But why have so many Mars missions fallen short of their goal? Is
there something special about Mars that leads spacecraft and the
teams that guide them like moths to a flame? The answer partly has to
do with the sheer number of attempts launched from Earth to the red
planet. "We've sent more things to Mars than any other body except
the Moon, so we've had more opportunities to fail," says Whetsel.
Some compare the record of Mars exploration to that of the early
Moon shots that preceded the astronauts. Many failures occurred early
in the program, but the record improved with experience.
In addition, says Whetsel, many people incorrectly assume Mars is
an easy target to reach because of its relative proximity and many
Earthlike qualities. But just because it's closer to Earth than Jupiter
or Saturn doesn't necessarily make Mars a simpler destination.
Lessons Learned: The Silver Lining
A mix of excitement touched with trepidation is building at JPL,
where, in about a month, engineers will direct NASA's Mars Odyssey
spacecraft to enter orbit around Mars. At the time, Odyssey will be
about 150 million kilometers (93 million miles) from Earth. Communicating
through its 15-watt radio, the spacecraft will be at one of the most
critical junctures of its mission.
It is the first spacecraft to be sent to Mars since the dual loss of
the Mars Surveyor orbiter and lander two years ago. Fresh in the
collective mind of the space exploration engineering community are
recent lessons learned the hard way as the Odyssey team heads
toward its orbit insertion maneuver. Those tough lessons, however,
are considered by many at JPL and at Odyssey contractor Lockheed
Martin Astronautics in Denver, Colo., to be the silver lining ending a
cloudy period for Mars exploration in particular and JPL in general.
The team is acutely aware that thousands of engineering details
have to proceed correctly for the spacecraft to begin its first successful
orbit around Mars. If only one of those details goes wrong, it may
unleash a cascade of events that could cause Odyssey to fail its
entry into Mars' orbit.
Not that the public should expect anything short of a mission
accomplished, says Mars Odyssey Project Manager Matt Landano of JPL:
"I think they ought to be expecting a success. We are doing
everything we reasonably could on Odyssey to reduce risk and maximize
our prospects for success. We clearly aren't going into this thinking
that anything short of success is acceptable. In our minds, it's not
ok to fail. We must succeed."