"Mars 96 Launch Failure"

Donna Shirley - November 18, 1996
Former Manager, Mars Exploration Program
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California

    We were all very sad to see the failure of the Mars 96 Russian mission to Mars, which launched November 16. At first the launch looked beautiful. I heard about it on television news, then read about it and saw pictures on CNN's web site: http://www.cnn.com/TECH/9611/16/russia.mars.update/index.htmll

But then this morning Ed Stone, the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, called to tell me that the fourth stage of the launch vehicle had only burned for a short time, the spacecraft had separated from the fourth stage, and the spacecraft was in Earth orbit instead of on its way to Mars.

Mars 96 was a huge orbiter with 20 different instruments from many countries. The orbiter carried two "small stations" which were to land on the Mars surface and make measurements, and two large penetrators which were to plunge into the Martian soil and make measurements several meters below the surface. The Russians and their international partners had worked for many years to pull the mission together. The mission was originally supposed to be launched in 1992, but had to be delayed first to 1994, then to 1996 because of lack of money in the Russian space program. If it had worked it would have been a wonderful complement to the U.S.Mars Global Surveyor mission (now on its way to Mars) and the Mars Pathfinder lander mission, which will launch December 2.

There was a U.S. experiment on each of the two small stations called the Mars Oxidant Experiment, or the MOx. It was supposed to measure the chemistry of the soil to find out what was causing all the organic material to disappear from the surface. (Viking discovered this problem in 1976.) Since Pathfinder and Mars Surveyor 98 don't have this experiment it will be 2001 before we can find out why this situation exists.

There is more information about the Mars 96 mission at their home page-- http://www.iki.rssi.ru/mars96/mars96hp.htmll

On a more cheerful note, I was just on a Family Channel television show with Buzz Aldrin (the second person on the Moon) and Jack Schmitt (the next to the last person on the Moon). We talked about human and robotic missions to the Moon and Mars, and speculated about how and when humans might go to Mars. We took call-in questions from around the country. The final guest on the show was 12-year-old Josh Slavin, who has been to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama six times. He wants to be the first person on Mars.

Also look for me on "Good Morning America," probably on November 29 or December 2.


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