December 1999
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MARS GOBLIN STRIKES AGAIN; NASA VOWS TO PUSH ON
Evidence of Ancient Sea Ups Incentive for Manned Missions

By Michael Lindemann

Robotic missions to Mars are very difficult. Since the first expedition was
launched in 1962, 60 percent of Mars missions have fallen short of success
and 11 of 25 have failed completely, including three of the last five NASA
attempts. Such facts prompt some to speculate that an intelligent force on
Mars is actively interferring with human efforts to study the Red Planet.
NASA scientists speak ruefully of the Martian ghoul or goblin.

But superstition aside, putting a spacecraft into a perfect orbit around Mars
after a nine-month journey of more than 150 million miles -- or landing that
spacecraft right side up, in one piece, fully functional, in a very tightly
drawn landing area -- is just plain difficult. It is more difficult still on
the very tight budgets imposed by NASA's current "cheaper, faster, better"
design philosophy. Under the circumstances, the incredibly successful Mars
Pathfinder Mission of 1997 seems almost a miracle.

With the double loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter in September and the latest
Mars Polar Lander on December 3, NASA scientists and administrators have
vowed to put the entire Mars exploration program under a microscope. It's not
just that such losses are bad for morale and worse for continued funding.
It's that Mars itself is screaming for more detailed investigation. Somehow,
NASA must overcome the Mars goblin and get on with exploring the most
interesting, compelling off-planet location in the known universe.

Topping the list of current questions: Did the Polar Lander make it to the
surface on December 3 or not? One attempt to find out, using the camera
aboard the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor, showed nothing. But on December 16
another attempt will be made by the Global Surveyor to see if some evidence
of the lander can be detected. Though the lander itself is too small to show
clearly in the Surveyor's camera, scientists hope the lander's 65-foot long
parachute will be visible.

"We believe it is on the surface of Mars," said Richard Zurek, Mars Polar
Lander project scientist, speaking at a meeting of the American Geophysical
Union (AGU). "We're really putting some hope into seeing something on the
surface itself."

If the lander is located, scientists may be able to tell a lot about what
went wrong. The failure could have occurred, for example, because the lander
had the misfortune to touch down on the side of a large rock or crater rim
and flip over, fatally damaging itself after a perfectly smooth descent.

Such speculations point up one of the irreducible risks in robotic Mars
missions: Once the landing sequence begins, it's entirely up to the
spacecraft itself. There's no way for scientists back on earth to know any
more about where the spacecraft is going than what they programmed into it
before takeoff. They can't tell if the actual landing site is smooth and
flat, or littered with killer hazards. And even if they could, there would
not be time, at Earth-to-Mars distance, to send any new instructions before
touchdown.

It is possible to imagine a level of artificial intelligence aboard future
robotic landers that could sense, identify and respond effectively to
potential hazards. But spacecraft that smart won't happen any time soon on
current NASA budgets.

So, at present, the odds are about 2-in-5 that a Mars craft will fulfill its
intended mission. Those odds, to put it mildly, are unacceptable. The problem
is, NASA does not yet see any sure-fire way to improve them.

That painful realization -- so painful that almost no one will actually say
it out loud -- flies in the face of the ever-increasing human and scientific
imperative to go to Mars.

The Mars Polar Lander was specifically designed to search for water just
under the Martian surface. Finding it -- which most of the project scientists
expected -- would add to the rising probability that Mars once had, and
perhaps still has, some kind of life. Mars exploration today may be only a
mission or two away from settling once and for all the question of whether or
not life is unique to Earth. For many involved in NASA's Mars program, the
answer is already quietly assumed. But the evidence is not in hand. And each
failure means losing years of work, and adding years more work before another
fragile attempt can be made.

The Mars Polar Lander was already well on its way last summer when scientists
studying photos from the Mars Global Surveyor drew the gloomy conclusion that
they could not find evidence of a shoreline for a hope-for ancient northern
sea. But then, only days after the Lander's ill-fated arrival at Mars, other
scientists emphatically reversed that verdict, saying instead that they had
found clear topographic evidence suggesting a large ocean had once covered
much of the northern hemisphere of Mars. The new findings by Brown University
planetary geologist James Head and five colleagues were reported in the Dec
10 edition of the journal Science.

According to Head, the new findings "should make all of us think more
seriously about the possibility of the presence of large-scale standing
bodies of water on Mars, big lakes and oceans."

Their verdict, if it holds up, is of huge importance to the prospect of Mars
life. If the Red Planet once had "big lakes and oceans", then it necessarily
had clement temperatures and a thicker atmosphere. In many ways, it would
have been a virtual twin of Earth -- a view already held by many space
scientists. Given what has been learned about the early appearance and
remarkable adaptability of life on Earth, the prospects of one-time life on
Mars would seem to be nearing certainty.

At just this juncture, NASA is faced with the limitations of robotic
spacecraft and the U.S. Congress is faced with the question of fiscal
priorities. Undoubtedly, many in Congress will argue that spending more money
on Mars exploration, given the risks and poor return, simply cannot be
justified.

Others, however, argue not only for more money but for an altogether bolder
approach. Acknowledging the inherent risks and shortcomings of robotic
missions, they say the answer is obvious, if somewhat daunting: It is time to
send humans to Mars.

No group of people on Earth is more intent on that undertaking than the
aptly-named Mars Society (http://www.marssociety.com). The society's founding
declaration, ratified in 1998, declares: "The time has come for humanity to
journey to Mars... Given the will, we could have our first teams on Mars
within a decade." For members of this group, going to Mars is a fundamental
part of human destiny. But they are entirely practical in their approach.
They understand the science, the politics, and the economics of the
challenge. They argue that nothing should stand in the way of the most rapid
possible progress toward achieving, not only a first human landing, but a
robust and permanent human presence on the Red Planet.

James Bell, an astronomy professor at Cornell University and a participant in
NASA's next Mars robotic landing mission, currently scheduled for liftoff in
2001, believes that "going to Mars is inevitable. We have the technology to
send people today, expensively, or in the future, perhaps cheaper." But in a
Dec 12 editorial in Florida Today, Bell argued that robotic missions are
still a good idea. Such missions have already taught us an enormous amount
about Mars and other nearby parts of our cosmos, such as Jupiter and its
enigmatic moons, and despite their cost and risks, they remain much less
costly and risky than manned missions. Nonetheless, there are innumerable
reasons for humans to go as well, Bell says. What is needed is the will.

The multiple tensions between scientific imperative, technical risk, enormous
cost and political expediency will inevitably constrain as well as propel
future Mars missions. It may be that no nation on Earth can single-handedly
send humans to Mars. But it would be hard to think of a grander excuse for
international cooperation as humankind looks to the new millennium.