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Lunar Loner

[whitespace] Alan Binder
Rocket Man: Alan Binder controls the Lunar Prospector from his office near Moffett Field, but he'd rather be roaming the landscape of the moon himself.

Christopher Gardner

The man who found evidence of water on the moon did it on the cheap through NASA's innovative Discovery program. Welcome to the dawn of DIY space exploration.

By Jim Rendon

ALAN BINDER TAKES OFF his clunky powder-blue headphones and scratches his right ear for the third time in as many minutes. "I hate these damn things," he mutters in part to himself and in part to Dan Swanson, who's sitting next to him. "My ear begins to itch as soon as I put them on." Binder returns his focus to the computer monitor, where lines move across eight graphs. He's particularly concerned with two lines--one yellow, one blue--that arc upward in tiny jolts on the thruster temperature graph. He is waiting for the two engines to warm up to 100 degrees Celsius before he fires them. The information filling in the graph arrives in bundles every 30 seconds. It's beamed into this living room-sized control center just behind Moffett Field's towering hangars from a tiny blue drum 240,000 miles away in orbit around the moon.

From here in this tiny office, Binder and his small team of engineers and scientists would later watch as their Lunar Prospector, America's first mission to the moon in 25 years, sent back data proving that there is ice--actual frozen water--on the moon.

But today, Binder is simply amazed at the basic performance of his 4-foot-tall bare-bones spaceship. Though NASA gave him the money--a scant $62 million--to build Prospector, launch it into space and monitor it for 18 months, and Lockheed gave him the space and staff to build it, this mission is 100 percent Alan Binder and the culmination of years of work.

"The entire Prospector mission cost what some single instruments in the Apollo missions cost," NASA spokesman Douglas Isbell confirms. It also cost a fraction of NASA's next-cheapest mission, which topped $266 million. Prospector's rock-bottom price and individual inspiration signal a dramatic shift for the space agency and may be ushering in an era of affordable, do-it-yourself space exploration.

That is particularly true now that Prospector has found what Binder sent it to look for.

"I'm happy that the data turned out to be positive," Binder said in an interview Wednesday. "It has broad implications for the future of moon exploration--and for the future of humanity moving into space in general."

Binder says this in a deadpan, matter-of-fact tone, almost concealing the science-fiction ring to his words. But he's dead serious--just as he was when he dreamed up the idea of mining space for ice.

Ship Shopping

LUNAR PROSPECTOR is part of NASA's Discovery program, a 6-year-old initiative begun under Dan Goldin, the agency's administrator. Discovery's motto is "faster, better, cheaper," and the program has a $280 million funding limit and a two-year timeline for all the missions it considers. Under the program, NASA merely evaluates proposals that fit into broad guidelines, such as solar system exploration, and picks those that are the strongest.

"I was selected because I had the best mission for the lowest price, not because I was going to the moon. Probably despite that," says Binder, who can't emphasize enough how quickly, efficiently and well science can be done when big bureaucracies step aside. Indeed, NASA had little to do with Prospector besides cutting the check. "I defined the program, defined the science and defined the spacecraft. I worked on the whole thing, so I know how the science interacts with the spacecraft," Binder boasts. "This is the way to do it."

In a traditional NASA mission, all those functions are isolated from each other, and that, Binder says, is part of what causes budgets to balloon. Scientists want to add more instruments, and "engineers are like little kids with toys, saying, 'We can make this better, we can do that,' and size and cost grows." For Binder, proving that the mission could be done his way was as important as doing the project at all.

Prospector was originally designed in 1989, when NASA had no desire to go back to the moon and was not looking for ideas from independents. "There was a been-there-done-that attitude toward lunar exploration," Isbell says. "But the truth was that three quarters of the moon had not been mapped in great detail."

Because of his innate dislike of NASA and most other large bureaucratic organizations, Binder tried his best to go it alone. He approached foundations, aerospace companies, even Coke, Pepsi and Pizza Hut for money. But space flight, even the kind of low-budget mission that Binder was proposing, does not come cheaply. And though Pepsi was willing to pitch in $4 million for the rights to use lunar footage in ads and slap a logo on the rocket, ultimately the money he needed could not be drummed up, and the mission was scrapped. But Binder tucked the plans away and bided his time.

Mooning NASA

BINDER GREW UP IN northern Illinois in the shadow of the Yerkes Observatory, just across the state line in Wisconsin. By age 10, he had already decided that astronomy was going to be his life's work. Back then, looking at the sky through a telescope was as close to the stars as anyone could get. When he began college, the Russians laid down the space exploration gauntlet with the successful launch of Sputnik. Space was no longer a subject of scientific inquiry; it had become a race, and winning was a point of national pride.

As space transformed from something one viewed through a telescope to a place where people could go, Binder's interests shifted. He focused on studying planetary surfaces and developed his own graduate study program in what would, in time, be commonly taught as space science. His first interest was Mars, and he eventually worked on NASA's Viking mission, but during the Apollo years in the 1960s, he found himself drawn to the moon. "All of a sudden you have rock samples, lots of data. All of a sudden this became a real world," he exclaims. Compared to the tidbits of information that astronomers work with, the moon was a gold mine. Going back to the Earth's orbiting rock--even creating colonies there--is inevitable, he says, and should already have come to pass.

"Had we continued with Apollo the way we should have, I would be on the moon right now," Binder says. But instead, he must be content with shuttling from his home in Gilroy to NASA's Ames Research Center in a tiny blue Ford Festiva with a cracked windshield, only dreaming of bouncing across the lunar surface in a spacesuit. Those dreams have moved closer with the revelation that Prospector has delivered to earth, but for Binder there is still much work to be done.

Solo Power

IT IS JUST one month before NASA's press conference announcing to the world the discovery of ice on the moon and Binder pulls no punches. A phone rings in the small, glassed-encased command center. It's a call from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. "The BBC is reporting we found water," an associate announces for the benefit of those in the room. Binder jumps from his seat and presses the handset to his head. "Hell no, we haven't found water!" he barks into the phone. "The rumors are so rampant," he says to the caller. "I even heard Las Vegas has odds on us finding water--I could make a killing," he adds, cracking a smile as the group bursts into laughter.

Determining whether or not there is water frozen in deep craters at the lunar poles was one of the primary objectives of Prospector, tying in directly with Binder's vision for a lunar colony. Since water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, ice can be readily broken down into air to breathe. The remainder, hydrogen, can be used for rocket fuel. Though Binder is quick to point out that ice is not necessary for a colony, it would make things a lot easier.

With the latest findings released, he concedes he's pleased but remains objective. "Science is done to find answers, not specific answers," he explains. "And if the data [about the presence of ice] had come up negative, that would have been useful information, too."

In addition to scanning the moon for evidence of ice, Prospector also has been mapping the moon's gravity field. Dan Swanson holds up one finger and makes his other into a fist. He moves the finger around the fist, orbiting like Prospector. "If the moon were a perfect sphere, Prospector would orbit around it at a constant angle, but it's not. It's lumpy," he says. Because rocks of different densities cause the moon's gravity to be irregular, or lumpy, the ship has tilted slightly, requiring the engines to be fired every two weeks or so to straighten her out. The tiny changes in speed caused by the irregular pull of the moon are used to map the lunar gravity field. Other instruments measure radon and polonium in an attempt to discover evidence of ancient motion in the moon's tectonic plates. The gamma ray spectrometer maps the composition of surface rocks, and the magnetometer and electron reflectometer is measuring the magnetic field. The results of Binder's mission will provide NASA with the most complete mapping of the moon to date.

Moon Mailing Address

BUT THAT MAP will not be enough to satisfy Binder. "Lunar Prospector II and III are next, then a surface mission, and then we move the corporate headquarters to the moon," he says, raising his eyebrows. Though NASA has funded this mission through its Discovery program, Binder plans to raise private capital for future missions. Now that he has Prospector as an example, Binder hopes raising money will be easier.

While the idea of commercial space exploration may seem farfetched, to some--even some at NASA--it is the logical next step. Dr. David Morrison, who has the enviable title of director of space at NASA Ames, says it is inevitable that the space exploration torch will be passed from the government to private industry. It is really just a matter of timing. Looking back to the European exploration of our own continent, he says, "it was not merchants that supplied the three ships that Columbus sailed over on; it was the government. Once Columbus went back and said, 'Yes, there's gold and other things,' then the merchants followed." He continues, "The question is, where in that historic sequence are we now? Is this premature or overdue?"

Binder would say it's overdue. But he is not in the business to make millions; he is in it because he wants to see humanity move off the Earth and into space. Though this also stretches the imagination, a number of people in the field believe that humans must explore the cosmos firsthand.

"My spacecraft is extremely stupid. It is only capable of doing exactly what I tell it, because it wasn't designed to be flexible," he says. "But if I go to the moon, if I go to Mars, I can look around and make decisions and change my plans." Binder quotes Tsiolkovsky, the Russian father of modern rocketry. "Earth is the cradle of mankind, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever."

NASA's endless zero-gravity experiments and insistence on the international space station are evidence of its affection for the idea. Binder, however, believes that it is human destiny for people to move from Earth into space.

"To me it is just where we are going to go," Binder says. "You can only explore so much scientifically before you get fed up." Binder says that people will move from Earth to the moon and Mars, eventually reaching the outer edges of our own solar system, and perhaps beyond. The biggest impediment that he sees to this Star Trek future is just those people who are in the position to take us there--NASA and big aerospace companies such as Lockheed. With rules, regulations, procedures and multibillion-dollar budgets, they are not nimble enough to do the job, he contends.

Whether or not these agencies stand in the way or promote the tenuous future that Binder is working so hard to create, it is still some time off. For now Binder must content himself with tapping at computer keys and interpreting graphs of delayed data. In the control room, Binder calls over the headset, "Do we have echo response?" It is acknowledged. Then, without any fanfare, the command to fire the thrusters is sent.

But in the months of exploration leading up to the discovery of such a hot commodity, Binder took the cautious route and was unwilling to disclose even preliminary findings. Prospector had been scanning the moon using a neutron spectrometer which detects the presence of hydrogen. "We have a sense," he said with a broad smile, "but that's as far as we'll go. We don't have an absolute answer yet."

But in the months of exploration leading up to the discovery of such a hot commodity, Binder took the cautious route and was unwilling to disclose even preliminary findings. Prospector had been scanning the moon using a neutron spectrometer which detects the presence of hydrogen. "We have a sense," he said with a broad smile, "but that's as far as we'll go. We don't have an absolute answer yet."

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From the March 5-11, 1998 issue of Metro.

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