Committee on Science

F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr., Chairman

Ralph M. Hall, Texas, Ranking Democrat

June 7, 2000

Press Contact:

Jeff Lungren (

(202) 225-4275

How Does NASA Know?

The Lander Crashed and The Arm Was Never Deployed

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a recent annual performance report, NASA declared
“target achieved” with the Mars Polar Lander’s robotic arm, even though NASA
lost the Lander probe in December, 1999. A single line of missing computer
code caused the spacecraft to crash into the surface of Mars; as a result,
the robotic arm-and all of the other scientific instruments aboard the
Lander-were never deployed.

The Polar Lander was to land on Mars and perform an investigation of the
planet’s soil and climate, in part by using a robotic arm to scoop up a
sample of Martian soil and analyze it for the presence of water. Knowledge
about water on Mars will help answer the question of whether the Red Planet
is–or ever was–capable of supporting life.

“A lot of phrases came to my mind upon hearing the Mars Polar Lander was
lost. ‘Performance target achieved’ was certainly not among them. By
demonstrating merely that the robotic arm worked prior to launch, NASA
claims success in the Performance Report, even though the mission failed and
the arm was never used as intended. If this is NASA’s definition of
success, planetary exploration just got a whole lot easier,” House Science
Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr., (R-WI) said. “NASA’s
achievement is like Napoleon declaring victory when his troops were
assembled before the battle of Waterloo.”

According to NASA’s fiscal year 1999 Performance Report, the only
performance target for the Mars Polar Lander was to “Demonstrate an advanced
robotic manipulator with an order of magnitude performance improvement
compared to the manipulator used on Viking in 1976” [p. 12]. NASA’s report
continued, “Despite the later failure of the Mars Polar Lander to land
successfully, the manipulator system passed acceptance tests prior to
launch” [emphasis added], leading NASA to declare “target achieved.”

“Such nonsense from NASA calls into question the report’s credibility. I
hope to hear better answers from NASA on the Mars Polar Lander when
Administrator Goldin testifies before this Committee later this month,”
Chairman Sensenbrenner added.