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Back on Mars, NASA is back on its game

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Had NASA's Spirit rover been able to speak for itself when it finally came to rest on the broad wastes of the Martian landscape and unfurled its solar panels, it might well have offered an echo from the past.

"One giant leap for NASA."

This mission, perhaps more than any in recent history, was about the American space agency's ability simply to get things right. To be sure, the science is important. Indeed, it could provide evidence that water - conditions for life - once existed on Mars, guiding the nation's space priorities for years to come.

But in the shadow of last year's Columbia disaster, as well as two failed Mars missions in 1999, the success of the Spirit rover is a moment long awaited for an agency that has been deeply criticized. It suggests that, when NASA returns to the robust - and costly - checks and balances that defined the institution in the 1960s, it can achieve amazing feats of science.

"In reality, Mars is hard on mistakes. This time, [NASA] did things diligently, carefully, and the odds for success were high," says James Oberg, a former member of NASA mission control and now a commentator. "This is a significant boost for NASA. You get rewarded when you do things right."

In this case, NASA scientists are hoping that the reward could be data that confirms Mars was once warm and wet. Spirit is the first of fives probes planned for the next few years - including another Jan. 24 - that will make Mars the most-studied extraterrestrial object since Apollo astronauts made their moon shots. The Spirit rover is the geologist of the bunch.

The golf-cart-sized dinner tray with wheels will trundle across the dust of the Gusev Crater at about 300 feet a day, scraping soil and rocks for three months - or until its solar panels become so covered with dust that they no longer function. The rover won't begin collecting its samples for eight days.

From the looks of a series of photos sent by Spirit Sunday, the Gusev Craterlooks to be a far less jolly place than where the Pathfinder mission landed in 1997. The images reveal a bleak landscape with precious few rocks to name "Yogi" or "Barnacle Bill." That won't bother scientists, though.

They chose the crater - a geological divot larger than Connecticut - because the surface showed telltale signs of water, such as erosion. Spirit's job, then, is to analyze the samples and see if they hold any chemical traces of water - essential to any known form of life.

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