Nasa officials were asked some years ago to catalogue the number of technical actions and successful communications necessary to fly a spacecraft safely from Earth to Mars. The number: about 10,000.
And that was for an orbiter, as opposed to a lander such as the Mars Science Laboratory. No wonder the track record for successful missions to Mars is not great. About 43 flyby, orbiting and landing missions have been sent to Mars by Nasa and other nations in the past 40 years, and only 12 have been fully successful.
“It’s an extremely unforgiving mission where everything has to go right,” said Scott Hubbard, the former head of Nasa’s Mars space program. “It’s basically one strike and you’re out.”
This is a sobering reality as the $2.4 billion Mars Science Laboratory and its rover Curiosity wait atop an Atlas V rocket at the Kennedy Space Center for its launch window to open on Friday.
But at least Nasa has by far the best track record — with its last six missions to Mars complete successes.
The Russian (formerly Soviet) space program is believed to be zero for about 20 in its Mars missions.
Nasa had a bad patch in the late 1990s when several Mars missions failed, and Hubbard was one of the people brought in to fix the program. He made sure all parts of the mission — launch, orbit, deep-space protection and landing — work together. It is this painstaking integration of many systems that has been Russia’s downfall, space experts believe.
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