How the space shuttle killed an American Halley's Comet mission

Mar 14, 2013 by Elizabeth Howell, Universe Today
Halley’s Comet, as seen by the European Giotto probe. Credit: Halley Multicolor Camera Team, Giotto Project, ESA

NASA missed the chance to visit Halley's Comet in 1986 when the famed sentinel swung close to Earth, as it does every 76 years. Luckily for history, the Europeans flew Giotto past it on this day (March 13) in 1986, and some other nations sent their own probes.

The full story of NASA's withdrawal is in Bruce Murray's Journey Into Space: The First Three Decades of Space Exploration. Murray, the former director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has chapters upon chapters on Halley, but here are some notable highlights.

First of all, there were at least three initiatives for NASA to send a mission to the famed comet. The missions below are in chronological order, and it appears it was only when the preceding one was killed that the next was envisioned:

  • Solar sail. This mission would use the power of the —bits streaming from the sun—to bring a spacecraft within Halley's . In fact, the spacecraft would stay with Halley as it whisked out of the solar system and would return (long dead) when Halley came back in 2061.
  • A rendezvous with Comet Tempel 2. Another idea would see a spacecraft swing close to Comet Tempel 2 but also have a probe that would take a picture of Halley from a distance. NASA also considered splitting the mission in two to meet annual budgetary requirements, but the Comet Science Working Group was cool to the idea. There also was some thought about bringing the Europeans into this mission, but that never worked out.
  • Galileo-type hardware. A third initiative had the Jet Propulsion Laboratory envisioning a distant of Halley, basically using similar types of parts that flew in a spacecraft (called Galileo) to Jupiter.
All three of these initiatives fell to during the 1970s and 1980s. What caused the budget cuts? In large part, the . To be sure, the shuttle was an impressive piece of hardware, and we are not doubting what it contributed to the construction of the International Space Station and to human spaceflight in general. But it was a large project and in those tight times, something had to give.

Perhaps the most interesting cancellation came in 1979, when NASA administrator Robert Frosch and his deputy went to President Jimmy Carter's office to plead for the case of two projects: a solar electric propulsion system that would eventually power the Halley-Tempel 2 mission, and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (which flew into space, after many delays, in 1991).

Carter, according to Murray, was reading a book on black holes penned by Walter Sullivan of the New York Times. (We're assuming it's the 1979 book Black Holes: The Edge of Space, the End of Time.) When presented with the options, Carter said he was "partial to the gamma-ray thing because of this connection with the black-hole problem."

That signaled the beginning of the end for 's Halley-Tempel 2 mission.

Explore further: Russian, American ready for a year in space

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NASA spacecraft burns for another comet flyby

Nov 23, 2010

( -- Eighty-six days out from its appointment with a comet, NASA's Stardust spacecraft fired its thrusters to help refine its flight path. The Stardust-NExT mission will fly past comet Tempel 1 ...

Stardust spacecraft adjusts flight path for comet meetup

Feb 02, 2011

( -- Just over two weeks before its flyby of comet Tempel 1, NASA's Stardust spacecraft fired its thrusters to help refine its flight path toward the comet. The Stardust-NExT mission will fly past ...

Stardust celebrates twelve years with rocket burn

Feb 09, 2011

( -- NASA's Stardust spacecraft marked its 12th anniversary in space on Monday, Feb. 7, with a rocket burn to further refine its path toward a Feb. 14 date with a comet.

NASA spacecraft on final approach toward comet

Nov 02, 2010

( -- The EPOXI mission spacecraft has refined its path toward a Nov. 4 flyby of comet Hartley 2, successfully performing its final maneuver today at 8 a.m. PDT (11 a.m. EDT). The spacecraft burned ...

Recommended for you

Scuttling satellites to save space

1 hour ago

It takes a lot of ingenuity – not to mention a massive quantity of sheer force – to get satellites into orbit. Now space engineers are applying comparable ingenuity to the challenge of getting their missions ...

A new look at the sun's magnetic field

1 hour ago

Sunspots, bursts of radiation and violent eruptions are signs that our sun is permanently active. Researchers have long known that this activity varies in a cycle of around eleven years' duration. Even if ...

Russian, American ready for a year in space

13 hours ago

The Russian astronaut heading off for a year in space says he'll miss the natural landscapes on Earth. His American counterpart jokes he won't miss his twin brother.

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (3) Mar 14, 2013
Just another in a long line of "unintended consequences" for Shuttle. In any sane world Shuttle would be declared an unmitigated failure. In this bizzaro world, Shuttle is celebrated and put in museums.

5 / 5 (1) Mar 14, 2013
Please recall that in the United States, the House of Representatives passes the budget. It makes the rules and enforces the choices of the budget. The Executive branch, The President, proposes a budget but is always over-ruled by the House. The Senate can do a budget but it is the house that has the power of the purse as Jefferson put it. If the House leadership (Democrats according to Wikipedia) did wanted a Halley's Comet mission then it would have voted NASA the money.
Recall that this was a short time after the House declined to keep the Skylab in orbit. NASA had a plan to boost the orbit but the House leadership (Democrats according to Wiki) nixed it.
1 / 5 (1) Mar 15, 2013
All three of these initiatives fell to budget cuts during the 1970s and 1980s. What caused the budget cuts? In large part, the space shuttle program.
Never mind the financial burden of the Vietnam war.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.