Deep Space 1: Rocketing to the Future
by Marc D. Rayman, Ph.D.
Science fiction and space enthusiasts as well as space scientists have long dreamed of having routine access to space, a ready supply of probes to greet unexpected and enticing visitors to our neighborhood (such as comet Hale-Bopp), and smart robots investigating the universe. That dream comes one step closer to reality this autumn, when NASA/JPL rockets toward the future with the launch of Deep Space 1 (DS1), humankind's next venture into the solar system.
Space science missions have made many astonishing and impressive discoveries, but often at great expense. NASA and the United States cannot afford to conduct space exploration the way it has been done in recent decades. We now look forward to a future in which rather than launching a spacecraft into deep space every year or so, they will be launched every month. If one or two of them fail, although it will be disappointing, the loss will represent a small portion of our effort to know the cosmos.
But how do we meet the challenges of such a future? We need to learn to build spacecraft quickly, to make them small enough to be launched on inexpensive rockets, and fast enough to reach their destinations while the questions they are addressing are still relevant. The spacecraft must also be sufficiently sophisticated to collect the exciting information we seek, and smart enough to handle unexpected situations without all of them tying up the precious and expensive Deep Space Network. Part of the answer is to introduce advanced technologies. Unfortunately, that means risk, because there will always be a lingering uncertainty over whether the new systems will work in space the way we predict. As a result, revolutionary technologies often have inordinate waits before finding their way aboard space missions.
NASA's New Millennium program is chartered to validate selected high-risk technologies needed to make space exploration less expensive yet even more exciting and productive. Advanced technologies chosen for validation on DS1, the first of the program's space flights, include ion propulsion, autonomous systems, advanced microelectronics and telecommunications devices, and other exotic systems. Throughout the flight, the technology payload will be rigorously exercised so that later space missions will be able to use the new capabilities with confidence. This bold mission will take risks so that future missions do not have to.
Even if a technology fails on this ambitious flight, we may still help prevent later missions from taking too much risk. In fact, already in the 39 months between conception and launch (unprecedentedly short for US planetary missions in the modern era), we have solved a host of problems that would never have been addressed if the new technologies remained in the realm of paper studies and laboratory tests. This has already contributed to their use in future missions.
As you might imagine, working on a high-risk mission with such a short schedule and a tight cost cap can be stressful. I find, however, that the personal rewards are quite high. In my role as Chief Mission Engineer and Deputy Mission Manager, I get to be involved in nearly all aspects of the project. For a lifelong space buff, this is a dream come true!
My position allows me to combine my many years of formal training in physics with my even longer personal studies of all aspects of space exploration. I chose to abandon basic scientific research so that I could get paid to pursue my hobby at JPL. Now I find that, indeed, I can play a meaningful role in a thrilling space mission that truly will make an important difference as we strive to probe the universe. At the same time, I feel proud that a significant goal of my work is to protect taxpayers' money. Although NASA receives only a small fraction of what your family and mine pay in taxes, it gratifies me to know that my work contributes to spending that money wisely, trying to get the maximum benefit from each dollar invested.
During its journey, DS1 will visit asteroid 1992 KD and perhaps comets Wilson-Harrington and Borrelly, performing tests of its advanced science instruments at each appointment. Conducting science will prove that the technologies are compatible with the demands of future science missions and will ensure that this rare opportunity to encounter such a variety of fascinating solar system bodies during a short mission will be fully exploited.
Ion propulsion will permit faster access to important and fascinating destinations in the solar system. Autonomy will reduce the cost of operating such missions. Miniaturized systems will make spacecraft smaller and less expensive, while new highly capable instruments will make sophisticated measurements with small packages. Such revolutionary technologies, and others to be validated on subsequent New Millennium missions, will be among the key tools NASA will need to begin a new era in space exploration. By taking risk with missions such as Deep Space 1, NASA is preparing for the time when humankind's robotic (and, eventually, human) emissaries to space are routinely reporting back inspiring discoveries from throughout the solar system and beyond.
I invite you to share the DS1 team's excitement as we try to make the future happen and turn fantasy into reality.
(Updated from an article submitted to Final Frontier and published in June 1998.)