Mars: Risk Is Always Basic to Exploration

Gregg Easterbrook is a senior editor at the New Republic and author of "Beside Still Waters: Searching for Meaning in an Age of Doubt."

DATELINE BARSOOM, CAPITOL OF MARS. Martian officials expressed surprise today that Earth governments continue to believe that space probes are “vanishing mysteriously” as they approach the Red Planet. “They keep lobbing these flying antiques our way, and now we’ve shot down six,” President X@*!888 declared at a news conference. “The one that was allowed to land we guided to a movie-studio set based on a description we read in an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, and they fell for it completely.” A spokespod for President X@*!888 said preparations for the invasion of Earth were proceeding, the only setback being a telepathic leak of the attack plan, which appeared last week, verbatim, in the National Inquirer. Fortunately, it was ignored by Earth leaders, who seem unaware that the National Inquirer is the only Terran publication that provides accurate coverage of interstellar events. “When we find out who’s responsible for this leak,” the spokespod said, “tentacles will roll.”

The dispatch above is one that some NASA officials might wish they were reading, considering the disappearance and presumed failure last week of the Mars Polar Lander, which was to have investigated whether water is present in the high latitudes of the red planet. Just three months ago, Mars Climate Orbiter, another NASA probe, likely burned up as it arrived above Mars. In 1993, the Mars Observer, one of the grandest probes NASA ever built, went out of control as it approached Mars and is believed to have exploded. Three recent Russian-launched Mars probes have also failed.

In all, six of the last eight attempts to send spacecraft to Mars have gone bust, usually just as the objective came into sight. In the 1990s, only two NASA Mars shots have been successful: Pathfinder, the lander with the cute little radio-controlled rover named Sojourner, and Global Surveyor, a Mars satellite that accompanied the mission.


It’s tempting to assume there must be some common thread among these failures: perhaps space-agency blundering, contractor carelessness or technological hubris. It’s tempting to grind our collective teeth over the fact that, 25 years ago, NASA put two landers--the Viking probes--on the Martian surface with flawless precision, while a quarter-century later, aided with computer technology, the agency struggles to match that feat. It’s tempting to log on to the Internet shadow world, where the idea now runs rife that aliens are hiding behind Mars and destroying the probes so that their presence is not revealed. Is it the Klingons? The Vorlons? The most entertaining Web rumors say the government knows the aliens are there and is firing off the probes in hopes of collecting data on them. Over to you, Mulder and Scully.

Yet, the likelihood is that the succession of Mars failures does not have any unifying explanation. The 1993 Mars Observer mission, for example, appears to have failed because of manufacturing defects: Vapors in fuel lines caused ruptures when the propulsion system was pressurized just before the retrorocket firing as the probe approached Mars, and Mars Observer either tumbled hopelessly out of control or exploded. This means there were manufacturing defects and inspection mistakes, but no system will ever rule out human error. We’ve become so accustomed to perfection in technological objects that it now seems shocking when anything costing millions of dollars and containing computer chips fails to work. Yet, space probes are complex, unusual objects, built under one-of-a-kind circumstances. In a way, it’s amazing they don’t fail more often.

So far, there is no theory of what happened to Mars Polar Lander. Severe malfunction or a smashup caused by descent onto sharp, pointed terrain are the best guesses circulating, but they are only guesses.

In the case of Mars Climate Orbiter, the September failure, the spacecraft was to swing around Mars and become a satellite, but came in too low on its initial pass and probably burned up in the Martian atmosphere. There were chortling news stories about how the cause of the mistake was confusion between English and metric measurement units in the probe’s software. That was a factor, but more disturbing--and overlooked in news reports--was NASA management sleepwalking. Last month, an internal NASA report revealed that navigation staffers for the Climate Orbiter project had repeatedly warned senior management that the probe was off course, a condition that could have been corrected by an extra firing of the spacecraft engine. Managers brushed off the warnings and did nothing, a troubling dereliction in an agency where, one would think, the Challenger disaster would have left it impossible for administrators to ignore warnings from the ranks.

Perhaps these two examples suggest that NASA internal culture continues to suffer from the ossification of which it is so often accused. On the other hand, the Pathfinder and Mars Surveyor project worked perfectly, and they were products of the same culture.

Probably, lobbyists from the aerospace-contracting establishment will soon begin to assert that this year’s Mars mission failures mean the current NASA goal of “better, faster, cheaper,” the slogan of NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin, has backfired and must be abandoned. Planners of Mars Climate Orbiter, for example, cut costs by not including on the spacecraft an “accelerometer,” an expensive device that provides extremely accurate navigational readings. Had one been on board, the off-course problem might have been better diagnosed. Surely, in budget-lobbying sessions this fact will be trotted out as a key argument against “better, faster, cheaper.” Someone in the halls of one of NASA’s laboratories is sure to be wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Worse, Slower, More Expensive.”


The aerospace lobby has long detested “better, faster, cheaper,” because of that annoying word “cheaper.” The two missions that just failed cost about $250 million each, including the launch rocket, versus $1 billion for Mars Observer, the 1993 failure. If you were an aerospace contractor, which type of project would you like to see more of?

But consider that Mars Observer was not a “better, faster, cheaper” mission. It was done the old, cost-is-no-object way, and that didn’t save it. Neither did its accelerometer. Last week, NASA said it would conduct yet another of its wrenching self-examinations, this time on the subject of “better, faster, cheaper.” Expect the aerospace lobby to view this as an excellent opportunity to raise prices.

Though it’s possible that some common technological (or alien!) thread will eventually be found among the recent Mars failures, most probably the common element is the simple risk of exploration. Mars is 50 million miles away. Exploration on our own planet has often led to costly debacles, even when the distances traveled were in the hundreds, not millions, of miles. Think, for example, of the 11 Arctic explorers who died in 1881, when the steamer Jeanette was trapped by ice and crushed. In this respect, it has been disheartening to see the failures of the Mars probes described in last week’s headlines as a “disaster” and spoken of as a “tragedy.” Certainly, it is a shame the Mars Polar Lander didn’t work, but all that happened is a government agency lost some hardware. Money was wasted, but no one was harmed, and Mars will still be there when the next mission arrives. Deaths in exploration are tragedies. Malfunctions of automated probes are minor matters--except to NASA staffers and congressional appropriations committees.

In fact, the losses of these relatively small, simple automated devices ought to remind Americans of how ridiculously premature it is to talk of sending men and women to Mars. Building and launching the kind of ship that could carry a crew (including physicians) and supplies on the roughly three-year round trip, land, explore and also protect the astronauts from interplanetary solar radiation (this was not a factor in the moon missions, but is a problem for Mars transit) could easily cost $50 billion per attempt. For that fantastic expenditure of tax dollars, there would be enormous risk of failure and little probability of reward--beyond the abstract satisfaction of saying “We did it.”

Proponents of Mars missions talk, for example, of how human beings could set up mining and fuel-making operations on the Martian surface. Antarctica is warmer than Mars, and nobody’s mining or making fuel there--because it’s utterly impractical. Proponents of a manned Mars mission sometimes romantically cite the explorers Roald Amundsen and Robert F. Scott, whose parties reached the South Pole in December 1911 and January 1912 by fantastic arduous effort, pulling hand sledges, though they might have put the whole thing off until 20 years later, when it was possible to fly to the South Pole. We should send people to Mars right away in this spirit, even though it will be arduous, rather than waiting until technology improves. What people who make this argument don’t add is that everyone in the Scott party died on the trek back.

Unless there is some technical breakthrough in propulsion, what makes sense in the generation to come is for Mars to be explored by probes and robots. Let’s hope the next big project, a year 2005 lander that will fire Martian soil samples back to Earth, has better luck than this year’s contingent. *