A Triumphant Landing on Mars;
Beset by Past Tragedy and Failures, NASA Officials Rejoice
By Kathy Sawyer
The Washington Post | Monday, Jan. 5, 2004, pg. A01
PASADENA, Calif. Jan. 4—NASA’s Spirit rover bounced into perfect position on Mars to collect a rich harvest of knowledge about the planet and whether life might ever have formed there, jubilant project managers said Sunday after analyzing initial bursts of data and images.
The flawless landing late Saturday brought relief and international praise to a space agency that recently has been staggered by tragedy and failure -- the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia and seven astronauts almost a year ago and the loss of an entire generation of Mars probes during the 1999 U.S. attempt to explore the Red Planet.
Spirit is facing south, in good condition and nearly level, with a mere 2-degree tilt from perpendicular to what shows every indication of being an ancient lake bed lightly sprinkled with rocks and etched with the snaking trails of tornado-like Martian "dust devils," elated scientists reported.
This was the fourth successful Mars landing in the history of space exploration. The previous three were also American -- two Viking craft in the 1970s and Pathfinder in 1997. A British team is still listening for a signal from Beagle 2, which was to have landed at another Martian site on Christmas Day.
"There are probably several hundred people here for whom it's the best day of their lives," said John Callas of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, manager of the rover science team, just before 3 a.m. Eastern time Sunday. He expressed a degree of incredulity that was echoed by many involved with the project. "Things are not supposed to go this well. We are caught off guard."
Spirit's handlers quickly began readying their roving robotic field geologist, still crouched inside the lander, to stand up and roll off onto the Martian surface -- a complex process scheduled to take a week or so. The lander's "deck," from which the rover must step off onto the Martian soil, is a comfortable 15 inches from the ground, surface operations manager Jennifer Trosper reported.
The purpose of the Spirit mission, as well as that of a sister lander-rover package called Opportunity scheduled to land on the far side of the planet in three weeks, is to search for signs that the frigid and seemingly barren planet once was warmer and wetter, with liquid water persisting over periods long enough for life to have evolved. If the crater where Spirit sits is, as scientists believe, the site of an ancient lake, there should be sediments that preserve a record of conditions that prevailed when they were deposited, scientists said.
"For the first time in history, we are in a place [on Mars] where we believe water existed for long periods of time, and we have the instruments to prove that theory," said Edward J. Weiler, NASA's chief space scientist. "That's a critical new capability that we've never had before. . . "