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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NASA Relieved as Craft Enters Mars Orbit Safely

PASADENA, California -- NASA's Odyssey spacecraft slipped into orbit around Mars on Tuesday, 200 days after it left Earth at a speed of more than 21,000 kilometers per hour to search for signs of water on the red planet.

Relieved NASA scientists, who saw their last two missions to Mars both end in failure, burst into cheers and exchanged hugs at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena after the spacecraft signaled that it had successfully reached orbit.

"How sweet it is," NASA administrator Dan Goldin said. "Putting the Odyssey spacecraft into orbit about Mars is an achievement that every American ought to take pride in. We can win after we've been knocked down a few times."

Odyssey, a box-shaped craft designed to spend 2 1/2 years circling Mars to study its climate and geologic history, was launched in April as NASA's first trip to the fourth planet from the Sun since two failed missions in 1999.

The craft's entry into Mars orbit, which lasted for a tense 30 minutes, was the moment of greatest risk for the $300 million project, though scientists conceded that their job was far from over.

Goldin, whose legacy will include the "faster, better, cheaper" policy often blamed for the failures of the Mars Polar Lander and Mars Climate Orbiter, said he was proud of the team for undertaking the mission under growing pressure to succeed at the red planet.

"They had the guts to do it in front of the whole world and at this trying time for America," he said.

"We at NASA don't worry about doing hard things," he said. "If we failed I was going to be at this press conference and I was going to say how proud I was."

In December of 1999, the Mars Polar Lander smashed into the planet's surface after a false signal caused its engines to shut off too soon. A few months earlier, the Mars Climate Orbiter burned up in the planet's atmosphere after a mix-up of imperial and metric measurements.

Odyssey is expected to begin its primary mission in January, when it will use various scientific instruments to study the chemical and mineral composition of the red planet. Scientists will be looking carefully to detect the presence of hydrogen, in the form of water ice, on the Martian surface.

Scientists who have studied images taken of that surface in the past believe they have seen evidence that water once flowed there, carving out deep channels and canyons.

Odyssey is also expected to serve as a radio relay and provide communication support for upcoming missions designed to send landers and rovers to Mars. Goldin said those missions would pave the way for man eventually landing on the planet.

"I will not be happy until we land an American on the surface of Mars," he said. "Then it will be a true success."