Mars Mission: Lessons from Failure

August 26, 1993

Hardly anyone in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration would agree, but the apparent failure of its mission to Mars could have beneficial effects for space exploration in the long run.

The immediate result of the Mars Observer disaster is a serious setback for an ambitious international space program to explore Mars in the coming decade.

This mission was to pave the way for others -- two Russian spacecraft next year and in 1996 and other multinational projects to follow into the early years of the 21st century. At a minimum the failure of Mars Observer to orbit the mysterious Red Planet, or at least to communicate from it, will hinder the timetable. The Russian spacecraft, for example, were to use Mars Observer as a communications link with Earth.

A longer view presents a less dismal prospect. This disappointment could be the sort of blow that forces the victim to rethink some things previously taken for granted.

NASA has insisted on continuing to probe space pretty much as it has since Sputnik galvanized this nation. The agency has stumbled occasionally, fought desperately against budget slashing but scored many successes. In some respects it has become its own worst enemy, burnishing NASA's image from the "man on the moon" days as the agency that can achieve the unimaginable. Realistically, scientists and engineers who hurl a 5,600-pound craft filled with extremely sensitive instruments 450 million miles to rendezvous with a 4,200-mile-wide target are going to slip up once in a while. But NASA officials encourage romantic expectations, not realism.

The Mars Observer failure may force into the open a debate that has been waged in research laboratories and aerospace design facilities for some years. Does it make sense to continue highly sophisticated space missions with expensive hardware that is designed to minimize the risk of failure? Or would it be wiser to launch a greater number of less elaborate, thus less expensive, missions that might have a higher failure rate but which collectively would still deliver more information?

This is a difficult question for lay people to analyze, and even more difficult for the politicians who control NASA's budget to deal with. We are all dependent on the experts, and the experts differ seriously. But if NASA officials, the scientists and engineers who work for them, plus the legislators who ultimately decide their fate, make an intellectually honest appraisal of the space program, Mars Observer could still make a valuable contribution.

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