The Martian Chronicles
Issue 5, June 2000

NASA's New Long-Term Mars Plans
by David Pinson

  Previously proposed Mars 2001 mission  
Previously proposed Mars 2001 mission

NASA has recently announced its revised plans for robotic exploration of the red planet following last month’s findings regarding the two Mars probe failures in 1999. Those findings, documented in the Young Report, specifically named poor communications between NASA Headquarters, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and Lockheed Martin Astronautics as the largest cause of the failures. The report also concluded that both missions were underfunded by approximately 30%, and that this drove the communications breakdown by creating a perceived atmosphere where any cost-increasing yet risk-reducing ideas were ‘unwelcome’. It is likely that the cause for the Mars Polar Lander failure could have been caught if additional tests were performed - tests which could have been conducted if more money was available.

Pressure to fly two missions to Mars in 1999 also helped to exacerbate the troubles. In the end, the failures and the report have resulted in the cancellation of one of the two planned missions to Mars in 2001, and a decision to reduce costs on space probes by using tried-and-true technology.

The recent announcement by NASA stated that only one mission will by launched in 2003, either an orbiter or a lander. In addition to that, if a lander mission is chosen it will use the same airbag landing system used successfully on the Mars Pathfinder in 1997, unlike the Mars Polar Lander which failed last year attempting to land using a new unproven system. The lander would be substantially more advanced and have more scientific merit than the Pathfinder Sojourner robot - and indeed many tests have been conducted terrestrially of such rovers both at JPL and elsewhere. The idea of building upon successful technology initiatives to save costs is seen as a more effective way to streamlining Mars probes than by simply chopping the budget.