Joe Btfsplk; January 1994; Scientific American Magazine; by Powell; 2 Page(s)
For his Li'l Abner cartoons, Al Capp dreamed up a character named Joe Btfsplk--a man so unlucky that a tiny raincloud followed him wherever he went. Although the artist and the original comic strip are gone, Joe apparently has a new job: patron saint of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. And he's been working overtime. In the past few months, the agency has experienced a seemingly endless string of bad fortune, including the mysterious, mission-destroying loss of contact with the Mars Observer. Even the Galileo spacecraft's successful encounter with the asteroid Ida last August was compromised by an incurable antenna problem that has significantly reduced the probe's ability to relay information back to the earth.
Some setbacks are inevitable in space science; no rocket is perfectly reliable, no instrument foolproof. But NASA's recent problems arouse particular disappointment and frustration because they involve big-science projects whose failures carry an especially heavy cost to the taxpayers and to the scientists involved. Despite the "cheaper, faster, better" philosophy espoused by NASA's current administrator, Daniel S. Goldin, unwieldy scientific behemoths remain alive if not always well at the agency.