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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL July 15, 2001

POLITICS PUTS $100 MILLION SATELLITE ON ICE

Melissa Harris, Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- NASA has spent almost $100 million in taxpayer money to build a satellite that is headed for a storage bin in Maryland.

Triana was scheduled for a November flight into space, where it would measure ozone in the Earth's atmosphere while also beaming round-the-clock photos of Earth to the Internet.

But now, some fear it may never fly.

The cause of the costly hibernation: presidential politics and conflicting views -- many of them partisan -- about Triana's scientific worth.

The National Academy of Sciences addressed the last concern when it concluded in March 2000 that the controversial satellite would provide unprecedented insight into the amount of dangerous ozone and ultraviolet radiation in Earth's atmosphere.

The project also would monitor the sun to provide early warnings of solar flares, which could disrupt satellites and the electrical grid. Weather forecasters were hoping it would create better climate models, improving the accuracy of forecasts.

To Triana's project team, the academy's conclusion was the best ammunition yet against detractors in Congress who had dubbed it "Gore-sat" after the man who inspired it -- then-Vice President Al Gore.

Triana project manager Jim Watzin said last week that the satellite would be ready to go by Oct. 1. But it's not going where Watzin wants.

TRIANA WILL GO TO MARYLAND

Because of the indefinite launch delay, Triana is headed for storage at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. And the longer it sits idle, the higher the cost to taxpayers.

Chemicals used to fuel the satellite's engine will expire before its eventual launch, forcing NASA to spend an extra $3 million to replace the engine, Watzin said.

The agency also will have to spend another $1 million per year to keep the satellite in a clean and sealed environment until launch.

When might that be? Watzin said the tentative date is sometime in May 2004. But NASA brass will not confirm that.

If and when Triana receives a firm launch date, an additional $9 million to $14 million will have to be spent rehiring the project team, Watzin said. For now, those employees will be let go as Triana sits idle.

Total potential cost to taxpayers: $158 million or more, or nearly triple the estimate NASA gave Gore. And that assumes the satellite goes up.

If it doesn't, taxpayers will have lost about $100 million.

The cost is more than monetary for the 300 employees and contractors who have worked on Triana during the past three years.

"It's an enormous blow to the team," Watzin said. "Launch is the peak of our activity. Our sole goal is to get it launched. . . . The program has no end. It's demoralizing."

One Democratic aide familiar with space policy on Capitol Hill said the 2004 date raises serious questions about NASA's commitment ever to launch the satellite.

GORE'S CHALLENGE TO NASA

Triana, a project born of politics, might be dying of politics.

In its earliest incarnation, the satellite was the brainchild of Gore, who unveiled the idea during a speech in March 1998 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He challenged NASA to build and fly an inexpensive spacecraft that would make continuous, live pictures of the full, sunlit Earth from far out in space. Those pictures would be available to the world at all times via the Internet and television.

Other weather and scientific satellites constantly monitor Earth, but they monitor it so closely that they see only one portion of the planet at a time. None of these displays are returned instantly. And to see the entire sunlit face, several satellite images must be stitched together.

Triana would fill in those gaps.

Gore also gave the Earth-watching project its name, after Rodrigo de Triana, the lookout aboard Christopher Columbus' ship who first spotted the New World in 1492.

Gore hoped the images would inspire environmental consciousness and encourage new educational efforts.

Gore approached NASA Administrator Dan Goldin with the idea and asked whether it was feasible. The agency made a quick study of the proposal and concluded it could be completed for less than $50 million.

But after NASA took control, the Triana project grew from a simple camera to a satellite capable of making precise measurements of the Earth and sun.

Despite the added science, though, Triana became a political pinata as Republicans in Congress criticized it as Gore's pet science project and a waste of money.

It's a familiar story during presidential transitions: in with George W. Bush and out with NASA's most influential political supporter -- and his pet project, too.

"It's all the Supreme Court's fault," said John Pike, director of the GlobalSecurity.com policy-research organization. "If Gore would have had one more vote on the court, Triana would have been launched by now."

PLAYING SPACE POLITICS

Although NASA's focus is science, the space agency relies on a partisan Congress for financial support.

In that relationship, politics is bound to muddy the water. But in the case of Triana, some cite evidence that politics completely polluted it.

"Opponents will say that it is simply a political stunt for the vice president's election campaign," Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., said during NASA budget debates in 1999. "Somehow I don't think, though, the vice president needs to depend upon a little remote sensing satellite to ensure his election in 2000."

Like the ultimate vote on the spending bill, debate in committee and on the House floor ran along partisan lines, with Democrats supporting Triana and Republicans opposing it.

U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Palm Bay, described the satellite as a "screen saver" and sponsored an amendment that would have killed Triana's funding.

"Maybe NASA can't stand up to the White House, but the United States Congress certainly can," he said during the same debate.

NASA'S AUDIT FINDS COST PROBLEMS

Fueling Republican concerns was a NASA internal audit, which argued that the mission wasn't worth the cost without changes.

NASA Inspector General Roberta Gross criticized the agency for allowing the Gore-conceived portion of the mission to sidestep the standard review process and for increasing the mission's cost by adding the extra scientific research.

Another one of Gross' key concerns was that NASA was building a new satellite to collect pictures of Earth when many images already were widely available on the Internet.

The internal and congressional squabbling caused two delays.

Congress caused the first 10-month delay when it ordered the assessment by the National Academy of Sciences.

While leaving the issue of scientific validity to the academy, a House-Senate conference committee decided that even if Triana received a thumbs-up, the satellite could not be launched until after the presidential election, causing another six-month launch delay.

The academy eventually concluded that NASA had transformed Gore's novel idea into a legitimate science mission deserving of funding.

Cost of the first delay: $39 million.

Because of unrelated shuttle troubles, Triana's launch was put off an extra six months.

Cost of the second delay: $22 million.

As a result of both delays, Triana lost its first-class ticket on the space shuttle.

NASA officials said the work stoppage ordered by Congress was the main cause of the launch delays. "At the time, we couldn't meet their launch date of November 2000," said NASA spokesman David Steitz, who explained that another payload replaced Triana on space shuttle Columbia.

But now that the bitter 2000 presidential election has past and Triana has received a scientific stamp of approval, a House appropriations subcommittee voted last week to "encourage the earliest possible launch of Triana" and increase its budget by $1 million.

6 SHUTTLE FLIGHTS A YEAR ALLOWED

But even that's not a green light.

NASA budgetary and scheduling problems have created additional obstacles.

The Bush administration has limited NASA to six shuttle launches per year. Triana must fly on Columbia, which is the only space shuttle devoted to scientific research. The other three shuttles in NASA's fleet are reserved for flights to the international space station.

Now NASA, not Congress, must make tough decisions about which missions fly first, taking into consideration the scientific value, the satellite's weight and other pressing priorities such as maintenance work on the Hubble Space Telescope.

Further muddling Triana's future is the possibility that NASA may retire Columbia for budgetary reasons.

"It's our mission's misfortune that circumstances have pushed our launch into a period of fewer launches and greater demands on the space station," said Craig Tooley, Triana's deputy project manager. "Congress forced us to launch later, and now NASA has to decide what needs to fly and when."


Copyright 2001 Sentinel Communications Co.