Getting to the Red Planet

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As everyone who has followed Curiosity’s landing on Mars knows, getting there isn’t easy.

Scott Hubbard, who is a professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University and a former administrator at NASA Ames Research Agency, was selected in 2000 to become the agency’s first program director for Mars missions, the Mars Czar.

He was brought in to restructure the Mars Exploration Program in the wake of a couple of missions. The failures pointed to poor program execution.

The Mars Climate Orbiter, a 1998 mission to study the Martian climate and atmosphere, was one of the big heartbreakers. When it encountered the Martian atmosphere in 1999 MCO’s signals to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory stopped.

It was later determined that a mix up between the use of English output in pound-seconds with metric units of Newton-seconds positioned the spacecraft in the wrong altitude and it was lost.

A month later, signals from the Mars Polar Lander, a companion to the MCO, also died out unexpectedly. That loss was attributed to the lack of a good end-to-end systems test, which meant that a vital piece of software code was missing.

One can only imagine what would have happened had Curiosity failed to execute the complex entry sequences it needed to land safely. Not only would a grand mission have been lost but there would be a lot of doubt that NASA and Washington would fund a replacement.
In Exploring Mars: Chronicles from a Decade of Discovery, Hubbard describes just how hard it is to get to Mars, not just as a matter of rocket science but also in terms of program bureaucracy. The battles he describes are not quite as sensational as Curiosity’s “Seven Minutes of Terror” – how could they be? – but they are no less harrowing for the science explorers who want to bring space missions to life.

Exploring Mars is available from the University of Arizona Press.

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