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Voyager project is NASA's shining star

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Ask Richard P. Laeser about the Voyager 2 spacecraft and you get a broad smile. ``We're doing great!,'' he exclaims. Managers of other planetary projects at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) worry about the future. The Challenger accident upset their launch schedules. Budget cuts crimp their plans.

But there's no gloom in the office of Voyager's boss. JPL is America's leading center for planetary exploration and Voyager is its centerpiece. It's a well-funded, successful program with a bright future.

Although overshadowed at the time by the Challenger tragedy, Voyager's survey of little-known Uranus last January was a stunning achievement. Now Mr. Laeser and his colleagues look forward to unveiling Neptune. Voyager 2 should reach that distant planet in a little less than two years.

``I will guarantee that, if the spacecraft should live all the way out to August '89, this is going to be a spectacular mission,'' Laeser says. He adds, ``It's going to be the closest flyby of anything the Voyager spacecraft has made.''

By then, the craft will have spent 12 years in space. Its equipment has seen hard service and is now obsolete, but Laeser has confidence in his team's ability to get the most out of it. Thinking back to earlier technical troubles and their subsequent resolution, he says, ``Right now, we have a healthier spacecraft leaving Uranus than we did five years ago leaving Saturn.''

The project's funding situation is healthy too. Laeser points out that his office has slightly underrun its budget every year while its estimates of future needs ``have been very accurate.''

``We get what we ask for because we're believed,'' he says.

The project originally was intended only to study Jupiter and Saturn. That's all the first of its two spacecraft did. Voyager 1 now is heading out of the solar system toward interstellar space with no more planets in its path. Voyager 2, however, was allowed to go on to visit two additional planets.

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