa does well when it has a compelling vision, a goal that everyone can understand," Mr Cowing said.
Nasa is now working on several different projects, but they lack a coherent vision, he claimed.
"Each of these projects is off in one direction or another. You have a lot of different ideas with very clear visions but they aren't in sync."
Public opinion mixed
Space exploration still seems to fascinate the American public.
The Air and Space Museum in Washington is the most popular museum in America with 10 million visitors last year, but even here opinion is mixed about the future of the US space programme.
One visitor said: "Coming and seeing this is history for the kids, and so this is a logical museum to come do that. But to me that is a separate question from whether we should be investing billions in the space programme."
Another visitor called the Mars Polar Lander a $165m waste of her money as a taxpayer, but some still support the space programme, even if it lacks the high-profile missions such as Apollo.
"There are no really big huge steps like there was with the Moon, but I think people still like to see the shuttle and still like to see it launch. And I think once the space station goes up, I think people are really going to be fascinated with that," another visitor said.
Restoring the vision
Nasa has to convince Americans that its best moments lie in the future, not the past. And for that it needs an ambitious, even heroic set of objectives for the new millennium. John Logsdon is a space expert at George Washington university. He thinks more high-profile manned missions will help restore vision to Nasa.
The discovery of planets around other stars is a step to finding out which might be like Earth. That leads to the tantalising question of whether life is unique to this planet," he said.
"There is plenty of exciting stuff to do," he said.
Are we alone?
One of the most popular exhibits in the air and space museum is called Contact.
It documents man's obsession with the possibility of life beyond our planet.
Here, surely, is ample motivation for scientists, politicians and the public to unite around a renewed commitment to space exploration in the next century.
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