NASA's space science program seeks knowledge about Earth and its place in the universe


Symbolic of NASA's space science program is this Hubble Space Telescope true color image of Saturn, showing a massive storm (white clouds) stretching 8,000 miles near the planet's equator.

"They're like nothing that has ever been done before," said NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin when he introduced a NASA plan to develop a revolutionary series of New Millennium spacecraft. "These small, agile spacecraft will be built on a bench, not in a high-bay area. They'll be about a tenth of the cost and about a tenth of the weight of today's spacecraft."

The New Millennium initiative is intended as a way of allowing infusion of the most advanced technologies into future science missions in an era of ever-tightening federal budgets. It is described as "an aggressive flight technology demonstration effort with simultaneous objectives of increasing the capability of NASA spacecraft, their instruments and their flight rates, while significantly reducing their mass and life cycle costs."

New Millennium spacecraft are designed to permit high-risk orbital testing of untried new technologies at minimal cost; once the technologies are proved in flight, they can be incorporated in operational spacecraft for planetary exploration, Earth observation, astronomy or space physics research.

This initiative exemplifies a broader NASA drive to cut costs across the whole spectrum of space activity, from system design to manufacture to launch to operation and data acquisition - but to do so without sacrificing spacecraft capability. The New Millennium philosophy envisions a series of spacecraft that are not only smaller, lighter and significantly less costly, but also capable of improved performance through use of miniaturized advanced sensors, electronics and components.

Simplified design and new manufacturing techniques will lower the cost of the spacecraft itself. Its reduced size and weight will permit launch by launch vehicles that consume less fuel and thereby provide additional cost savings. And because the spacecraft will be highly autonomous, it can be operated by a smaller ground control team, cutting the cost of operations.

Under the plan, NASA will work in partnership with industry contractors, government laboratories and academia to assure the broadest application of advanced technologies to the New Millennium program. As an initial step, Jet Propulsion Laboratory has embarked on a survey to identify advances in microminiaturization that might be adapted to the new series of "microspacecraft." A tentative schedule envisions the first New Millennium launch before the end of the decade, with follow-on missions at the rate of one every 12-24 months.

The New Millennium proposal initially contemplates technology demonstrations in orbit, but it could produce a new family of operational scientific spacecraft. NASA is currently operating more than a score of science-seeking spacecraft, independently or in concert with other nations. The broad space science program embraces six major areas of activity:

* Solar system exploration, which involves investigations of the planets, moons, comets and asteroids of the solar system.

* Astronomy and astrophysics, which embrace study of the stars and galaxies toward an understanding of the origin and evolution of the universe.

* Space physics, which embraces investigation of the Sun/Earth system, including the study of plasmas and ionized gases originating in the solar system and beyond.

* The Mission To Planet Earth, which seeks understanding of the total Earth system and the effects of natural and human-induced changes in the global environment, and use of the knowledge gained to preserve and improve Earth's environment for future generations.

* Life and biomedical sciences, a program dedicated to advancing medical and biological knowledge toward protecting the health of humans in space, and to the utilization of that knowledge in beneficial Earth applications.

* Microgravity sciences and applications, involving investigation directed toward greater understanding of the airless, weightless Earth orbital environment and its effects on Earth-use materials.

Examples of current and planned space science activity are contained on the following pages.