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23-Dec-99 | MPL and DS-2 lost

Mars Polar Lander and Deep Space 2 were both lost on 3 December, striking another blow against NASA’s “Faster, Better, Cheaper” mission strategy. The as-designed lack of telemetry during the EDL phase makes it unlikely we’ll ever know exactly the fate of the lander or the two microprobes with the inspired names of Amundsen and Scott. Even so, NASA has convened a review panel, which will likely find design and/or managerial flaws that, once resolved, may improve chances for the success of future Mars missions. That is, if funding remains available for those missions, which is always a concern in the aftermath of failure.

Editorial: In this critic’s opinion, NASA’s streamlined mission strategy is a marked improvement over the “egg baskets” of the past, giant probes such as Galileo and Cassini, that were burdened with too many instruments and overly-long development periods. In particular, the billion-dollar Mars Observer revealed the folly of that approach. All the same, NASA has not gone far enough to simplify its designs. The spidery gear and descent engine landings of Viking were made possible by massive support staffs and extremely conservative (read: dull) landing sites. The use of the same design on Polar Lander was a sign of under-simplification and over-complacency. Frankly, I’m surprised future Mars missions aren’t taking their cues from the supposedly pathfinding Pathfinder: toss it at the planet, wrap it up in airbags, and just let it bounce. And for Pete’s sake, put a little omnidirectional antenna on it so we have some idea of what’s happening during the dangerous and critical phases of entry, descent, and landing. In conclusion, I’m saddened not only by the loss of new science and of an inspiring Mars mission (with my name aboard), but also by the waste of two pinpoint-perfect Delta II launches.

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