Polar Lander Fails on Mars

No one knows exactly what the surface of Mars is like, but Robert Zubrin has a pretty good idea. At least some of it, he says, is much like a frozen, god-forsaken corner of the Canadian Arctic called Haughton Crater. The terrain is similar - rough-strewn rock on the floor of a crater 16 km across.

Polar Lander Fails on Mars

No one knows exactly what the surface of Mars is like, but Robert Zubrin has a pretty good idea. At least some of it, he says, is much like a frozen, god-forsaken corner of the Canadian Arctic called Haughton Crater. The terrain is similar - rough-strewn rock on the floor of a crater 16 km across. The temperature is about the same as that of the Red Planet at its warmest. Perfect for Zubrin and other Mars enthusiasts to build a prototype space station that they hope will point the way to eventual human habitation of Earth's closest planetary neighbour. "It's a simulation of Mars on Earth," says Zubrin. "It's the closest we've got."

Last week was a decidedly bad one for the so-called Mars community - both the scientists and engineers of the official U.S. space program and unofficial boosters like Zubrin, president of an independent network called the Mars Society. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was forced to conclude that it had lost the $244- million Mars Polar Lander when the craft failed to communicate with Earth after its 11-month, 756-million-km journey to the planet's south pole. It was the second loss of a U.S. Mars probe in just 2 1/2 months. (The $185-million Mars Climate Orbiter crashed into the planet on Sept. 23.) Together they were a devastating blow to the U.S. Mars program, forcing a major reassessment of NASA's entire approach to exploring the solar system. Almost immediately, NASA officials cast doubt on whether they would go ahead with their next missions to Mars, scheduled for 2001.

What will go ahead is something far more modest - the prototype Mars station that Zubrin and his society plan to build next June and July at Haughton Crater, on Devon Island in Nunavut, 75 degrees north of the equator. True believers in the possibility and necessity of voyaging to Mars, they remain undaunted by the failure of NASA's missions. Instead, they plan to build a dome-like structure eight metres in diameter on the floor of the crater, which scientists from NASA's Ames Research Laboratory have also studied as the closest earthly analogue to Mars. The prototype station will be a model for a combination laboratory, workshop and living space that astronauts might occupy during a future Mars mission. The idea is to study how research might be conducted in a Mars-like environment, all the while building public support for an eventual inter-planetary voyage.

It sounds far-fetched, but the Mars Society is dead serious. While official NASA put most of its resources into low-orbit shuttle flights and the costly International Space Station, some 700 scientists, engineers and assorted visionaries organized themselves last year into a combination network and lobby group dedicated to proving that travel to Mars is part of mankind's future. Zubrin, an engineer based near Denver, Colo., and author of The Case for Mars, argues that it could be done in about 10 years at a cost of some $44 billion - a fraction of the prohibitive $664 billion that NASA estimated a decade ago. Technology, experts agree, is not the main obstacle. "We're much better prepared to go to Mars than we were to send men to the moon when that project was launched in 1962," says Zubrin. "It's a political issue. Do we have the collective will to do it?"

So far the answer has been no. After the extraordinary commitment of money and political will that went into the Apollo moon landings from 1969 to 1972, the United States retreated from manned travel deeper into space. In 1976 it landed two unmanned Viking craft on Mars, and most scientists concluded from that data that the Red Planet was lifeless. More recently, however, new research has again raised the tantalizing possibility that Mars may have hosted some form of life. In 1996, scientists analyzed a chunk of Martian rock known as ALH84001 that crashed into Antarctica 11,000 years ago - and announced that it contained microscopic fossils and other signs of life. Other experts dispute that claim, but it generated new excitement about exploring the planet. That was further fueled by the successful 1997 landing of the Pathfinder mission, which sent a robot called Sojourner roving the Martian surface and snapping thousands of captivating images.

The Polar Lander was designed to test for signs that Mars may contain enough water to harbour some form of life. Scientists believe the planet had liquid water billions of years ago - enough to carve the deep channels that mark its surface. Another U.S. spacecraft, the Mars Orbital Surveyor, is circling the planet and returning images of ancient shorelines and a vast long-ago ocean, that appeared last week in the journal Science. The water apparently evaporated long ago, but the Polar Lander was designed to take samples of the Martian soil, analyze them, and beam back its findings. NASA had hoped to find whether water remains in some form - an indication that life there might be possible.

The Polar Lander was scheduled to set down on the Martian equivalent of Antarctica on Dec. 3 and send back a signal that it had landed. Instead, engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., heard nothing then, and for the next several days. Finally they concluded that the craft had either crashed into the planet or was malfunctioning. It was a bitter blow, one that space experts say calls into question NASA's dramatic recent cost-cutting - its so-called "faster, better, cheaper" approach.

Both the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Polar Lander were built for about the price of a major Hollywood movie - roughly half the cost of previous Mars missions. Independent experts say support teams and systems designed to weed out errors have been severely reduced. "We're not spending enough to meet the goals," says John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "We went over the point where costs can be cut without putting the science at risk." The most striking example was the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter because of an elementary error confusing metric and imperial measurement. NASA investigators concluded that the underlying problem was not that embarrassing mistake, but the fact that it was not detected in time by overworked, undertrained technicians.

The losses prompted NASA to question its schedule for Mars missions. It had planned to launch two missions in 2001, then another one in 2003 that would collect surface samples and put them into orbit. Those samples would be retrieved by another mission in 2005, and returned to Earth by 2008. Now all that is in doubt as officials rethink their strategy for exploring other planets. To make matters worse, it comes at a time when NASA's other programs are stumbling - with the shuttle fleet grounded, repeated delays in building the space station, and the Hubble Space Telescope out of commission.

Meanwhile, though, Zubrin's society will go ahead with building what it calls the Mars Arctic Research Station on Devon Island. They will build the structure alongside 21 scientists from NASA's own Mars Project - most of whom are members of the Mars Society themselves. Then they will gather in Toronto in August for their third convention, an annual gathering of Mars enthusiasts. NASA's current woes, says Zubrin, will not deter them. "There's no doubt we'll get to Mars," he says. "If we don't, we're not the same species that explored the whole world and went to the moon."

The Jinxed Planet

In 29 missions since 1961, 13 Soviet and four American spacecraft have failed to orbit or land on Mars as planned. The U.S. failures:

Mariner 3, 1964:

A protective shield failed to eject properly, preventing the craft from reaching its planned orbit around Mars.

Mariner 8, 1971:

Soon after launch its rocket tumbled out of control and into the Atlantic Ocean.

Mars Observer, 1993:

NASA lost contact with the $1-billion craft three days before it was set to orbit.

Mars Climate Orbiter, September, 1999:

Investigators believe a mix-up between metric and Imperial measurements sent the $185-million craft crashing to the Mars surface.

Maclean's December 20, 1999