Why Compton Had to Die

by Dale M. Gray

This past week we witnessed the death of a bright star in the sky, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (CGRO). While still functional, NASA decided to bring the huge telescope down while it still had control. The decision was prompted by the failure of one of three gyroscopes used to orient the facility. Had one of the remaining gyroscopes failed, the reentry could not have been controlled. Because of the large size of Compton, six tons of beams, bolts and molten bits were expected to survive planet fall. By deorbiting while two gyros were still operating, NASA hoped the bits-o-Compton would splash harmlessly in the remote South Pacific and not randomly, perhaps hitting an inhabited landform.

However, there were several assumptions made in NASA's decision for re-entry that can and should be challenged. First, NASA maintained a stonewall defense on the uncontrollability of Compton if even one more gyroscope failed. As recently as two years ago, this would have been true, but recent events in space have proven control without gyroscopes is possible. Innovative thinkers within NASA and elsewhere believe Compton could have been controlled even if none of the gyros are working. Several other NASA missions, including an observatory, are continuing their missions without the attitude control systems with which they were launched. On June 26, 1998 contact with SOHO was lost and the solar observatory went into a deep-freeze. After contact and control were reestablished two months later, two of three gyroscopes did not recover. In December of 1998, the last of the three gyroscopes failed. The Observatory was placed in "Safe" mode while scientists worked up a solution. Information from the Star Tracker was used in conjunction with the moment wheels to reestablish orientation. On February 2, 1999 SOHO returned to active service. SOHO is still active and returning valuable data with none of its gyros in operation.

Another NASA mission, the Deep Space 1 technology demonstrator suffered a short circuit on November 11, 1999. The craft had already completing its primary technology demonstration mission and fly-by of asteroid 1992 KD (renamed Braille). At the time of the equipment failure, it was on its way o rendezvous with two comets on an extended mission. The short circuit caused the loss of the Star Tracker, which the craft used to maintain its orientation relative to the Earth. Rather than fold their tent and rest on the successes of the primary mission, the Deep Space 1 team lead by Marc Raymond formed a plan whereby the Star Camera could be pressed into service to serve as the Star Tracker. While one of the two comets will be missed because of delays in firing the ion thruster, the software developed to convert the star tracker began to be uplinked on May 30 and will be checked out in time to begin thrusting for a rendezvous with Borrelly, the second of the comets.

The technology was available to save Compton, but there was no will to save the Observatory. Several weeks ago, scientists put forward alternative plans to orient Compton using other on-board resources. Despite the possibility of a technical fix, NASA decided to deorbit Compton. This decision was made within the bureaucracy of NASA. Neither Congress nor the European Space Agency, which together funded the project, took part in the decision. None of the CGRO partners, which included Germany, Netherlands and the United Kingdom, were consulted. Pleas from users, scientist in the US and Europe, were ignored. An understanding of Frontier Theory helps underline the significance of this decision process.

The Compton Observatory is not, technically speaking, on a frontier. While the design and construction of the facility in the 1980s pushed technological frontiers, it was built to search beyond the frontier in the role of an explorer. An explorer can be defined as an agent gathering hitherto unknown information beyond the bounds of civilization and its frontiers. Every frontier has agents seeking new paths of knowledge in the wilderness. However, exploration is extremely expensive and hazardous. With no support infrastructure, even the mildest of errors can cause complex failure chains. Exploration of blind alleys, while essential in the long run, is expensive business with little return on the investment. As a result, explorers are either expendable or financed by pockets so deep that they can afford not to care about the outcome. Explorers are individuals, but financiers tend to be large complex organizations. While we often think of exploration as the venue of the National Geographic Society or Explorer's clubs, most exploration is actually financed by corporate, bureaucratic, military or national coffers. It took the resources of Spain to get Columbus out of port. For an explorer to become financed, he must apply to that area of frontier most likely to benefit from the fruits of new knowledge. He can offer prestige, tactical knowledge, or an edge on competition as a payback. Because the drive of curiosity is strong in all frontiers, explorers can also pay back in pure knowledge. In any case, finance of any exploration is the result of a decision of those who control frontier coffers.

In Western Society, there are five main frontier systems in operation at any one time. These can be labeled for convenience sake as: Political, Bureaucratic, Military, Economic (including both physical and technological frontiers) and Social. In each, EMOTIONS, are the driving force behind decisions. Political frontiers are invigorated by a desire for power, prestige and the need for national security. Bureaucracies are motivated by the desire for safety and longevity. Military frontiers can be said to be motivated by both fear and patriotism. Economic frontiers are stimulated by desire for self-sufficiency and by greed. Social frontiers are inspired by a desire for altruistic betterment and to improve the human condition. The relative power of one frontier over another progress downward from Political to Social. Each frontier has own merit, but each is subservient to a large degree to the frontiers above it. To understand which of these frontiers should be applied to a particular activity, one need look at the emotional motivation. For example, Bureaucracies excel at road building. Highway bridges must be both safe and long lasting. During the development of the Apollo program, it was political will that pushed the boundaries. NASA, by definition a bureaucracy, was the tool by which this political will was actualized and was driven by the goals and desires of the political will of the country, which over-rided its own intrinsic concerns for safety. When the political goal of landing an American on the Moon before the Soviet Union was achieved, the political will was removed. The bureaucracy's desire for safety resulted in the cancellation the remaining Apollo missions before any astronauts could be lost.

How then can this be applied to the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory? When the Compton was conceived during the Cold War, there was only one set of pockets deep enough and will strong enough to pay for such an explorer. Astronomers seeking knowledge for knowledge's sake, could neither bankroll the construction nor deploy the facility in orbit. The funds came through NASA's budget at the Congressional level. Political prestige and scientific curiosity were the motivators that pushed the program's funding. The Gamma Ray Observatory (as it was then known) was to have been launched from a shuttle in 1988, but the explosion of Challenger delayed deployment.

The CGRO was deployed from the Shuttle Atlantis on April 5, 1991 during STS-37. The GRO was renamed in honor Dr. Arthur Holly Compton, who won the Nobel prize in physics for work on the scattering of high-energy photons by electrons. While the large Observatory was designed to be serviced by the Shuttle, an early mission incident damaged the propulsion system. Because there was a possibility of exposing the Shuttle and astronauts to hazardous propellant, no service missions were ever scheduled. To extend its life, the CGRO was boosted in orbit in 1993 and 1997 (Mark Wade Encyclopedia Astronautica; Washington Post).

Because of the post-Challenger delay, the Cold War had ended even before Compton was deployed. In the ensuing years, Compton's primary mission lasted far beyond its expected service life. As a result, there has been little political need to push the envelope of Compton's mission. CGRO was no longer controlled by the directives of the Political frontier. Like Apollo, it accomplished its Political goals and was relegated to control at the Bureaucratic level.

When the gyroscope failed in December, NASA managers first calculated the odds of injury or death of an uncontrolled reentry, not methods of salvaging the mission. They calculated that without control, there was a 1 in 1,000 chance of a casualty. While examples of technological "fixes" were available, they were not seriously considered. Further, there was sufficient fuel on board to boost the orbit of CGRO so that it would remain in orbit for another 11 years. Had Compton been boosted to a higher orbit, the term "safety" might have never been raised. Scientists would have had the time to find a solution to the gyroscope problems. In the case of both SOHO and DS-1, a solution required only a few months of programming. Instead, safety came to dominate the discussion and make the decision to deorbit an exclusively bureaucratic one.

One need only to read any of the NASA press releases on the Compton to see that it was firmly in control of a Bureaucracy. The word "safety" was the prime mover for the action in each and every article. The decision to deorbit was unilateral; both Congress and the ESA, who funded the telescope and its instruments, were patently uninvited to the process. The voices of scientists using the telescope were ignored because the scientists did not hold title to the telescope they were using. NASA did. Objections were brushed aside or ignored. Much like the old Ma Bell monopoly, NASA could just as well have told objecting astronomers, "We don't care, we don't have to!" NASA as a bureaucracy, by definition, has to be more concerned with the safety on the ground than the exploration of the heavens. The slightest problem resulting from reentry could have cost the jobs of the bureaucrats making the decision or endangered NASA's ability to manage future missions.

A common mistake made throughout the space community is that NASA's primary mission is to explore and advance technology. This is not the case. As a bureaucracy, NASA's primary function is safety and longevity. Once these prime directives have been achieved, then the secondary objectives of science and exploration can be addressed. Because these prime directives are not often evoked, many make the mistake of assuming that they are not important or are even unaware of their existence.

Compton had to die because it was owned by a risk-adverse bureaucracy. This is not a judgment, simply an explanation of the processes that lead to the deliberate destruction of a marvel of modern science. If there is any lesson to be learned, it is for future astronomers and explorers to understand NASA's underlying nature before signing on with the Agency. Missions should be planned in such a way that there is no chance of evoking the primary function of bureaucracy. In the case of Compton, it would have been well to have pushed the Observatory out of Low Earth Orbit or transfer the title to a non-governmental organization. While bureaucracies do not lightly give up title to assets, one solution is for title to transfer once the primary mission is accomplished.

Perhaps a better solution would be to move to a data purchase program where the agent of exploration is in private hands. There is already some movement within NASA and academic centers toward this end. Companies such as SpaceDev are providing an alternative to exploration by bureaucracy. With title to explorers in the commercial sector, scientists at NASA and elsewhere would only pay for data generated. Private ventures can assume greater risk and thereby greatly reduce their costs. Safety is managed and engineered, but is not dominant. Dropping a functional Observatory from orbit is bad business. Instead, solutions would be explored that would result in continued operation of the facility and continued cash flow. For private enterprise, the intelligent assumption of risk is the means to get an edge on competition; not an excuse to fold the tent and go home.