After 50 years of missions to Mars, scientists are unlocking some of the mysteries surrounding a planet that has captivated mankind for millenniums. Will humans ever leave a boot print on Mars?
Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Cal Tech/Cornell/Arizona State
The mood among mission controllers was subdued. Scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in the foothills of southern California's San Gabriel Mountains, were worried about the landing of their spacecraft on Mars.
With good reason.
Three months earlier, in September 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter had arrived at the red planet, only to burn up in the atmosphere instead of taking up its intended orbit. Now, on Dec. 3, NASA officials were nervous about the fate of the Mars Polar Lander as it approached the planet, even though they had taken all the precautions they could to prevent a similar mishap.
"The tension was palpable," recalls Scott Hubbard, then a deputy director at NASA's Ames Research Center Laboratory, who was at the event. "Everyone was on edge."
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