White-knuckle time at NASA as mission returns to Mars

1999 failures devastated exploration program

April 07, 2001|By BOSTON GLOBE

NASA begins the long trip back to Mars today after two devastating failures in 1999 forced the agency to reassess and reorganize its entire Mars exploration program.

With the Mars Odyssey mission set for launch from Cape Canaveral shortly after 11 a.m., there are likely to be more white knuckles at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration than at any time since the first post-Challenger shuttle launch in 1988.

The agency desperately needs a success after having been battered by Congress and the news media for the failures of its two prior Mars missions, the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander. Making the episodes particularly painful was the revelation that the Climate Orbiter failure was caused by an elementary error: confusing English and metric units.

"I think that the morale of everyone is at stake" with this launch, said Louis Friedman, head of the nonprofit Planetary Society. But, he added, "these things get exaggerated. Mars Pathfinder [in 1997] was an enormous success, the world cheered, and it created a sort of view that we can do anything, that space exploration must be easy. Of course, we know just the opposite."

Mars Odyssey is part of an ambitious program of exploration, involving at least one mission every two years for the next decade. The trips - designed to answer crucial questions about Mars' composition, environment, availability of water and the possibility of life - are considered essential preparation before a human mission to the Red Planet could begin.

But NASA's track record of Mars exploration is dismal. While most missions sent to explore other parts of the solar system have succeeded, fewer than one-third of the 30 missions sent to Mars by three nations have worked as planned. Planetary scientists have long joked about a "great galactic ghoul" that seems to devour spacecraft sent to Mars.

One direct impact of the 1999 failures is that this year's mission to Mars will consist of a single spacecraft to orbit the planet and map its geology from above, rather than a pair of craft that included a lander with a long-range rover to explore the surface.

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