Book Excerpt: Trailblazing Mars

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"Trailblazing Mars" by Pat Duggins
Both Congress and the scientific community are debating NASA's future and what should be done with human space flight. Author Pat Duggins, news director at Alabama Public Radio and public radio's longtime space watcher, examines NASA's future in his new book, "Trailblazing Mars: NASA's Next Giant Leap." Read an excerpt from Duggins' book, below.

Peter Smith had designed cameras that would fly on spacecraft to both Mars and Saturn, but he was a rookie observer at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Mars Pathfinder was perched on a $50 million Delta-II rocket for liftoff. Smith, Britt, and their colleagues gathered in Florida for the launch. Four years of work would rely on the Delta team, and all the Pathfinder crew could do was fly to Brevard County and hope everything went OK. Mars Pathfinder was packed inside a protective shell shaped like small, squat version of an Apollo Moon capsule.

Britt had heard about the reliability of the Delta II rocket. The vehicle had a 96 percent success rate, which he didn’t find comforting. It meant a 4 percent chance that a spectacular failure could occur. “Would you get on a passenger jet with a 96 percent success rate?” asked Britt. “Hell, no.” Peter Smith tried to make the best of it. JPL had rented an apartment near Jetty Park in Titusville, Florida. Veteran viewers of Space Shuttle launches considered that prime territory for rocket watching.

Liftoff day takes on a carnival atmosphere in Brevard County. Spectators drive in from all over and pack hotels and restaurants for the big show. Hardcore rocketry fans arrive early in recreational vehicles to secure prime viewing spots. They hold cookouts and swap stories while waiting for the countdown to reach zero. Vendors hawk T-shirts and ball caps emblazoned with the spacecraft to be launched.

Mars Pathfinder was set for liftoff in December 1996. That meant the temperature would be crisp and mosquitoes would be mostly absent. Unfortunately, the Delta rocket had to lift off early in the morning to put the probe on the right path to Mars. Adding to the tension was that the launch had been delayed two times in a row.Dan Britt waited each night out at Jetty Park, while Peter Smith kept vigil at his rented apartment. “The first night we had a big party,” recalled Smith. “Then the second night we had a party, and the third night we had another party.” On December 10, 1996, Smith’s group gathered on the balcony around 2 a.m. and made bets on whether the Delta would blow up. The only other launches Smith had ever seen were Aerobee rockets, which resulted in a bang and a quick exit. The blastoff of the Delta rocket, with its mightier engines, was a bit different. “It was like the sun coming up. There was no noise at all. You could read a book by the light,” recalled Smith. “About thirty seconds off the launchpad, there was the sound, and you felt your chest compress. I had never seen a launch like that.” The Moon was visible that night, and, appropriately, so was Mars. “The rocket went out over the Atlantic,” Dan Britt remembered. “Then it made a course correction and went straight toward Mars. We all went ‘Wow!’”

Pathfinder was on its way.

A successful liftoff didn’t make life any easier for Dan Britt and Peter Smith. After a six-month voyage, the probe still had to go through atmospheric entry, the perilous descent, and landing.

Scientists and schoolchildren were all waiting to see if the spacecraft would make it successfully to the surface of Mars. The Mattel toy company tried to cash in on the excitement over the Pathfinder’s six-wheeled rover by issuing “Hot Wheels” versions of the lander and the six-wheeled rover. The little robot had been named Sojourner after abolitionist Sojourner Truth. The vehicle was set to touch down on Mars on July 4, 1997, but fireworks were the last thing the Pathfinder team wanted to see on Independence Day that year.

Peter Smith waited at the mission control center for Pathfinder at JPL in Pasadena. JPL had been the control center for Mariner and Viking, and now it was Pathfinder’s turn. The team knew exactly what would signal success or failure during the landing. The spacecraft would tell them. The vehicle was programmed to send a “beep” by radio after each major milestone during the trip down. If it survived the fiery trip through the Martian atmosphere, there would be a beep. If the parachutes deployed properly, there would be another beep. If the airbags inflated as designed, beep. If the landing platform opened up and its solar panels started gathering electricity, Pathfinder would send the most important beep. It would signal that NASA’s first spacecraft to Mars in twenty years was in one piece.

Smith and Britt were reasonably certain the landing would work. They had conducted an informal poll of the team members in charge of each phase of the touchdown. They had noticed a trend.

When the engineer in charge of Pathfinder’s heat shield was asked how he felt about the landing, he responded that entry into the atmosphere would go fine. However, he wasn’t sure about the man next to him who built the parachutes. When the parachute engineer was asked about the chances of success, he said he was positive the chutes would perform as expected, but he was concerned whether the heat shield would protect Pathfinder. Likewise, the team in charge of the airbags was confident the shock-absorbing balloons would work fine, assuming the parachutes and air shield guys did their job. All of the uncertainties made Dan Britt feel pretty good about the upcoming landing. “Everybody we talked to was confident his part of the mission would work,” says Britt. “I went home and slept pretty well.” And that’s just what he did. His first shift at JPL would be hours after the landing, so Britt would wake up and would watch reruns of the touchdown on CNN like everybody else.

Peter Smith didn’t have it that easy. He was the man in charge of the camera that would send the first pictures from the surface of Mars in two decades. He was on the hot seat, and he knew it. On landing day, he was standing next to NASA administrator Dan Goldin. All the beeps had occurred to signal each phase of the landing. Pathfinder was down, but there would an uncomfortable time lag before it would radio the first picture from the camera Smith helped to build. “I remember all these high-level NASA people staring at me,” says Smith. “Their eyes seemed to say, ‘This had better work or we’re going to roast you.’”

The sweating stopped when a huge Mars rock appeared on the television screens at JPL. It was six feet long and four feet tall, and the assembled personnel thought it looked like a bear. They nicknamed it “Yogi.” The crowd in the control center went wild. “It was like they’d never seen a Mars rock before,” says Smith. A later panoramic shot showed the opened petals of the Pathfinder lander, the Sojourner rover, and twin Martian peaks off in the distance. Later, the biggest shock for Dan Britt was that the red planet wasn’t really red. “I thought it was going to be red,” says Britt. “It turned out to be a yellowish orange, which is OK.” The camera’s view was also higher off the ground than the imaging team had expected. Pathfinder had settled on top of its own deflated airbags, which propped the vehicle a few inches higher off the ground than mission designers had anticipated.

Reprinted by arrangement with University Press of Florida,  from "Trailblazing Mars: NASA's Next Giant Leap" by Pat Duggins. Copyright © 2010 by Pat Duggins.

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This program aired on September 16, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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