The NASA management responded to critics by putting together a review committee, which sided with Everitt. Although the committee included in its final report a "significant minority" who believed that the program was misguided, the majority of members felt otherwise. The project, they insisted, was "well worth its remaining cost to completion."

Now the probe is slated for launch by October 2000, and Dan Goldin, head of NASA, has publicly stated that he's behind Gravity Probe B all the way. That should be reassuring, considering how long it's taken the project to get off the ground. There was a time around 1964, after NASA first began funding it, when William Fairbank, a notorious optimist, was hoping to see it in orbit by the early 1970s. Fairbank died in 1989, and it was only last October, seven years later still, that the Stanford researchers got hold of their first major piece of flight equipment, the dewar, to start putting the actual satellite together. Now one of the wonders of the project is why the scientists involved have stayed with it. "If we had been talking 30 years when we first became associated with the project," says Daniel DeBra, "it would have been very hard to do. But none of us was that pessimistic. And there was never a time that the work was routine. We were pushing the envelope on virtually all the technology."

If that isn't enough, the experiment does have the kind of intrinsic interest that can keep a scientist motivated for quite some time. "This experiment is going to contribute to the deep fundamental knowledge of physics,'' says Lange, "the kind of knowledge that is related to questions that everybody asks until they get ruined by becoming an adult and don't ask questions anymore."