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Wednesday, 22 March, 2000, 15:40 GMT
Nasa's disastrous year
Mars orbiter
The orbiter was lost in September
The disappearance of the Mars Polar Lander in December concluded a year of major failures for Nasa.

The lander vanished less than three months after Nasa lost its sister spacecraft, the Mars Climate Orbiter, in highly-embarrassing circumstances.

The $125m craft, which was to study the Red Planet's climate, went missing on 23 September after a mix-up between imperial and metric measurements

The current mission failure rate is too high and must be reduced. Failing due to mistakes is not tolerable

Independent report on Nasa
It transpired that one team had been working in centimetres, metres and kilogrammes, while another was using inches, feet and pounds.

The error meant that instead of the craft passing 150km above the planet's surface it flew at 60km, and probably burnt up.

Mystery still surrounds the loss of the $165m Mars Polar Lander which vanished on 3 December just hours before it was due to land.

The craft was intended to investigate possible water resources around the Red Planet's south pole.

Mars' 'Happpy Face Crater'
Mars' 'Happpy Face Crater' pictured by the Mars Global Surveyor
Its two Deep Space 2 probes, which were designed to eject from the lander and smash into the Martian surface to search for water vapour, also disappeared.

To lose one prestigious spacecraft might be considered unfortunate, to misplace two is a catastrophe for Nasa.

But these were not the only failures of 1999. In March, Nasa had to write off a $246m infrared telescope for studying the history of star formation when it failed shortly after launching.


The head of Nasa has said the scandal surrounding the Mars lander's disappearance is the most serious since the loss of the Challenger shuttle.

Challenger blew up after take-off on 28 January 1986, killing all seven crew.

The explosion shook America's confidence that its technological ingenuity could overcome any obstacle.

Hubble broke down in November
More recently Nasa has had the embarrassment of discovering its Hubble telescope is ''short-sighted''.

After its launch in April 1990, astronomers found Hubble's 2.4-metre mirror had been ground to the wrong curvature.

The space agency had to mount a very costly mission in 1993 to install a new set of optics to correct the problem.

Hubble had to be fixed again last year after four of its six gyroscopes stopped working.


Nasa, whose recent record has earned it the name "Not Another Space Attempt", intends to send another orbiter to Mars next year.

Nasa's failures
Jan 86: Challeger explodes after take-off killing seven
Apr 90: Hubble telescope launched with wrongly-shaped mirror
Mar 99: $246m infrared telescope fails after launch
Sept 99: $125m Mars Climate Orbiter thought to have burnt up
Dec 99: $165m Mars Polar Lander disappears
Dec 99: Deep Probe 2 Mars microprobes lost
But plans to launch another lander with a robot arm for investigating Martian soil have been put on hold.

Last week, an independent investigation, commissioned in the wake of the recent mishaps, suggested Nasa was pushing too hard to do more missions with less money.

It said the agency was jeopardising projects by placing too much emphasis on cost cutting and paying inadequate attention to possible risks.

'Too fast'

In 1992 Nasa adopted a ''faster, better, cheaper'' philosophy, shifting away from running a few large costly missions, to more numerous, cheaper projects.

The agency's recent failures may give ammunition to its critics who say the agency has made its missions too small, too fast and too cheap.

A second major report on Nasa's failures, shortly to be released, is expected to urge the agency to lower its ambitions and plan for fewer missions unless the funding, now about $14bn, is dramatically increased.

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See also:

06 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
Mars: Mission impossible?
08 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
Mars 'wake up call' for Nasa
11 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
Nasa: Lost in space?
17 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
Nasa ends search for Mars probe
 | Sci/Tech
Hubble shuts its eyes
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