Planetary Radio • Jul 01, 2022
Space Policy Edition: Pathfinder and the Birth of the Discovery Program
On This Episode
Senior Curator in the National Air and Space Museum’s Space History department
Chief of Space Policy for The Planetary Society
Senior Communications Adviser and former Host of Planetary Radio for The Planetary Society
It’s the 25th anniversary of the Pathfinder Mars mission and Sojourner, the first rover on the Red Planet. Historian Michael Neufeld joins the show to put this path blazing mission in context as the start of NASA’s low-cost Discovery mission line. There have been 12 Discovery missions over the past 25 years, with two Venus missions now in development. Why did Discovery succeed when other attempts to reign in costs failed? What drove NASA’s readiness to experiment with new ways of building spacecraft? And how did an embarrassing loss for JPL push the lab to change its approach to planetary exploration? We’ll answer these and other questions as we explore the history of one of NASA’s most successful programs.
Related Reading and References
- The Planetary Report - The Path to Sample Return
- Mars Pathfinder, the start of modern Mars exploration
- Paper by Michael Neufeld: Transforming solar system exploration: The origins of the Discovery Program, 1989–1993
- House appropriators partially restore funding for planetary defense mission
- Subscribe to the Space Advocate Newsletter
Mat Kaplan: Happy July, everyone, and welcome to the space policy edition of Planetary Radio. I'm Mat Kaplan, the weekly host of the show. Joined as always by our chief advocate, the senior space policy advisor for The Planetary Society, Casey Dreier. Casey, welcome back.
Casey Dreier: Hey, Mat. Always happy to be here with you and all of you.
Mat Kaplan: We have a wonderful conversation. I loved hearing you talk with Michael Neufeld, which is an interview that we just completed before this conversation that you and I are having right now. I strongly recommend people stay tuned because, boy, is it relevant to a lot of the stuff that we talk about as we talk about planetary science missions toady.
Casey Dreier: Michael Neufeld is great. He's a space historian at the National Air and Space Museum. He has done a lot of work on the history of the Discovery Program, which is NASA's low-cost planetary exploration mission program. Missions like Insight, missions like Pathfinder, which this month is the 25th anniversary of. We look at how NASA made this long-term commitment to doing low-cost, frequent planetary exploration, what it took to get there, and the outcome of that and whether they've been able to maintain that. These are really the nuts and bolts of how space programs come to be. Michael Neufeld's also the author of, I would say, the definitive biography of Wernher von Braun that I would really recommend anyone to read. Longtime listeners will remember him as one of our first guests way back in... What was it? 2016? Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War. Wonderful book. Still just a fascinating biography of that complicated and forever marked key player of early space exploration in Germany and the United States. So it was delightful to have him back to talk about the history of the Discovery Program and really think about, again, 25 years ago, the landing of Mars Pathfinder, the first successful US Mars mission since Viking at that point. Almost 20 years. It's a really fun discussion.
Mat Kaplan: Great reason to celebrate. And I will note that, just a couple of weeks ago, as people hear this, I had back on the show, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the PI, the principal investigator, for one of those current Discovery-level missions, Psyche, that we all wish luck to as they try to deal with some software problems. Before we get to a few little news items, we will renew our invitation to all of you who are not already members of the planetary society to join up by going to planetary.org/join. The cause... It pays for all of this stuff that we do. It pays for this show. It pays for all of the great activity that Casey undertakes with Brendan Curry and others, including Bill Nye in Washington to represent us. I just think of the influence that the Society has had over planetary science, including Discovery class missions, Casey, as proof of the value of this investment.
Casey Dreier: I think it's a great return on investment. If you want to talk about how much we've spent on our advocacy work over the years versus the hundreds of millions of dollars that have flown into planetary science since then... even accounting for that we're not the sole mover here, I think... it's a really valuable and, frankly, unique role that we play. Really focusing on exploration, science, planetary science. Very, very few other organizations are laser-focused the way we are on that. We bring that credibility, knowledge, experience, and reputational ability that you were just saying to bear on all of this. And that is because, literally, we have members like you who pay for this and who represent this and stand up and volunteer to support this organization. That gives us so much credibility that people choose to do this. It is a self-demonstrative action to say that people care about space exploration when they voluntarily become members of The Planetary Society.
Mat Kaplan: Well said. Planetary.org/join is where you can get your voice heard by joining up. Become one of this proud... What's the line? God, now, I'm going to screw it up. My Shakespearean daughter is going to be mad at me.
Casey Dreier: This merry band. I'm not a Shakespeare person.
Mat Kaplan: This band of brothers. Henry IV, I think. Oh, god. I'm in trouble now. Anyway. I should note-
Casey Dreier: This is why I do space, Mat. I don't do... Every humanities major listening to this now just wants to throttle both of us.
Mat Kaplan: Verily. We should also note that we are having this conversation... We try to make the space policy edition timely, but we're having this one a couple of weeks earlier... before the show is actually published... because you are about to hit the road. In fact, you're about to head where I just came back from.
Casey Dreier: I'll be in the Space Sustainability Workshop led by the Secure World Foundation in London. I'll be traveling for that. Representing The Planetary Society there. Followed by some additional travel in Europe. And so I will be not around by the time you listen to this, but this is why we're recording a bit early. So, if any really exciting space policy news happened between June 17th and July 1st, we will cover it in the next episode in August.
Mat Kaplan: You bet. And boy, I guess if it's big enough, I'll just find you in Europe.
Casey Dreier: You can call me down.
Mat Kaplan: In the meantime, what can we say? Well, let's start with the budget outlook. I mean, really, we're kind of waiting for things to happen in Congress.
Casey Dreier: Yes, we are. We have not yet seen... by the time we're recording this in mid-June... Neither the House nor the Senate has released their markup, their initial budget proposal, for NASA for the coming year. That is likely to change. On the books right now, they are scheduled to have their first markup starting next week and then full committee, appropriations, at the end of June. So, we will see at the least the House's version of this sometime in the next few weeks. Potentially by the time you're listening to this. We will have full coverage of that as soon as they release the information. We are very much hoping and we have been asking you, our members, and others to support NEO Surveyor, which is facing probably the biggest cut of any NASA mission right now in terms of $130 million less than they were anticipating this year. Delays the mission by years. Completely increases the scope and cost. Disrupts the mission planning.
Casey Dreier: And this is our asteroid hunting space telescope that I keep the making the point, Mat... It sounds crazy sometimes to have to keep making the point that we've just gone through a big pandemic. If you remember. As I was recently reminded. These are low probability events, but they're not zero and they're high impact when they happen. And so it's smart to do some modest level of preventative investment. We did that mRNA vaccines. Other public health investments that helped respond to a low probability, high impact event like a pandemic. What else is low probability and what else is really high impact? Getting hit by an asteroid. Very high impact. Not zero. And so it behooves us to do... We just learned from the pandemic that it's really good to have some basic tech R&D and testing abilities in place in order to respond to a potential threat. We need the same for asteroids. At the same time, right after the pandemic, what does NASA do? They propose cutting NEO Surveyor.
Casey Dreier: So, it's a bit of a frustrating situation for everybody, but we've just released a joint letter with the National Space Society, the other broader focused societal membership supported space organization. Been around for many, many years. We were happy to do that with them to show that there's this broad support between, again, public institutional supported organizations. This is Planetary Society and National Space Society. In addition to a nearly endless list of supportive statements by National Academies reports, public polling, past congressional actions, you name it. This is what we're looking for in the budget. To see that Congress restores the funds for that. At least in the House. We'll get another chance with the Senate. And then, of course, just whether NASA itself will even meet the budget growth that the Biden administration proposed for it. It did not make that last year even with a Democratic-controlled House and Senate and a Democratic presidential administration, so I will be looking even at the top line numbers to see if they line up with the proposal in addition to NEO Surveyor.
Mat Kaplan: I'm also just very happy to hear us putting out this joint document with the NSS. I'm a longtime NSS member as well a Planetary Society member and it's good to hear about these two sister organizations working together. If we move on, there are some less significant but still significant news items for us to talk about. One of them we heard about. It takes us back down to the Cape and a report that was issued just recently about that giant... I think the biggest ever created land vehicle and the second one that's being built, right?
Casey Dreier: You're talking about the mobile launcher for the space launch system, SLS, rocket. The mobile launcher is... You've seen it. Probably pictures. It crawls out from the vehicle assembly building with the full launch tower with the SLS stacked on it. Over to the launch pad. Plops it down. And then the bottom rolls away and you have your... The whole thing is just ready to go. We need a second mobile launch tower to accommodate the upgraded version of the SLS. The Block 1B, which will have... It will be taller. It'll carry people. They could either rebuild the one that they have now, but that would take four or five years and then you couldn't launch anything because that's the only launch tower you have. And so, starting a few years ago, Congress began appropriating hundreds of millions of dollars to build a second one. To have it ready in time for the Block 1B launch. That project, which was originally estimated to cost around $350 million... The NASA Inspector General released a report analyzing the project. There's no way to sugarcoat it. A disaster, I guess, would be the right way to talk about this. The main contractor has spent almost half a billion dollars and done almost no work yet to actually start building. It's all been in the design phase.
Mat Kaplan: And I think this is Bechtel.
Casey Dreier: Bechtel.
Mat Kaplan: To name names. Yeah, okay.
Casey Dreier: Yep. And they seriously underbid, the report claims, on the project. They are not delivering. They have had a series of significant management issues and departures. The long and short of it is, if you put NASA's standard project analysis projections in, that this tower will cost nearly one and a half billion dollars and take six more years to build. It's a shocking... I am not known as one to go whole heart into commercial space flight as the only answer to things and to really rag on classic government contracting programs, but you look at something like this and you just wonder. Baffingly so, Bechtel kept getting bonuses on the contract performance despite not performing. It just makes you really so frustrating. Just as a taxpayer, but also just as a person who wants space to work. Who wants these projects to work. How do you end up spending one and a half billion dollars on a tower? When you, again, look over and you see SpaceX building multiple towers within months. Franticly. It's just a mess.
Casey Dreier: The absolute wild thing to me, though. And this shows. The profound level of political buy-in that the SLS has. I would argue that you will not see a single change in this program as a result of this. Congress reads this. They'll keep funding it. I may be wrong. We'll see, I guess, in the upcoming appropriations. There may be some harsh language, but I will imagine that the money will be there because of the strong built-in support for this. And so it's a frustrating situation. I don't have any great insight on to it. Bechtel, I should note, disputes the report. They said that they are facing COVID disruptions and changing-
Mat Kaplan: [inaudible 00:12:30].
Casey Dreier: I heard a joke. At the NASA Cost and Schedule Symposium... which I'm sure all of you attended this year as I did.
Mat Kaplan: I'm waiting for the movie.
Casey Dreier: There was a joke about... I forget exactly. I might mangle this. There's a NASA contractor showing off his brand-new sailboat to his friends. They say, "Oh, what'd you name it?" And he's like, "Oh, I named it contract modification." It may not be my delivery. It may just be the level of jokes for Cost and Schedule people, but I was quite tickled by it. NASA is changing constantly the design requirements for the Block 1B, too, because it's not done and so that adds cost, but still. Going from $300ish million to $1.5 billion is a significant increase to me still. It's a frustrating report. I think we need to be really honest and open about management failures and contractor failures in order to not just sweep this kind of stuff under the rug. Because we should have higher expectations for our space program than this.
Mat Kaplan: We sure should. Hey, you mentioned SpaceX in passing there. They were waiting for a report from the Federal Aviation Administration for a long time and that finally came out with recommendations for what they need to do if they want to launch any gigantic rockets from Texas.
Casey Dreier: That's true. But at the end of the day, they got their approval to do it. They have to do... I forget how many. 52? Remediations.
Mat Kaplan: I think it's [inaudible 00:13:57].
Casey Dreier: Yeah. To varying degrees of silliness. I think they have to do a report on the Mexican-American War, give money to environmental remediation groups, and so forth. I don't have a lot to say on this one. At the end of the day, they got it. It took a long time, unfortunately. I think they had a huge public input. Some of it very spammy looking to me to read through. But at the end of the day, they get to launch. I think that's the important thing. There's a whole host of other issues we could talk about maybe on a different episode, but they're moving forward with this and now potentially doing an orbital launch at the end of the year or early next year. That's a very exciting step forward. To see this project finally open up from a regulatory position.
Mat Kaplan: As I read the description of these requirements set out by the FAA, the one that stuck with me had something to do with the type of shuttle that is used to get employees to the launch pad and back and around the site, which I just thought, okay, that's fine. But it sounds like they might be able to achieve that without too much difficulty. Oh well. All right. Well, maybe we'll see that Super Heavy head to space. Excuse me. Starship. And then eventually Super Heavy as well. I had to space before too long. Just one other thing that I think you want to bring up here. And it is NASA's response to the direction that it look into some phenomena, shall we say, that NASA usually doesn't deal with although it is accused by some of hiding evidence of. I'm being very cryptic here.
Casey Dreier: Phenomena of the unidentified aerial type. The UAPs, aka UFOs. Yes. For much of my thoughts on this, I would direct the listener back to my interview with Sarah Scoles. I think that was last spring where we talked about this. And her great book, Why We See Saucers, which is an interesting and very, I'd say, sympathetic and fair-minded account of the types of people who really are motivated to investigate this on their own in addition to, what we're now seeing, larger institutional investments. Investigations in the DOD and, now, NASA. Dr. Zurbuchen, who's the head of the NASA Science Mission Directorate, announced that NASA would be doing a limited project analyzing what's public data. They don't have access to classified stuff. They're a civilian agency. Led by a notable Princeton professor. I think they're spending about $100000, so it's very modest, as these types of things go. To lay it all out, I do think it's a good thing to be open about this. I think that's where I really ended this with. There's no benefit for NASA, I think, to holding its arm out and saying it's too good to think about this or it's stupid in advance because that doesn't stop people from being curious about it.
Mat Kaplan: That just becomes part of the cover-up.
Casey Dreier: Exactly. And so I think it's good to engage. I think they're engaging at an appropriate level. If there's something there, it'll be obvious. If there's not something there, I think that'll be pretty straightforward, too. It's that whole sunlight is the best disinfectant. That's Zurbuchen's argument. This is a high risk, high reward. We don't know what they are. People expect us to look into them. Let's look into them. I think then, at the same time, there's always going to be, I think, a group of people who have predetermined what these are and will not accept negative conclusions, if that's what comes out of the NASA study. And that's ultimately what we all have to do is just assume that this NASA study is... and I believe it is being done with good intent and freedom to investigate what they think is real or not and the freedom to publish what they feel is important or not. Which, again, knowing how these systems are set up, they are. They can say what they believe they've found or not. I think we just let that process work out.
Casey Dreier: It's better to engage in the long run in a serious way at appropriate levels of investment for big questions. And Zurbuchen framed it as, yeah, it's a high risk. There's a reputational risk. We saw some reporting to that effect on Axios and other news sites about NASA's involvement in this. But at the same time, we just need to trust that, by asking questions and approaching it in a scientific way, we in a sense trust and have confidence in the scientific process itself. And that means for what the outcomes are and that's for everybody. So, I'm overall rather sympathetic to this. Again, knowing the amount of resources being put behind it... It's not huge. So yeah. Let's take a look.
Mat Kaplan: You might say the truth is out there.
Casey Dreier: There you go. It's always an interesting thing. If we... We. I'm using we in a very general sense here. It's such an interesting information environment because there will be people who will take the fact that NASA is doing it as evidence that there is something... That there's a predestined conclusion.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah. It already happened.
Casey Dreier: But the point is, I think that'll happen no matter what. It's really about... For people who aren't polarized on the issue already, which is most people, when they read about this happening, they'll wonder. Why isn't NASA saying something about this? Just associating the role of NASA with respectability, scientific integrity... These are all good things. And so if you see this as a problem, if you don't think this is real and you think that too much effort is being spent on it, you don't make it go away by ignoring it. You engage with it, if there's a serious and sustained audience out there, and then you say, okay, here's what we found.
Mat Kaplan: I look forward to reading that report. Let's move on to that great conversation with Michael Neufeld.
Casey Dreier: We kind of jumped right into it in the conversation, so I just want to preface what the Discovery Program is. For anyone who's not already familiar with it. It's a funding line... It's an account within NASA's Planetary Science... Planetary Exploration Science Division. It funds what are nominally low-cost, frequent missions that are competed in the sense that NASA doesn't have... They basically put up a chunk of money, around half a billion dollars, and say, hey, any good ideas for going to any planet that you can do with this? Scientists and consortiums and organizations, they basically pitch NASA. They have this big scientific competition every couple of years, where NASA then selects one or two missions that rose to the top, that are feasible, have high scientific return, are likely to succeed within the budget limits. These are supposed to be capped at about half a billion dollars currently. That are then managed by a principal investigator and a team that they put together in advance.
Casey Dreier: They've been very successful over the years. We've seen a lot of really exciting missions. GRAIL, that did the gravity map of the Moon, is a Discovery mission. We saw MESSENGER to Mercury. Maybe one of the most high-profile and successful Discovery missions. It mapped all of the surface of Mercury for the first time. And Pathfinder... which, again, we have the 25th anniversary of... demonstrated, proved, that JPL could do a low cost planetary mission for the first time. That's the context. That's what Discovery is. And it didn't come out of nothing. It had to be created. It had to be pushed through a bureaucracy. It had to convince people who were skeptical this was even possible starting in the late '80s and early 1990s. And that's what Michael Neufeld and I will really dive into is how that came to be and why NASA needed something like that at that point in its history.
Mat Kaplan: Great introduction. Here is Casey's conversation with Michael Neufeld. Just a couple of weeks before this program was published. I hope you enjoy it and we'll talk to you, wrap things up, on the other side.
Casey Dreier: Well, Michael Neufeld. Welcome to the space policy edition. Or welcome back, I should say.
Michael Neufeld: It's great to be here. Glad to talk about Discovery.
Casey Dreier: Yes, let's. Let's define Discovery. How would you summarize the Discovery Program and what makes it unique among NASA planetary programs?
Michael Neufeld: Well, the Discovery Program began in 1993 officially by legislation, but really had its origins in 1989, 1990, when there was a lot of disgruntlement in the planetary community. There were very few missions. There were huge, expensive JPL flagship missions, as we call them now, and there was little room for any kind of small, innovative, or fast planetary exploration missions at the time. I'll try to shorten a long, complicated story. It landed at a moment when it became possible to think about something new and innovative at NASA. It started before Dan Goldin became administrator in 1992. It was originated actually in the Planetary Science Division, but Goldin seized onto it as kind of the poster child for faster, better, cheaper.
Casey Dreier: A lot to unpack there, right? Discovery, again, is this idea that we can do planetary exploration without your Voyager multi-billion dollar, multi-decade budgets and time commitment. This wasn't a new idea in the late '80s or early '90s. Why didn't we have already something like that? And I think we can point to, in the Astrophysics division at NASA, they do have something like this. The Explorer Program, which had been around for decades. Was there something structural or was there something institutional? Why did we struggle so long to get a small planetary mission program?
Michael Neufeld: That's a very good question and not easy to answer. One of the problems with planetary exploration in the '70s and '80s was... Essentially, after the huge expenditures that took place as the aftermath of the Moon race that allowed us to do Viking and Voyager, the budget for planetary exploration went way down. Obviously, the impact of Viking was, in many ways, to kill Mars exploration for almost 20 years. We didn't discover any life and there wasn't any excitement and the budgets for NASA in the '70s were poor, so the NASA leadership struggled to get just a handful of missions on the books. One of the things that happened was they decided, in order to clarify NASA's organization, they would say all planetary missions would be done only by JPL. Because Ames had had some role with the Pioneer program, but there was an attempt essentially... Conserve resources. Focus on JPL. There wasn't a lot of money. There was even an attempt in 1981, at the beginning of the Reagan administration, to kill the planetary program altogether, which would have devastated JPL. Maybe even put it out of business.
Michael Neufeld: Well, that was fended off, but there was just a handful of approved missions. Galileo orbiter to Jupiter, Magellan radar satellite to go to Venus in the '80s, and not much else. There was one attempt to get a cheaper planetary program. It was called Planetary Observer. The idea was we could take earth satellite technology, weather and communication satellite technology, and make a cheaper, lighter, spacecraft that spun off something called Mars Observer. But the institutional forces of the '80s seemed to push us towards piling everything onto that one mission. It got more expensive. It got more complicated. And then all the troubles of the shuttle program and everything else complicated the budget even further. And so Mars Observer became the only thing that came out of Planetary Observer. Famously blew up-
Casey Dreier: And it failed.
Michael Neufeld: Yeah.
Casey Dreier: I mean, it failed as a mission, but it also failed to be a low cost mission at the end of the day, too. I think the ultimate cost was close to a billion dollars not adjusted for inflation, which was far more than originally projected for that.
Michael Neufeld: Right. One of the assertions I heard from a couple people notably... Wes Huntress, who was among other things the head of the, at that time, Solar System Exploration division in the early '90s. Then, the head of the Space Science Directorate. He said, because it was the only mission to Mars, every scientists who was engaged in that wanted to pile on their experiments. And so you've got more and more. It's like the last bus out of town. Everybody wanted to get on it. If we just make this instrument a little better, if we add this other instrument, if we just do a little more with this, we can get more out of it. And so there was a kind of mission creep that resulted in getting bigger and heavier and more complicated. This was after the origin of Discovery had already started. In the early years of Dan Goldin being the administrator, it blew up a few days before entering Mars' orbit. It was supposed to be an orbiter.
Casey Dreier: I want to hit on something that I think is really important here. Reflecting on this, as I was preparing for this episode, exactly what you just said. This idea that every mission was going to be the last bus out of town. The planetary science community is approaching these missions in the late '70s and all throughout the '80s as grabbing whatever they could because there was just a dearth of missions. It creates this death spiral in terms of cost because then there's no discipline. Your entire career rests on it. You'll never get this again. So, how can you possibly try to control that? I think the key to the Discovery Program succeeding where other... the Observer program or even the Pioneer ish program of the late '70s failed was that it started out the gate with multiple missions. The idea being, all right, you don't get this mission, you don't get your instrument on this spacecraft, you don't get your concept selected, you'll have another shot in a couple of years. That allowed almost this imposition of focus and being able to say no because it just wasn't the end of things. I wonder if that's the key to this success versus previous attempts.
Michael Neufeld: Well, it certainly was one key. It was the idea that there would be a rapid turnaround. That there would be several opportunities. In the later years, it's become very hard to reapply. But in the early years of Discovery, the idea was, if you fail on this round of competition, there's the next round of competition. But I think the word competition here is also critical. The idea that there would be competed mission selection. The traditional mode of which NASA had operated was that a political consensus formed to do a particular mission... Mars, whatever... and NASA would direct JPL or, in an earlier time, also sometimes Ames to build that spacecraft.
Michael Neufeld: It was driven by engineering, usually. Not by science. Partly because we came out of the early days of planetary exploration. The main challenge was getting there at all. Just having a spacecraft survive and operate. Science was always kind of hung on to what was largely an engineering exercise. Science was not the central driver in part because it was just so hard to get there. As the technology matured, it became more possible to imagine essentially having a competitive spacecraft in which the principal investigator in a university maybe or in an organization... could be JPL or Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, APL... could apply to say I want to do a science mission to Mars or an asteroid or whatever and here is the framework in which I want to do it. That's different than saying, NASA, you go build a... JPL, you go build a spacecraft and then you ask the scientific community what instruments you would like to hang on it.
Casey Dreier: Also, I think too, the concept of ownership or centralization of management through the single PI of a mission. And also the idea that you have to argue in advance that your mission is going to fit within some cost envelope as opposed to being assigned and then ladling on a bunch of additional aspects to this. Planetary seems interesting case because they had come out of a history of... and maybe that kind of curse of Apollo era aspect, where they were flooded with money for lunar projects back in the 1960s. And then as the human spaceflight program ramped down in the early '70s, as you pointed out, Viking was seen as this huge investment. It was the Cadillac mission of planetary exploration. If you adjust it to today's dollars, it's around seven billion dollars for that one mission, which was five flight-ready spacecraft.
Casey Dreier: Coming from that history, then, you could see just institutionally how there would be a challenge to even approach this from a more scrappy, lower cost concept. Because all the systems, all the approaches, all the designs, had come from a heritage of assuming lots of money to spend with them. And this is where this other entrance comes in that I'm really fascinated by that you talk about in your research. That it was the idea of competition not just from the science community but the idea that you have other NASA or space centers competing for the opportunity to build planetary missions. This was where APL comes in. Can you talk about the role of APL in early Discovery mission selection?
Michael Neufeld: APL and particularly Stamatios Krimigis, better known as Tom Krimigis, at APL-
Casey Dreier: This is at Johns Hopkins in Maryland, I should say.
Michael Neufeld: Yeah. Just for context for anybody, APL is an institution in the suburbs between Baltimore and Washington run by Johns Hopkins. Fundamentally, it has always been a Navy contractor. It's still dominated by Navy and defense work. Some space work was part of their job. They had done the transit navigation satellites for Navy and they'd done some... what we now call heliophysics missions. Ionospheric, magnetospheric, missions. That kind of thing. So they had this experience building small satellites, earth orbit, for navigation and for heliospheric science. Krimigis was frustrated with the limitations of planetary exploration. He wasn't the only one in the early '90s, but he said... As you mentioned at the outset, Astrophysics had long had the Explorer program. It was not only Astrophysics, but also the Space Physics, what later we call Heliophysics people had both used Explorer to launch small payloads into Earth orbit.
Casey Dreier: APL was positioning itself as an alternative for spacecraft development and really focusing on the fact that they could deliver it cheaper and faster than JPL. Which was threatening to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which at that point, identified at this point as the planetary center for NASA.
Michael Neufeld: As the sole planetary center of NASA.
Casey Dreier: As the sole planetary... Yeah.
Michael Neufeld: And effectively anointed that by NASA in the '80s. APL under Krimigis, who was basically focused on civilian science and had an important role, for example, on Voyager... He was one of the PIs of one of the charged particle experiments on Voyager. He was interested in a new small planetary program and he said APL can do this. APL can be part of this. That coincided with the fact that Wes Huntress had started as the head of Solar System Exploration division in 1990 and he was looking around for competition because he felt like JPL... and I don't want to put JPL down. It's a wonderful organization that's done fantastic things. But JPL at that time he viewed as being a little bit bureaucratic, expensive, not feeling like it needed to worry about any competition from anybody else. Wes Huntress looked around and he saw APL as a possibility and the Naval Research Laboratory, which does significant Navy space work in Washington DC, as possible alternatives. Well, NRL really wasn't all that interested, but APL was interested under Krimigis in getting into small planetary exploration.
Michael Neufeld: Huntress sort of set it up... At the beginning of the Discovery Program, as he was looking around for a way to get this going and get it funded, he said let's ask both JPL and APL to compete for a mission which came to be called NEAR, Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous. This was viewed early on as a potential cheaper mission. It's not as far away as Mars if you pick the right asteroid to go to, so it could be cheaper and less complicated. You don't have to land on it, really. You can just get near it. You get low gravity and all of that. This was viewed as a possibility. And so in 1991, '92, Wes Huntress asked JPL and APL to present proposals for a NEAR mission for $150 million.
Casey Dreier: And this leads to this infamous meeting proposal where you hear JPL lay out... completely ignore this cost cap functionally. You summarize. What was presented then at this? And this story, again, is I think really critical to defining the concept and culture of Discovery Program.
Michael Neufeld: This is actually at JPL in April 1992. There was a meeting in front of this review board saying we've got to try to pick a proposal. JPL gets up and presents a program of three spacecraft which would cost $450 million. Sort of iterative approach. The first spacecraft just goes out there and sees if it'll work. And then another one. And then the third one finally, after you've already spent at least $450 million, would actually be the science spacecraft that would go to the asteroid. It just made a lot of people there in the room extremely angry. They thought, you just don't get it. You don't have any idea what we're trying to do with this program. And then APL got up and said we can do this for $110 million. One spacecraft, one mission. We don't even need $150 million to do that.
Casey Dreier: You have a quote here in your paper from Jim Martin, who was the project manager for Viking. Famously blunt. It says, "Furious, yelling at JPL, 'You people think we're stupid, don't you?'" It really kind of cuts to chase of how badly JPL misread the room at that point.
Michael Neufeld: Right. How much leadership and everybody else had just felt like we know planetary exploration. We know how to do it. It's naive to think you can get to an asteroid for $150 million. It's going to take a lot of development, a lot of engineering, a lot of time. Yeah, it was completely wrong. There was essentially no contest. I mean, there was skepticism in the room about APL's low cost estimate for NEAR, but they said, well, look. We have this experience and it would be our first mission beyond Earth orbit, but still this is feasible. And so for Wes Huntress, it was essentially no contest. APL was effectively selected, which of course, at that point, got complicated because then this whole idea of what became Mars Pathfinder came out of left field. At least it came out of left field for Tom Krimigis and APL.
Mat Kaplan: Casey will be right back with this month's space policy edition guest, historian Michael Neufeld at the National Air and Space Museum. As you may have heard, the NEO Surveyor mission got at least tentative good news in the US House of Representatives appropriations bill that was released after I recorded this week's show with Casey. It requests a substantial increase for the mission in the Fiscal Year '23 federal budget. We'll continue to report on progress toward getting this dedicated telescope in space where it will find many more of those near-Earth objects. Here's a message from someone you know about this part of the Society's mission.
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Casey Dreier: Thinking about why, institutionally, Discovery succeeded versus not or versus other attempts that had failed... Again, this idea of competition. The fact that JPL could lose. Because they actually came back and requested... They kind of apologized and requested another day to reformulate and reassess when they realized exactly what they were up against. How critical that was. But let's step back just for one second and just put this in a larger context. You'd already mentioned Dan Goldin coming in, who does later. Famously pushes this faster, better, cheaper concept for NASA. But Discovery predates that. This is all happening in the context of a NASA budget projection starting to turn flat for the future. And then also, of course, the seismic, world-altering political change of the end of the Cold War and NASA seeing its role diminished as a function of that. I mean, it seems like... Discovery seemed very well-timed to take advantage of these broader trends about how and what government should be doing and how that should operate.
Michael Neufeld: Yet another factor, which is interesting and you won't expect, is SDI. Star Wars. The idea of essentially fast, minimal bureaucracy, get results quickly. That had come out of the Strategic Defense Initiative and out of the experimental space programs that came out of it, which APL had also done for SDIO. And so there was in a sense in the early '90s... and this is also in the wake of the Hubble mirror flaw being discovered.
Casey Dreier: The very embarrassing... So NASA's been having... With the loss of Mars Observer the following year, you have a number of very public failures. And as you point out, the shuttle had been grounded a lot at this period, too, for tank leaks. A lot was not looking great for NASA in general.
Michael Neufeld: Right. NASA looked bad in the early '90s and the sense was, essentially, SDI... Of course, with the end of the Cold War, it really cut that back. But the sense was SDI was innovative and looking at new techniques to save money and get results fast and NASA was bloated and bureaucratic and slow and wasting a lot of money and overrun. NASA didn't look good. And also at this time, as you mentioned, the pressure on the budget increased because of the end of the Cold War. A lot of NASA's budget was based on competing with the Soviet Union and now there wasn't a Soviet Union. There was much more motivation in 1992 to go a new way and throw out the old model. Or at least try a new model in addition to the old model. And try to do something else. All of this is the background to why, at the very end of what became the only term of the George HW Bush administration, that then Goldin was taken actually from TRW's secret military reconnaissance program and made the head of NASA.
Casey Dreier: He was a change... He was kind of hired as a change agent at NASA and known for that. And still, I think, is the longest serving NASA administrator, right? He served for 11 years. Something like that.
Michael Neufeld: Because of that reputation of being a change agent, he managed to survive the change of administration in 1993 to a Democratic administration. In fact, he survived all the way near the end of all of Clinton's two terms and beyond that into the George W Bush administration a little bit. So, he survived a long time. I mean, I have to say. Goldin was a controversial leader because he could be abusive. He could be very... Management by intimidation. I wouldn't call him an ideal manager, but his whole point... The point of his administration was to shake up NASA and say, "Hey, we were bureaucratic and slow and expensive. We got to figure out how to do something different."
Casey Dreier: Again, so much of this seems like... For changes like this to happen in a bureaucratic institution, there has to be a credible threat to that bureaucratic institution almost. You have this multivariate intersection of credible threats through new leadership, budget changes, sociopolitical changes throughout the world, and I think with mix of failures. And so you look at something like early Discovery, the NEAR mission, it's like, oh, let's give it to APL. It's relatively low cost. Even if it fails, it's not a huge... You start looking at that risk-success calculation. It becomes a lot less risky to fail. Let's bring in Pathfinder at this point. Because this is... It's the 25th anniversary as we're talking about this. Pathfinder starts its life up in NASA Ames as this pathfinding concept for... What was it? A Mars base station to do... Is it seismic stations?
Michael Neufeld: I think seismic had a lot to do with it. The idea that they would deploy a network of small stations on Mars which could be a network of seismometers and other instrumentation, which was called MESUR. Mars Environmental Survey. Ames was looking to try to get back into the planetary exploration business. The last mission had been Pioneer Venus. The two Pioneer Venus spacecraft that were launched in '79. This was an innovative concept. Wes Huntress at Solar System Exploration said that's kind of interesting. They have a mission called Pathfinder which would try to land one spacecraft. Essentially pioneer this concept a network. But he remained skeptical of the technical depth of Ames to actually pull off a mission like that. He actually sort of redirected it to JPL and said, "Would you want to try this kind of small, innovative mission for Mars?"
Michael Neufeld: Now, part of that story about the infamous meeting about NEAR at JPL was, as you mentioned, JPL went back and said, "Give us another chance." They got out an innovative manager called Tony Spear that would help to rescue the Magellan when it had crippling software problems in Venus orbit and said, "You go figure that out." And so Tony Spear came back with a credible concept for NEAR at $150 million. But APL was cheaper and so they went that way. But it brought to Wes Huntress' attention that Tony Spear might be the manager who could do something that ran against the grain of the way things were done at JPL in the early '90s.
Casey Dreier: I mean, how important is this timeline in the sense that, if they had tried to move Pathfinder down to JPL prior to losing a mission to APL, would we have a Pathfinder? Would we have had the mission that we ended up having? Or did it really take, again, this credible threat developing? It was like, okay, now JPL wanted to prove itself that they could compete on this level.
Michael Neufeld: Right. And certainly JPL wanted to have a piece of it. I think Wes Huntress was thinking, also, we need to make sure that JPL is still on board. That they're cooperative. They're not being put out of the planetary exploration business by APL. So, he encouraged them to look into this mission. Now, into this came this other idea of a small rover. A mini rover that could be attached to or put on board this Pathfinder spacecraft. He got excited about this idea of a technology demonstrator of the mini or even micro rover that Pathfinder could carry and put on the surface and sort of pioneer rover technology. So it became a package. The Pathfinder spacecraft, a cheaper way to get to the surface of Mars, and having a demonstrator for a rover.
Casey Dreier: I noted this in the paper. I always feel like space projects succeed when they're solving problems for someone. It's not just doing it for their own sake, but they're solving a broader political problem. You're doing something that is seen as useful. Pathfinder seemed to check off a lot of these boxes for NASA. As you pointed out, it helped maybe smooth over some of the disruption at JPL after losing NEAR. It gave an administration that was big on Mars, a Mars mission, but also didn't have the money. An affordable Mars mission suddenly shows up. And then also... You talk about bringing up the SDI stuff again. That there was this potential threat of a non NASA Mars mission that they wanted to head off. They had seen this with Clementine of the small, cheap lunar mission happening. How much did that play into this as being able to secure NASA's role in this area?
Michael Neufeld: Well, certainly, there was... Internal to NASA, there was concern between Wes Huntress... Of course, another part of this story, this very complicated story, is that the failure of George HW Bush's Space Exploration Initiative. He gets on the steps of my museum in July 1989, on the 20th anniversary of Apollo landing on the Moon, and says, "We're going to go to the Moon and Mars." And then NASA is tasked with finding a way to send humans back to the Moon and onto Mars. NASA comes back this incredibly expensive program, something like half a trillion dollars or something, and it's an immediate political lead balloon. It's another part of the story why NASA in the early '90s is viewed as bloated and expensive.
Michael Neufeld: There was an attempt in the earlier '90s to try to revive that. To get back to a simpler Moon-Mars program. Is there some way to rescue the Space Exploration Initiative? Huntress begins to think there's going to be competition for the Moon and Mars and he could lose the Moon and Mars from the planetary division to the exploration division. That this exploration division, the heritage of SEI, would take on the mission. In fact, Strategic Defensive Initiative Organization creates its own mission to go to the Moon and an asteroid called Clementine which actually was done by Naval Research Laboratory.
Michael Neufeld: So yeah. There's a lot of sense of threat. Wes Huntress was thinking, are we going to lose our... Is the Planetary Science division going to lose its control over planet exploration? Are we going to end up with competition? Are we going to end up being undermined or becoming marginal because of this competition? So he was looking for innovative ideas that would go over with NASA leadership and he didn't want to lose Mars certainly to the exploration division. So that's where this whole idea of Pathfinder originated. And then sticking onto it an innovative mini rover, in addition, made it look even sexier as a mission concept and help him keep that mission inside the Planetary Division.
Casey Dreier: This idea, again, of pushing the boundaries still and using technology almost as the science was going to be... You got the science side of it, but it was still, at the end of the day, a technology demonstration which meant some of the costs could be kept lower because you didn't have to succeed. The whole point was that it was an experiment. It allowed, at least on paper, failure. Even though this was probably a mission that they really couldn't afford to fail at the end of the day because it became so visible. It landed on July 4th of 1997 and it was this huge event. I remember watching it as a kid. It was a massive event. CNN covered this live. At the end of the day, they gambled and won. Both Pathfinder and NEAR succeeded, ultimately, and both of them... I double checked in my planetary exploration budget. Both of them cost about what was predicted. $124 million to build NEAR and $174 million to build Pathfinder plus $25 million for the rover. When you look at that compared to Mars Observer, those are... Combined, those are less than half of Mars Observer.
Casey Dreier: But something else key, actually, I do want to hit on... Because their success wasn't guaranteed either, right? We had to get it through congressional approval as a program. The new start for the Discovery Program had to happen. This is where something also critically important happened contingent on the fact that APL was a part of this, which was when they were proposing to start funding Discovery... At the beginning, it looked like Pathfinder would end up muscling out any other program. All the money would initially go to Pathfinder. What happened in this early '93 period when they were trying to get the Discovery program off the ground? And what ended up paying off for APL?
Michael Neufeld: When this Mars thing came out of what... at least for Tom Krimigis at APL... looked like left field, suddenly, they were being displaced by... NEAR on the budget was going to be pushed down in the order, later, and the Mars Pathfinder would come first. The NEAR might not even be funded it all. Or it may not be funded until later. It wasn't clear exactly how this was all going to play out. Of course, at the same time, Goldin was now in office and he was looking around for a program to represent his faster, better, cheaper idea and the Discovery Program was it. Goldin was very excited about the Mars project and having an innovative way to go to Mars. He didn't really care about NEAR.
Michael Neufeld: But APL... Tom Krimigis was always very politically skilled. Went to Senator Barbara Mikulski and said, "They're going to leave this out of the budget. We were supposed to be first and now suddenly we're not even going to be funded at all or maybe on a very low level of initial funding without really a go ahead to do the spacecraft." Just to shorten that story up, it went all the way down to the fall of 1993. Barbara Mikulski said, "The solution is you both get a program." She managed to push through with the Senate and House appropriations that both NEAR and Mars Pathfinder would be funded. And Discovery Program would be authorized with those as the first two missions.
Casey Dreier: Astute listeners recall Barbara Mikulski, senator from... ex-senator now... from Maryland. The savior of many a NASA science program, whether at Goddard or APL. We can trace her... She helped save James Webb Space Telescope. Helped save the New Horizons missions to Pluto. Helped establish... also very similar story... establish the New Frontiers mission line. But all of that because NEAR was coming out of APL in Maryland. She would not have done this if JPL had won NEAR. So there's this political... It's almost like the innovation here, too, from a bureaucratic standpoint, was to leverage the parochialism behind politics that fund space programs. It makes sense to spread some of these things around because then you build your congressional constituency to have support. Barbara Mikulski again. She just gave the money to both. At the end of the day, much bigger than was requested initially.
Michael Neufeld: In fact, to the point where Dan Goldin was angry that somehow the budget [inaudible 00:54:44] budget he didn't want. But Wes Huntress said it made him very happy. By that time, he had been elevated to be the head of what now is called the Science Directorate, but in those days was the Office of Space Science. So yeah. It turned out well. Everybody was happy, basically. JPL had a mission to Mars and APL had its NEAR. To this day, as far as APL is concerned, NEAR was first. But officially speaking, Mars Pathfinder was Discovery Mission #1.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, NEAR launched first.
Michael Neufeld: NEAR launched first. It had a long, complicated path to the asteroid Eros. It launched in early 1996. It was a happy outcome for all concerned. The question was then can this be turned into a sustainable program? Because even though Congress had authorized the Discovery Program in the fall of '93, it had not yet authorized the concept that this would be a continuous budget line. That's another really important idea. Most of you have probably heard of the new start. There must be a new start in the budget. If you want to have Viking or you want to have Voyage or you want Magellan, whatever, there has to be congressional appropriation for that one program. The idea was that Discovery would be a line... There would always be a line in the budget that said Discovery Program gets... I don't know. In those days, probably like $500 million or something like that. Maybe less than that. But there would be a line in the budget that NASA could work with. It did not have to go on the back of Congress and ask for permission for every single mission. Every single spacecraft did not need an individual appropriation. This was actually the way that the Explorer program had operated. There was a line for Explorer program and NASA would run this... There would be some competitive applications for astrophysics, heliophysics, missions.
Michael Neufeld: So if Discovery could do that, then you wouldn't have to worry about getting over the political hump every other year for a new appropriation. Another part of it was, of course, now they wanted to actually implement the idea of Discovery Program. Those first two missions were assigned, so effectively, they were not actually the Discovery model in terms of competitive, PI-driven, maybe out of a university. There was a big workshop at San Juan Capistrano in late 1992, in which the community was asked to propose missions. There were several dozen very innovative concepts proposed by people in the centers and in the universities. Out of that, NASA selected a dozen or so and said, hey, these are interesting concepts. We'll give you some more seed money to try to develop them. There was a real sense in the community. Hey, we actually can do this. We actually can start competing spacecraft ideas.
Casey Dreier: Overall, relatively successful. I mean, you follow up with Stardust and Genesis. CONTOUR explodes in space. But then they continue. MESSENGER, Deep Impact, Dawn, GRAIL, InSight, Lucy, and Psyche. It begins to succeed. I think you see a lot of other initial success in the '90s of not Discovery class missions, but low cost missions. Mars Surveyor class missions succeed initially for a while. Watching this and analyzing this program now that's been going on for 30 years, I guess... almost 30 years... how has it changed over that time? Is it still the same program philosophically that it was, do you think, at the beginning?
Michael Neufeld: The one thing that's clearly gone away is low cost. The story behind that is in part because of the fate of faster, better, cheaper. In the '90s, Dan Goldin said we've got to take risks. We've got to be willing to accept failures. We have to be willing to cancel programs that run over budget no matter how much they've already spent. Trying to foster this climate of we take risks, we're willing to have failures. And then, of course, the infamous two Mars failures of 1999. One crashes on the surface and the other burns up or at least was misdirected such that it ran into the atmosphere and burned up or was bounced off. We don't know exactly what happened to it. But both Mars missions were lost. Produced a political crisis. It produced an extremely hostile criticism in Congress and it sort of illustrated the fact that we like to talk about taking risks and we like to talk about missions failing, but when missions actually fail, Congress and the media jump down the throats of the organizations like JPL.
Casey Dreier: They weren't cheap enough to endure the double failure.
Michael Neufeld: Yeah, that's a good point. They were still hundreds of millions of dollars and not that cheap. The early Discovery limit was $150 million, which would then be adjusted for inflation. By the end of the '90s, it was more like $250 million. It was not politically acceptable to really lose spacecraft. The message that Goldin and NASA took away from this was we have to get more conservative. We have to pile on more reviews. We have to more... Spacecraft have to have more backup. Not just single point of failure everywhere, all over the spacecraft, where the whole mission could be lost. In that sense, over time, the cheapness of Discovery went away. But the reliability went up as a result of spending more money. There weren't many failures after that.
Casey Dreier: I was part of a group that submitted a paper to the Planetary Science Decadal Survey this last round led by Elizabeth Frank and she used some of my data put together about the Discovery Program. You see this trend. Adjusted for inflation, looking at NEAR and Pathfinder, those are about 400 to 500 million dollar mission in today's dollars. If you add everything up including the launch costs and operations. But now, you're looking at Lucy and Psyche, which are the two latest Discovery missions. With their operations plan, you're looking at 800 to 900 million dollars. With a good chunk of that 600 million now being just building the spacecraft itself. I guess those are still cheaper than other planetary missions. But yeah. I think the argument of this paper was the appetite for risk is functionally no longer there. These are just targeted science missions and no longer share that kind... Also, another characteristic of early Discovery missions were you had launch in less than 36 months. You could not spend eight years building them.
Michael Neufeld: [inaudible 01:01:15] development time. But anyway. Yeah, there was [inaudible 01:01:19] on the development.
Casey Dreier: It was a tight window for development and then they had to fit on a Delta II. Is that correct? They had to launch on a Delta II.
Michael Neufeld: Or something even smaller. I mean, there were a few things... Lunar Prospector was launched essentially on a refurbished ballistic missile or at least derived from ballistic missile components. That $150 million cap was not including the launch vehicle, but as you say, it was landed to a small or medium sized launch vehicle as the assumption. Part of the problem also was also, when you got into the '90s, the Delta II became obsolescent. What became United Launch Alliance is developing new rockets. The prices went up and it got more expensive to launch things as well.
Michael Neufeld: What survived of Discovery was still really important. In spite of the fact that it's not really a low cost, risky program, the competition element remained very influential and important and innovative. And the idea that there could be institutions outside NASA centers that could lead these missions, whether it be in a university like University of Arizona, Arizona State, or Johns Hopkins APL, or something else like that. Somebody else could do these things, partner with a center, use the APL, JPL... and then Goddard also came into the picture. Partner with a center and build a spacecraft. There was competition for the science, what kind of science you could do and how you could get innovative science under a cost cap, and there was competition between institutions that build spacecraft and design spacecraft. This stimulated more innovative concepts.
Michael Neufeld: So that part of Discovery survived the end of faster, better, cheaper, survived Dan Goldin, and even survived its own crisis in the early 2000s when a lot of missions were running way over budget and behind schedule, and still continues to be influential. A key example of that is how the New Frontiers program, which is essentially the next level up... how that came out of the idea of Discovery. I told in a separate article about the competition for Pluto and how all that played out was, again, APL won with their concept. They beat JPL. And thanks to Barbara Mikulski, it survived multiple attempts to cancel it and became the starter for a New Frontiers program that competed the mid-size planetary mission.
Casey Dreier: Do you feel like we're seeing Discovery... Is this just the inevitable consequence of institutional bureaucratic ways of managing programs? Growth is just always happening until you meet a crisis that has some external forcing function that reformulates how these things work. As an observer and historian of these types of institutions, is this just a natural or inevitable cycle that we see?
Michael Neufeld: There's nothing inevitable about the budget going up. You have to realize. I mean [inaudible 01:04:27]
Casey Dreier: Unfortunately, yeah.
Michael Neufeld: Yeah. That things... Once again, there seem to be budget increases. There's support in Congress. But yeah. There's no guarantee. In the early '90s, NASA's budget was flat. Planetary budget was flat or declining. And Wes Huntress was searching around for a way to essentially get more for his dollars and to convince Goldin and the political system that it was still worth spending money on planetary. So yeah. Exactly. Budget crisis and sense of being in a politically... being vulnerable certainly helped motivate. When the budget just goes up inevitably and there's no real danger, then institutions tend to become bureaucratic and sluggish over time because there's nobody to compete against. No powerful motivation to reshape the organization.
Michael Neufeld: I mean, JPL has really changed the way it was organized. When I was last doing the article on Europa, I talked to Charles Elachi and he said, "Yeah, we had to rethink how we organized our laboratory because it was always about one giant spacecraft after the next. Viking and Voyager and Galileo and so on. We had to figure out how to compete with Discovery. How to have multiple proposals at the same time. How to partner with university PIs, whatever." And so the net result is that JPL is now once again the dominant player in Discovery wins because it has reorganized itself to be competitive in Discovery and New Frontiers.
Casey Dreier: The entire field of planetary science is just in a fascinating point compared to when Discovery started. You had Dan Goldin go to JPL in what? '93? And address them next to the Voyager mock-up. The full-sized Voyager mock-up. He says, "You're not going to get anymore. Cassini is going to be the last mission like this that we're going to do." But now of course, at JPL, they're doing not just Europa Clipper, which is Cassini scale, if not bigger. More expensive. But also Mars sample return at the same time. Right after having done Perseverance. After Curiosity. It ended up... These big, big missions are tenacious in terms of being able... There's this drift or institutional set of forces that drive you to those. As we're seeing now a little bit with Discovery, I was thinking about... Is SIMPLEx or the super small SAT or commercial partnership providers... Is that going to displace or recreate this sense of innovation, exploration, or experimentation and failure? Is that what we're going to see in the future?
Michael Neufeld: I think certainly it's probably time to consider whether we need to have a new entry-level planetary mission program because Discovery has become more mid-sized than small and risky. I know there were some various concepts for... Actually, we had that one experiment with a Mars CubeSat. There could be more new ideas for cheaper, very focused, one instrument kind of missions or something. The flagship is not dead, obviously. It's been declared dead multiple times, but there are big-
Casey Dreier: Long live the flagship.
Michael Neufeld: Yeah. The reality is there's still sometimes things we want to do something ambitious like landing a large rover on Mars or returning a sample or whatever. Going to Europa. It's just not possible to do that on the cheap.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. There's no shortcuts to some of those. If you're going to this hideous radiation environment around Jupiter. That just presents a fundamental challenge. What's interesting to me is I think we see NASA right now experimenting with a lot of different low-cost planetary through SIMPLEx but also through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services. But there's no coherent broader goal that we saw with Discovery. It seems like we're attacking this in a number of problems but inconsistently. SIMPLEx has been kind of a handful of missions, but it's not really an enduring program. It's funded scattered now throughout the agency. CLPS is going to be maybe the closest thing that we see, but NASA is still providing all of the resources for the instrumentation. I wonder if what we're experimenting with is what's the bar for getting usable science data versus the engineering and overhead required to deliver one instrument to a different celestial body. What's the lower end of that spectrum? Which is an extreme version of cost-cutting compared to some of these. These SIMPLEx missions are $55 million. That's way cheaper than even the original Discovery missions.
Michael Neufeld: That's probably what we need is a little more coherence in that program for finding cheap ways to go. Sometimes even competition among these programs is helpful in itself.
Casey Dreier: You state at the close of your article that Discovery is one of the few projects in NASA's space science history to have not only worked but survived over the long haul. Do you still see that being true for the future of Discovery Program that we have now with our two Venus missions and how people are engaging with it?
Michael Neufeld: Yeah. I mean, it seems to be very entrenched in the way we think about what missions are done. The decadals themselves. The last one, the current one... The new one has supported Discovery and New Frontiers. Have stated we need to keep them and just how do we adjust the budgets and the expectations in those programs so that they work. But yeah. There's no sign that they've lost their popularity or that they're going away in any way. It's only always a question of being able to afford these missions within the overall budget. We can hope that NASA's budget doesn't go backwards, but things are possible. The innovative and competitive dimensions of Discovery have been influential and that means I think it retains a lot of credibility even though it's no longer cheap and risky.
Casey Dreier: Well, Dr. Michael Neufeld. The senior curator in the space history department at the National Air and Space Museum. Space historian and expert on the history of the Discovery Program. Thank you for joining us today. It was delightful to have you back on the show.
Michael Neufeld: It was wonderful talking to you. I enjoyed it very much.
Mat Kaplan: Historian Michael Neufeld of the National Air and Space Museum talking with our own Casey Dreier. Great conversation, Casey. So much of that stayed with me. One thing in particular actually came from you all, though Michael completely agreed. That change, major organizational change, often comes only when there is a threat. At least a perceived threat and frequently a very real threat. Maybe I'd temper it and say a serious challenge, but now really, I think threat is maybe the way to go.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. Or maybe external forcing function if you want to be more generic with it. Something from the outside, generally. I was fascinated and I continue to be fascinated about how NASA as an organization responds and adapts to this type of situation and whether in the absence of that... I think you're right. It's a very challenging idea when you step back to think about it. Because what we want generally as advocates, space advocates, is more resources for NASA. But would you have had a program like this absent that external threat of funding freezings and needing to do more with less? Sometimes you can shake otherwise ossified bureaucracy or people within it to accept new things, to seed ground, to get over ego fights between... At the end of the day, these are institutions run by people. With all the attendant complexities and frustrations that hominids bring to their group dynamics. Having some external thing... I think about this all the time. This is, I think, why we have decadal surveys for science but not human spaceflight. Because we have the external forcing function of the scientific process, of external data, that drives consensus. If you have an external political situation, you can drive consensus to solutions to that. Absent that, it's a much harder thing to drive internal consensus by mere beautiful, rational argument alone. As much as we'd like to believe otherwise.
Casey Dreier: And so it is fascinating. Again, I think it's an interesting perspective and a challenging one to think about as advocates because, at the end of the day, we want more missions and more exploration. Generally, that requires more resources. But if there are ways to streamline, improve, make things more efficient, we should really think about ways to do that as well. I'd like to do it not in a negative structure always. I don't always want there to be a negative threat as the motivator, but again, our little hominid brains tend to respond very strongly to that as a motivating factor.
Mat Kaplan: I suspect that we have a listener or two out there, or a few thousand, who have also seen that it sometimes takes an existential threat to get an organization back on track or working to the level it should be or considering the kinds of new activities that it should. Space is no different. It's all us people standing behind these things. Great conversation, Casey, as usual. Thank you. I guess with that, we can wrap things up except to remind everybody... If you like what you hear, we hope that you also like what you see when you go to planetary.org. To learn more, that's also where if you're hearing this someplace else, you can find lots of relevant links. Ways to learn more about the stuff that Michael Neufeld and Casey were just talking about. And of course, everything else that we're up to at The Planetary Society. And while you're there, stop by the Become a Member page. Planetary.org/join if you want to take expressway. Please, if you're not already, consider becoming a member. And if you are a member, thank you very much for standing behind all of this.
Mat Kaplan: Casey, thanks. Have a wonderful, wonderful trip across Europe. I look forward to hearing about it and I look forward to talking again when we gather on the first Friday in August.
Casey Dreier: I'll be there, Mat.
Mat Kaplan: That's Casey Dreier, chief advocate and senior space policy advisor for The Planetary Society. I'm Mat Kaplan, host of Planetary Radio. Hope you will join us every week as we bring you that weekly version of the show and that you will come back in August for the space policy edition. Have a great month, everybody. Stay cool and ad astra.