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John Pike - FAS
"We've been trying to go to Mars on the cheap"
 real 28k

The BBC's Pallab Ghosh
"The chances of rescuing the MPL mission are becoming increasingly slim"
 real 28k

Monday, 6 December, 1999, 17:26 GMT
Mars 2 - Earth 0
Viking Viking: Metres from disaster

BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse considers the pitfalls of a low-cost approach to space exploration

We've been here before. Failure is nothing new in spaceflight and there is nothing that can be done about it. But is the probable loss of the Mars Polar Lander (MPL) an "acceptable" failure?

The loss of the $1bn Mars Observer spacecraft in 1993, just as it was about to go into orbit, shocked Nasa. It was clear that, at a time when budgets were tight and getting tighter, it was a bad idea to put all your eggs in one basket when exploring the planets.

It was one of the reasons why the "cheaper, faster, better" philosophy was devised. The newly installed head of Nasa, Dan Goldin, took this as his mantra. Lose a billion dollar spacecraft and a whole generation of scientists are affected. Split planetary missions into smaller pieces and they will be cheaper, fly more often and not be such a blow when they fail.

But I wonder if the "cheaper, faster, better" approach is not quite so popular at the moment at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, from where these latest mini-Mars missions are run.

HAVE YOUR SAY Public imagination

MPL only cost $157 million and although other Mars missions are in the preparation stages, mission controllers are probably wishing that their approach had been "better, faster and a little more expensive". Someone has to ask the questions: have too many corners been cut, was the mission done just a little bit too cheaply?

Rocket MPL was put up on a Delta 2 rocket
Just weeks ago, MPL's sister ship, the Mars Climate Orbiter, was lost because of a stupid mistake, the failure to properly convert English and metric measurement units. The cost of one person's salary could have been enough to spot that mistake.

Most of Nasa's declining budget that Dan Goldin annually proclaims as a triumph goes on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS), but it is not these missions that get people clogging up the web to find out more.

It is Mars and the other planets that do that. Perhaps some people at Nasa HQ have not realised that it is the Red Planet that is the centrepiece of Nasa's public profile and that it cannot deliver this so cheaply.

Rocky landscapes

No one knows what went wrong with Mars Polar Lander and scientists still hope for a miracle. It may have been unlucky and landed on a large rock and toppled over. In 1976, I recall looking at the sites where the only other two powered landers Nasa has sent to Mars touched down. There were boulders everywhere. If Vikings 1 and 2 had come down just metres from their actual landing locations they could have been total failures.

Some are asking why the MPL did not bounce onto the surface like the highly successful Mars Pathfinder spacecraft of two years ago. The answer is probably money, and the fact that the cushioning airbags were too heavy to be carried on the kind of rocket Nasa was willing to pay for to put the mission in space.

Personally I think that the bouncing ball approach should be the standard way to land a small unmanned probe on Mars.

I do not think that the loss of Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander will dent the public's enthusiasm for the exploration of Mars. I think they are sophisticated enough to realise that things can go wrong.

So far the score in 1999 is Mars 2 Earth 0. The next mission to blast off for Mars is in March 2001. Let's hope that the score then is better.

Should we spend more on space exploration?

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See also:
06 Dec 99 |  Sci/Tech
Options running out for Mars team
06 Dec 99 |  Sci/Tech
Mars: Mission impossible?
11 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
Orbiter loss blamed on 'silly mistakes'
30 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
Martian mysteries under microscope

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