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‘Death Planet’ gets a bum rap

The failure rate for Mars probes seems to be unusually high — but the fatal flaws originated on Earth, and not on the Red Planet.
NASA's $1 billion Mars Observer, shown in this artist's conception, ranks as the single most expensive failure in Mars exploration. Contact with the spacecraft was lost just three days before it was due to enter Martian orbit in 1993.
NASA's $1 billion Mars Observer, shown in this artist's conception, ranks as the single most expensive failure in Mars exploration. Contact with the spacecraft was lost just three days before it was due to enter Martian orbit in 1993.NASA

Three Mars probes are now approaching that planet, and their builders have a justified confidence that they’ve done things right this time.  The excitement of the scientists and the public is growing. Europe’s Mars Express and its Beagle 2 Lander arrive on Christmas, followed in January by NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers.

At the same time, some NASA officials seem to be engaged in a “lowering of expectations” campaign, to set the stage for heightening the glory when and if the probes land successfully. Such a publicity campaign prepares plausible excuses if something does go wrong.

“A lot of people have had bad days at Mars,” Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for space science, noted before Spirit's launch in June. “They don’t call it the ‘Death Planet’ for nothing.”

Two thirds of all Mars missions have failed, NASA stresses.

But by playing up external forces, NASA is playing down its own responsibility for numerous past failures. Analysis shows that what went wrong with Mars probes was always been back on Earth — in the minds and management styles of the space team, not Mars itself.

The root of the past Mars failures bear a striking resemblance to the "flawed decision-making process" that destroyed both Challenger and Columbia. In both cases, inadequate budgets, procedural shortcuts and wishful thinking led to disaster.

This time, have the right lessons been learned, and what are the chances of success for future probes?

Undeniably challenging
It’s undeniable that Mars does provide special challenges. Farther from the sun than Earth, Mars is colder and the solar power is half the level Earth receives. Mission durations are long, and navigation must be precise. Unexpected conditions or dangerous rock formations on the planet’s surface could lie in ambush.

At the height of the space race, in the 1960s and 1970s, NASA launched a total of 10 vehicles to Mars (including two lander/orbiter pairs). Two were lost due to launch vehicle malfunctions, but of the remaining eight, every single one of them flew successfully. Neither two-thirds of the eight that made it to Mars, nor even one-third of them, fell victim to the "Death Planet." They all worked.

But in the 1990s it was the management shortcuts, not the challenge of Mars, nor the carelessness of individual workers, that doomed NASA's Mars missions. Five spacecraft were lost during the period when NASA was led by Dan Goldin, whose "faster-better-cheaper" mantra demanded miracles of cost savings.

Mars Observer out of contact
First came the ill-fated Mars Observer, launched Sept. 25, 1992. It was to have been the first U.S. spacecraft to study Mars since the hugely successful Viking missions 18 years earlier. But the Mars Observer fell silent just three days before entering orbit around Mars.

A year later, an investigation board reported that the most probable cause of the loss of communication was a rupture of the spacecraft's fuel pressurization valves. They concluded that "an energetically significant amount" of fuel (NASA jargon for "enough to blow up") had gradually leaked through check valves and accumulated in the tubing during the spacecraft's 11-month cruise to Mars.

The fuel leaked, they suggested, because to save money NASA tried to redesign an off-the-shelf Pentagon spacecraft that had been built for launchings into a 24-hour "geostationary" orbit.  That mission took barely six hours, not the almost yearlong cruise needed to get to Mars. This original Pentagon mission was "fundamentally different from the interplanetary Mars Observer mission," the report noted in understatement.

Polar Lander and two hitchhikers lost
Yet NASA made the same mistake again five years later. The Mars Polar Lander was built with a propulsion system also based on a military design, and it too vanished in the final moments of its flight in late 1999. An investigation board concluded that there were "major errors in the propulsion thermal design [that] went undetected until after launch." The designs "contain[ed] four potentially serious, if not catastrophic, weaknesses" that required workarounds by mission controllers. The mission failed, either due to this engine problem or perhaps from another design flaw.

John Casani, a former Mars mission manager who took part in the investigation, later divulged that the engine had never been sufficiently tested. It was only "qualified by similarity" with "flight experience of the military version of the engine." NASA still has not revealed just which military space engine was adapted for Mars use, but sources have told that it was the upper stage of a MX missile, designed for a six-minute space lifetime, not the yearlong Martian mission.

Two other lander probes hitchhiking on the main spacecraft also vanished. The accident board found so much wrong with their design that they were unable to settle on a “most likely” failure cause.

Donna Shirley was the manager of the highly successful Mars Pathfinder landing mission in 1997, and afterward she had been asked to run the Mars Polar Lander  mission. She refused, and chose to retire instead.

"I couldn't persuade them that they were going too far with 'better, faster, cheaper,'" she said. "I told them everything was going to fail."

And she knew why: the resources were spread too thin. "There was no one to check and double check, and when you have complicated and complex missions you are going to make mistakes that need catching."

Climate Orbiter, R.I.P.
This is exactly what doomed another probe, the Mars Climate Orbiter, which also disappeared just as it arrived at Mars, also in 1999. NASA later released the story that the probe was lost because some low-level workers mixed up English and metric units for rocket thrust. This became a big public joke, and deflected attention from the true cause.

Blaming the foul-up in units was a misrepresentation: To save money, NASA had deleted staffing levels to double-check work, assuming instead that all the workers would make no mistakes. And when the error led to noticeable navigational errors during the flight, the team didn’t have the resources to investigate the clues. Rather than discover what was behind the worrisome indicators, they chose to assume everything was all right — and the probe crashed into Mars.

Anthony Spear, a retired space manager, was called on to diagnose what was going wrong.  In a report released early in March 2000, he told NASA, "Most failures over the past decade can be attributed to poor communication and mistakes in engineering and management." In essence, the failures were not the fault of Mars.   "Failing due to mistakes is not tolerable," he wrote, in an eerie premonition of the Columbia disaster three years later.

Learning from the past
Yet even today, the NASA culture does not seem to fully face up to its responsibilities for these failures, and prefers to keep blaming Mars.  Earlier this month, NASA’s Ed Weiler repeated to reporters that “some, including myself, call it ‘the Death Planet.’”

However,  the builders of this year's probes claim they have done it right. In the words of Charles Elachi, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the workers “have done everything humanly possible that we know about, to be able to minimize the risk and enhance our possibility of succeeding.” European officials have made similar comments about learning from lessons of past mistakes.

Let's hope that is true. For the real lesson of Mars is that it doesn't suffer fools gladly — but it does reward diligence, truthfulness and integrity.