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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Failures Force U.S. to Rethink Planet Missions




In the wake of the almost certain loss of the Mars Polar Lander, senior NASA officials have vowed a complete overhaul of the U.S interplanetary exploration program, including postponement or even cancellation of missions already in development.


"Clearly something is wrong, and we have to understand it," NASA administrator Daniel Goldin said Tuesday. "It is conceivable that we will completely change our approach. ... Everything is on the table."


The reassessment will be done in tandem with an exhaustive investigation into the failure of the Mars Polar Lander and its two auxiliary Deep Space 2 probes, which have not been heard from since they descended into the Martian atmosphere last Friday.


Under scrutiny will be NASA's space-on-a-shoestring mandate of "faster, better, cheaper" that has set the boundaries for unmanned space exploration. Several independent space analysts said the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been required to reduce costs so drastically that the space agency's probes are now less reliable and more susceptible to failure.


Flight operations engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena played their "last ace" Tuesday when their final realistic communications attempt failed, said Polar Lander project manager Richard Cook. The team will continue to try periodically with a variety of engineering ploys for another two weeks, but any chance of contacting the spacecraft is now "remote," Cook said.


The loss of the $165 million spacecraft and its $29.2 million probes is "a crushing blow," said Edward Weiler, deputy director of NASA's Office of Space Sciences. An entire $360 million suite of robots that were to have constituted the second wave of planned long-term research on the red planet.


"It is a big disappointment," JPL director Edward Stone said. "Clearly, we need to look at what we can learn and restructure the program."


As a result, NASA will begin a "major rethinking" of the pace of spacecraft development, budgets and launch rates, Weiler said. The agency will also reassess the fundamental engineering assumptions underlying its exploration of the solar system.


"These two failures in the Mars program have given us a wake-up call and we are going to respond to it," Weiler said.


In all, the agency's entire $356.8 million program of Mars exploration planned for this year has failed, encompassing a squad of robotic craft that were to have formed a second wave of long-term research on the red planet.


In September, a navigation error threw the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter into oblivion as it began to orbit Mars. The orbiter and the lander were meant to work together in a systematic exploration of the Martian climate.


The failed spacecraft both were managed by JPL and built by Lockheed Martin Astronautics.


In the coming week, formal investigation boards will be appointed at JPL and at NASA. Congress is also likely to convene a hearing on the failures.


Within several weeks, NASA administrators are expected to decide whether or not to proceed with plans to launch another landing craft and orbiter to Mars in 2001. At least three other major Mars missions in the works could also be drastically revised and delayed.


Weiler said NASA's goal was still to return a sample of Martian soil and rock in 2008, but that it might prove to be impossible without extensive improvements in flight hardware and interplanetary communications.


"I am not convinced that we will go forward with 2001. Right now, I have no confidence that it will be a successful mission," Weiler said. "Lets take off the shackles of schedule and launch dates. Let's not artificially constrain ourselves. With two failures, there must have been a flaw."