Probe Loss Hurts NASA Support

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Public support — not money and data — may be NASA’s biggest casualty from loss of its latest Mars probe, a University of Tennessee scientist said Friday.

Dr. Hap McSween, a UT-Knoxville geologist and NASA consultant, said when the $125 million NASA weather satellite burned up in Mars’ atmosphere, some support for the space program burned with it.

“You have to worry about the support from Congress and the American people when you lose a mission that costs $125 million,” McSween said. “That’s a lot of money and you hate to see these things lost because of navigational errors.”

The Mars Climate Orbiter is presumed destroyed after failing to regain contact with Earth following a critical engine firing to place it in orbit around Mars.

NASA officials said the spacecraft approached Mars too closely and burned up in the atmosphere. The problem likely stemmed from human or software error, not a mechanical problem with the spacecraft, officials said.

The orbiter carried instruments designed to learn more about water on Mars, but McSween said that information could be gathered later.

“Most of the instruments on this flight had been up on earlier missions, and the rest of the data can be obtained from missions scheduled for 2001,” McSween said.

McSween said monetary loss of this probe is much less than the last one: NASA’s $1 billion Mars Observer spacecraft disappeared Aug. 21, 1993, three days before it was to go into orbit.

“The cost is relatively cheap compared to the Mars Observer, which carried a whole suite of instruments,” McSween said. “We’ve learned how to do it (explore Mars) cheaper, but there are obviously still questions about whether we’ve learned how to do it right.”