Updated 12/30/03

The bottom of the Mars Polar Lander, in better days before launch. The robot arm was supposed to grab samples of Martian soil.

Courtesy NASA.


Foil-wrapped satellite with solar panels against background of stars.

An artist's view of Mars Climate Orbiter, doomed by confusion over measurement systems. The satellite was supposed to be orbiting Mars; instead, it burned up in the planet's atmosphere.

Courtesy NASA.


Before it was repaired by space shuttle crews, the Hubble Space Telescope was a nearsighted giant. Now it's a priceless scientific instrument.

Courtesy NASA.


This tiny mirror corrected Hubble's misshapen mirror. The aim of an entire shuttle mission was to install this bitty piece of hardware.

Courtesy NASA.

Space: The junkman cometh

Lost and spaced?
POSTED 16 DEC 1999 Gotten a phone call from the Mars Polar Lander? We hear the phone isn't ringing at mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, either. Tripod landing gear, with instrument pods on each side. The $165-million spacecraft is dead -- a steaming pile of high-tech junk on the south pole of the Red Planet for all we know.

Polar Lander's apparent loss on Dec. 2 comes less than three months after the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter burned up in the Martian atmosphere. Hey, Orbiter was supposed to look at the atmosphere, not get intimately involved with it!.

NASA blamed the earlier snafu on a simple confusion of metric and English measurements. "People sometimes make errors," said Edward Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for space science. "The problem here was not the error, it was the failure of NASA's systems engineering, and the checks and balances in our processes to detect the error. That's why we lost the spacecraft."

Why do we hear an echo of a baffled eighth grade science student: "Feet? I thought you meant meters!"

But that's not all, folks. In 1993, the $1 billion Mars Orbiter went AWOL as it approached Mars.

With three Mars probes totally kaput, we figure agency administrators ought to start channeling with experts on losing streaks at Las Vegas mental-health clinics or bars around Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.

Though NASA successfully put a rolling breadbox on the surface of the Red Planet in 1997, the recent failures have us Why Filers muttering darkly about the ability of Martians to repel Earthly invasions. Did they really invent star wars? Or should we attribute the problems to a shortage of rocket scientists on Earth?

On a more serious level, the snafus stress that exploring space is a dangerous and tricky business. In 1986, a bad seal exploded the Space Shuttle Challenger's rocket booster, killing seven. In 1971, three cosmonauts died on a Soviet spaceship after their air leaked out. Here's a chilling write-up of these disasters.

Hubble in space, with its mirror exposed and the shuttle in the background. If human disasters get more ink, Polar Explorer proves that all-electronic spacecraft don't get a free ride. There was the near-disaster with the Hubble Space Telescope, whose ultraprecise mirror was not (we're not making this up!) tested adequately before launch when repairs would have been a bit easier. The flaw went unnoticed until the $1.5 billion telescope entered orbit in 1990, and not until 1993 did an expensive repair mission finally install corrective lenses -- call 'em eyeglasses. A two-inch mirror is dwarfed by a hand. Nowadays, the 'scope is making history with crystal-sharp pix from outer space. Hubble, incidentally, was shut down this fall as four of its six gyroscopes failed. A scheduled third repair mission has been hobbled by problems with a fuel line -- and may fall victim to the paranoia over year 2000 computer glitches. Like the rest of us, NASA doesn't want to fly over New Years!

Problems of various sorts are standard issue for spaceflight, but there are often ways to work around them. Galileo, for example, reached Jupiter with only its bitty antenna working -- the bigger one got snagged like a fishing lure on a tree stump as it was being unfurled. The upshot was a constricted flow of data back to Earth, but not a disaster.

As the Martian morass shows, however, some space disasters utterly resist repair. The problems can stem from navigators who don't know a meter from a mile -- and with simply running out of fuel. Then there are those pesky swarms of space junk travelling at a bejillion miles a second and radiation storms caused by weird blips in the Earth's magnetic field. Heading for space? Then heed the wise sergeant in in Hill Street Blues who instructed the cops setting out to fight for law and order in the city streets: "Hey hey hey hey! Let's be careful out there." -- Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad), Hill Street Blues."

What pickled Polar Explorer?

The Why Files
There are Update 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 pages in this feature.
Bibliography | Credits | Feedback | Search

©1999, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.