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University of Arizona

Dec 7, 1999

UA scientists disappointed with Mars project, look toward future

By Lori Stiles and Janis Leibold, UA News Services

UA scientists expressed tremendous disappointment at the apparent loss of the Mars Polar Lander, but minutes after the 12:20 a.m. window, which was the last best shot to hear from the spacecraft on Tuesday Dec. 7, scientists opened champagne and toasted their colleagues.

Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) were hoping to initially hear from the lander on Friday, Dec. 3. But as repeated attempts to hear from the lander over the weekend failed, the probability of success diminished significantly.

The spacecraft carried a science payload package called MVACS, or the Mars Volatiles and Climate Surveyor. MVACS was to search for water and other gases that filled a once-thick martian atmosphere.

UA's Peter Smith and William Boynton are co-investigators on MVACS. Smith's team designed, built and tested the Stereo Surface Imager (SSI) and, with German colleagues, designed and built the Robotic Arm Camera (RAC). Boynton's team designed, built and tested the TEGA, or Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer. Michael Ward, TEGA Team member and applications systems analyst with the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, said the experience was worth it.

"If someone said, 'Michael, there's a 10 percent chance this mission will work,' I would have joined the project anyway. You can't buy experience like this."

"This has been a real growing experience. It has been an opportunity of a lifetime for me because it is the first time I've helped take a science instrument through the overall process of how an instrument goes from sitting on a bench in Tucson, Arizona to sitting on a lander deck on the surface of Mars. That is an awesome experience."

Aileen R. Yingst, a member of the SSI Team and research associate with the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, said yes, the effort was definitely worth it.

"Exploring space is extremely rewarding. And we will know better the next time we try to fly, what we should do and shouldn't do. After exhausting all search possibilities, flight engineers will try to figure out, if we don't hear anything, what happened. And when we know what happened, we can make sure it doesn't happen again.

"As scientists, of course, we are extremely disappointed. Most of us are, I think, are explorers at heart.

"And, I was actually just telling some of the guys as we were walking in here that I couldn't be so desperately disappointed with nicer people. And at least we are all in this together. And that really has been tremendous, working with so many intelligent, committed people. And even if we are disappointed, we will be disappointed together.

"But again, this is a risky business. And if this mission helps us have a successful mission the next time, then of course it's worth it."

While NASA did not come up with the silver bullet this time, scientists at JPL toasted to future Mars missions in which they are already involved in or working on proposals for missions to explore Mars for 2001, 2003, 2005.

"We are always looking forward because of the way our business works we have to work years ahead of time. So the blow is always a little bit softened if you have other things you can be working on, and you can continue to look toward the future," Yingst said.

Jim Rice, SSI Team member and research associate with the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, said a space mission like this is not like catching a cab and going around the block. "This is exploration. This is only our fourth landing on Mars.

"This business by nature is risky. If you're not prepared to take the risk, then you probably shouldn't be in this business. Nobody wants to lose a spacecraft. People spend years of their lives on these things. But that is part of the territory that you take on when you do this stuff. To think about quitting is unconscionable."

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