FUSE was almost the mission that wasn't.
The world's newest orbital satellite, which will test the Big Bang theory and tell astronomers how chemicals mix and filter throughout the universe, is scheduled for launch in a few weeks, as early as June 23.
But for the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer, the road to launch has been long and painstaking. In fact, it took 20 years, with Johns Hopkins astronomer Warren Moos, the project's principal investigator, shepherding the satellite through a series of narrow, sometimes teetering, gates.
What began as an idea from a survey of needs by the National Academy of Sciences in 1980, eventually became a plan that competed with dozens of deserving proposals from around the country. FUSE was distinctive, in part, because it was developed to build on data derived from the eight-year Copernicus mission (1972 to 1980) and on pathfinding work that would be done by the Hubble Space Telescope's ultraviolet instruments.
The big science Moos and his team set out for FUSE also happened to tackle some of the most fundamental questions about the origins of the universe.
"We needed this follow-on to Copernicus," Moos recalls. "And we needed the ability to discern shorter wave-lengths and have more sensitivity than Copernicus so we could reach well across our galaxy and into ones that are far distant. As soon as the call for proposals was made, we went right to work."
Unfortunately, as Moos and his team drafted their request, the Challenger rocket exploded. Although NASA officials assured him that they would still accept proposals, like many aerospace projects, FUSE became trapped in the indecision and chaotic aftermath of the Challenger accident. It wasn't until1988 that NASA selected four finalists and then called for another competition.
"So they picked us and three others," Moos recalled, "and then said, "OK, now you've got to duke it out.'"
The competition whittled the field down to two -- the FUSE project and one other -- and the next year FUSE was finally chosen for the award.
In 1990, Moos got his funding.
A team of engineers and astronomers worked under his leadership for the next four years -- planning and designing the spacecraft, honing specifications for the telescope, and expanding a list of science goals.
Then, one day in 1994, the call came.
"I picked up the phone and it was NASA," Moos remembers. "They said it was simple: FUSE will not go through. They said it just wouldn't survive the next round of budget cuts. And I thought, "But we're only a year away!' We'd gone from feasibility to planning to design and there we were, only months away from making hardware--and someone pulled the plug!
"We had a team and lots of engineers and all these hard-working people pulling the project toward a final build program. And we'd spent close to $20 million at that point. You know, that's a little further along than a bunch of guys sitting around drinking coffee saying, "Hey, wouldn't it be neat to do this satellite mission?' We were in the soup."
In fact, there was no joy in the news for NASA administrators, either. Besides the agency's financial commitment, FUSE also continued to have strong backing from the science community. Bowed but not defeated, Moos and agency officials kept working the problem. Seventy-two hours after the death knell rang, Moos made a proposal.
"We went back to them and said we could do it, but we'd have to set a tight schedule, and we'd have to cut payroll significantly. We had to downsize, and we had to work fast."
NASA administrators agreed, and the proposal met with a good reception.
"I think NASA was prepared to listen to us because they were already looking down this road. They could see that if the university took over the program, we could hire our own contractors and cut costs. So when we said, "How much can you give us?' they didn't brush it off. They just set a price 60 percent below estimates and chopped the schedule 40 percent. And, believe it or not, we saw that we could do it--"But,' we said, "only if you give us control.'"
Dennis McCarthy had come to Johns Hopkins after managing the very successful COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) satellite mission.
"I left NASA in '94 to come to Hopkins to build this new scientific instrument called FUSE, go to school, and be a teacher," McCarthy recalls. "Five weeks to the day after I started, we got a call saying the FUSE program had been canceled. That was when I found out the difference between being a hired employee and having tenure as a faculty member."
Together, Moos and McCarthy knew that if the university took over the program management, they could operate the project like any other commercial contractor. The team could use off-the-shelf hardware for the spacecraft and ground system, buy other materials and services on fixed-price contracts, and develop parts of the instrument with their science collaborators at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Colorado. Furthermore, the infrastructure at Johns Hopkins was already in place, with plenty of expertise and sound experience from the university-based Applied Physics Laboratory and a number of faculty on staff, who had worked in the planning, design and launch of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Costs, McCarthy and Moos pledged, could shrink substantially.
Importantly, four of the most significant corporate players in the project had headquarters or offices in Maryland. Orbital Sciences Corp. of Germantown designed and built the spacecraft. Swales Aerospace in Beltsville designed the instrument structure. Interface Control Systems of Columbia designed the software for the instrument flight computer and for the satellite control center. AlliedSignal Technical Services Corp. of Columbia developed the ground station and is also helping Johns Hopkins operate the mission.
The satellite received its final qualifying tests for flight at the Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Md.. APL served as the location for the satellite's final assembly. The Space Telescope Science Institute, which oversees Hubble operations and is located on the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus in Baltimore, across the street from the Physics and Astronomy Department, developed science data processing and planning software.
There was no new technology to be built except for the detector and gratings on the instrument; most of the software could be developed from the Hubble heritage; McCarthy wisely linked the mission operations team, which will command and control the satellite once in orbit, with integration and testing teams--the decision to streamline the teams will give everyone intimate knowledge of the satellite and lessen the learning curve for mission operations once the spacecraft is in orbit.
When FUSE launches, McCarthy and Moos will share the satisfaction of having kept the costs down to one-third of the project's original estimates.
"This is the wave of the future," McCarthy says today. "Scientists will be doing these projects at universities now because you can buy just about everything you need except the scientific instruments. Many professors around the world now understand that NASA wants these missions done outside their gates, so they are becoming very creative. And they are looking to FUSE to show them the way."
They beat the competition, waited through delays, roughed it out during a budget crunch, and rose phoenix-like from the ashes.
For 15 years, Warren Moos has kept FUSE on track. As an academician whose real interest is the interstellar medium, not bureaucratic politics or contract procurement or corporate husbandry, he now anxiously awaits a wealth of scientific data that he and his colleagues have desired for so long.
"You know universities don't normally administer space contracts," Moos says, reflecting on the unusually successful effort. "NASA and Johns Hopkins simply believed we could do it--for the sake of science."
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