rs missions are not for the faint of heart – the red planet is as unforgiving as it is enticing; more missions sent to unlock its mysteries have failed than succeeded over the years. Landings are especially tough – NASA’s recent successes notwithstanding – not to mention nerve wracking for scientists who in many cases have staked careers on machines operating so far away that it takes 15 minutes for radio signals to reach them.
The successful touchdown May 25 of NASA’s Mars Phoenix Lander in the northern martian arctic shows once again that amazing things are possible with the right combination of talent, grit, perseverance, and yes, money. Congratulations to NASA and the entire Mars Phoenix Lander team for a successful beginning to another important mission to uncover the secrets of Mars’ past.
Phoenix had an added degree of difficulty in that it made a so-called soft landing on Mars using parachutes and retrorockets instead of airbags – the first time that’s been done successfully in 32 years. NASA’s last such attempt ended in disaster in late 1999 when the Mars Polar Lander crashed on the martian surface due to an apparent sensor glitch. It was NASA’s second straight Mars mission failure and led the agency to re-evaluate its Mars exploration strategy.
The Phoenix mission, so named because it utilized hardware built for a lander whose launch was canceled in that exercise, incorporated lessons from the failures. Among the most important of those is the folly of trying to pull off complex missions on the cheap, something that should stick in the minds of NASA officials and lawmakers as they face rising costs on the next spacecraft set to land on the red planet, the nearly $2 billion Mars Science Laboratory. NASA’s team was able to celebrate May 25 not because landing on Mars is getting easier; rather, it was because the team recognizes the difficulty involved and prepared accordingly.