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Comments by Dan Goldin


Planetary Scientists Mark "Amazing Year" at Conference

by Jeff Foust

On the heels of what one NASA official called "one amazing year in planetary exploration," hundreds of planetary scientists gathered at the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in late July to discuss the latest results in their field of research. The 29th annual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society brought together more than 700 scientists from around the world for a week of presentations and discussions, including the latest on two highly successful missions.


Goldin's Concerns

While congratulating planetary scientists for their work, particularly on the NEAR and Mars Pathfinder missions, NASA administrator Dan Goldin reminded them that much more work was necessary for the scientists and the space agency to reach Goldin's goal of fast, lightweight, inexpensive space science missions.

Dan Goldin and Wes HuntressSpeaking at the conference's space policy night, Goldin said he saw dangerous signs that scientists and agency officials, eager to protect their newfound success, were becoming more conservative and moving away from innovative, but risky, missions. "The old folks are taking over again," he warned.

Goldin expressed three concerns he had with the state of planetary science research and its relationship with NASA. His first concern was with the peer review process, where committees of scientists make decisions on the scientific worthiness of various proposed spacecraft missions. Goldin feared these committees of established scientists were too entrenched in the old way of doing business, and needed to provide some "elbow room" for newer scientists willing to take risks.

Goldin's second concern was the lack of time and money devoted to developing knowledge that will be useful for missions five to 15 years down the road, as opposed to within the next five years. Such lack of foresight, he said, has resulted in no new rocket engines developed in the U.S. in the last 25 years and no high-speed optical communications for deep space missions, a situation Goldin called "shameful".

Goldin's third, and biggest concern, was over what exactly planetary science should be. Noting the possible discovery of primitive life on ancient Mars, and some of the tantalizing results from Galileo's observations of Europa, Goldin felt that planetary science should have more of a life science bent to it. "If we're searching for life," he asked the audience, "are there are life scientists in the room?" Hardly a hand was raised.

To address this concern, Goldin called for the creation of an "astrobiology institute" that would bring together planetary and life scientists to study these and related problems. Such an institute, Goldin said, would rely on "real people and virtual communications": the institute would be a virtual creation, relying on the Next Generation Internet and other communications tools to link together researchers at far-flung locations.

Goldin also urged that Earth science research, such as the study of the Earth's atmosphere and comparison to the atmospheres of other worlds, be integrated into planetary science. He called on JPL and Goddard Space Flight Center to rectify this "huge mistake" and integrate the Earth into planetary science.

Despite these concerns, Goldin said great progress in how planetary and space science missions are run today. In 1992 planetary science missions were seen as spacecraft weighing thousands of kilograms, costing billions of dollars, and taking many years to develop. Goldin thinks with missions like Pathfinder and NEAR we are about one-fourth of the day to his goal of missions that weigh tens of kilograms, cost tens of millions of dollars, and take a year from start to launch.

"My belief is that we are on the way to changing who we are," he said. "I believe it's going to happen."

From the September issue of SpaceViews


September 1997

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