It was a cold night in Pasadena when NASA’s rover Spirit landed on Mars. But if tension could generate heat, we would have been perspiring. On a good day, getting to Mars is a crapshoot. Over the years, only one in three missions to the Red Planet have succeeded. That is good enough to get a hitter into the baseball Hall of Fame — but does not make you a hero in Congress if you are a NASA manager.
But on that January night in 2004, NASA brass toted some additional baggage to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Less than a year earlier, the agency had lost the orbiter Columbia and her crew of seven — an event that laid bare fundamental, fatal flaws in the way the shuttle program managed risk.
And then there was the horrible fall and winter of 1999, when NASA lost the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander in a matter of a few months. The former crashed because the NASA team and prime contractor Lockheed Martin were using different increments to measure rocket thrust, and the latter because a sensor on the craft likely mistook the jolt of landing gear deployment for touchdown — shutting off the engine too early. And again, NASA management took the rap for a relentless, cost-cutting philosophy dubbed “faster, better cheaper.”
So a lot was on the line as the golf-cart sized Spirit homed in on the Bermuda Triangle of planets.
I huddled in a tent in the courtyard at JPL with planetary scientist — and proud, card-carrying “Martian” — Matt Golombek. His enthusiasm is infectious, so when we got word that Spirit had arrived alive after an extraordinary beach-ball bounce on the rusty regolith, he raised his hands and shouted with triumphant glee. Golombek had helped pick Spirit’s landing site, and there were tears in his eyes as the first black-and-white pictures appeared on the screens inside the control room and on televisions and computer screens all over the world.
The Mars Exploration Rover project principal investigator, Steve Squyres of Cornell University, said at the time: “To finally see our dreams come true on another world is like nothing I can describe. “
The Spirit had landed and as satisfying and seemingly climactic as it was, it was just the beginning of an amazing long run on Mars — about 20 times longer than expected. Squyres has always referred to Spirit as the “problem child” of his robotic progeny. It was the first to go through all the testing (greatly enhanced post-Polar Lander crash), and thus the younger sibling Opportunity benefited from more experienced parenting, I suppose.
And while the youngster stole a lot of the scientific glory by happening to land near an outcropping of rocks that offered a rich trove of answers to many Martian riddles, Spirit was always true to its name.
It discovered silica deposits, carbonates, and evidence for hydrothermal systems and explosive volcanism. Billions of years ago, Spirit’s site was a hot, violent place, with hot springs, steam vents, and volcanic explosions, and the little rover managed to suss that out.
But roving on Mars is not easy, and eventually Spirit found some sand that left it stranded. Since the JPL AAA card does not work on Mars, the rover had, in essence, dug its own grave. It was just a matter of time that the batteries would run down for lack of juice from the photovoltaic solar cells.
It is interesting, and somehow fitting, that Spirit was given its last rights on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s historic speech before a joint session of Congress. Kennedy said, “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
Spirit’s long, fruitful mission is an echo to that challenge. As we debate what hard things we should try next in space, it is worth remembering what the payoff is. As Kennedy said, “It will not be one man going to the moon — it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.”
All of us have been “on Mars” for years now, untold kids have grown to love the rovers, and the textbooks have been rewritten with new chapters on the tantalizing hunt for the answer to the biggest mystery of all: are we alone?
Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, Opportunity is now alone but steaming full speed ahead toward the enticing Endeavour Crater. Despite a bum wheel, it should arrive in a few months. What will it find there? Not knowing is half the fun.