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Back on Mars, NASA is back on its game

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."

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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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"[Pathfinder] was more of a demonstration," says Dr. Oberg. "This is the first mission geared towards finding conditions that would make life possible."

Yet it follows on a decade of failed efforts - both American and international - to reach the Red Planet. Just two weeks ago, the European Space Agency apparently lost its Beagle 2 lander, though scientists are still attempting make contact. More than half of the 39 probes destined for Mars have crashed, exploded, or missed the planet, giving Mars the nickname, "the death planet" among some scientists.

In truth, the United States has had comparatively good success on Mars, but the loss of two spacecraft in 1999 became symbolic of a new malaise at NASA.

As the space agency sought to do more on a small budget, it cut corners, say experts, leading to fatal mistakes that could have been prevented. The same charges have characterized the investigation of the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia in February.

In 1999, the Mars Polar Lander crashed to the Martian surface after rockets designed to slow it down for landing malfunctioned. Later that year, the Mars Climate Orbiter burned up in the atmosphere because one scientist entered data in English units, not metric.

"Right after '99, those losses were a real wake-up call that you can't cut corners," says Steve Squyres, chief mission investigator for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

"We did more testing, more reviews. This mission was more thoroughly planned than any planetary mission before," says Dr. Squyres.

Even when everything goes right, landing on Mars is one of the most difficult feats in space exploration. Unlike the moon, Mars has its own atmosphere - and therefore wind and wind resistance. Landers must descend through the Martian skies within 0.2 degrees of the correct angle or they will be turned into cinder.

On the day Spirit landed, in fact, scientists in mission control had to make several adjustments to counteract the effects of a dust storm on the other side of the planet. The storm was the size of the continental US.

But such a show of force is only part of the planet's allure. "[Mars] is a dangerous place with wind, rocks, and atmosphere," says Squyres. "[But] Mars is so interesting, it draws us to it. It's extraordinarily seductive."