The Mars Odyssey spacecraft rocketed away today on a 286 million-mile journey to the Red Planet and what NASA hopes will be a mission of redemption.
It is the space agency's first launch to Mars since a pair of humiliating failures in 1999.
"Absolutely fantastic," said Ed Weiler, head of NASA's space science office.
NASA program scientist Jim Garvin, noted that every rocket launch is accompanied by exhilaration, as well as trepidation.
"But for Mars and the fact this is such a vital step for us to keep the progress going, our sense of electricity is heightened," he said. "There's literally electricity in the air."
Some 100 people gathered at the press viewing area at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, a larger crowd than usual for an unmanned launch. Everything went well as the Delta rocket lifted off at the appointed moment at 11:02 a.m., carrying Mars Odyssey toward its destiny. The weather was perfect, with a stunningly clear aqua sky.
An on-board camera showed the launch site, then the cape, then the Florida coast growing smaller as the rocket climbed higher. Another camera panned on the golden-colored Mars Odyssey at the top of the booster, coasting 100 miles above Earth and eventually spinning away.
An exuberant Garvin oohed and aahed as he watched the flight on a video monitor.
A half-hour after liftoff, right on cue, Mars Odyssey was propelled out of Earth orbit at more than 25,000 mph and sped toward an October rendezvous with Mars.
"Mars Odyssey: Have a safe journey to Mars," the launch commentator said as flight controllers applauded and shook hands.
Named after Arthur C. Clarke's science fiction novel and movie, "2001: A Space Odyssey," Mars Odyssey is quite possibly the most scrutinized spacecraft ever sent to the Red Planet. Its primary mission is to search for water at or just beneath the Martian surface, from a 250-mile-high orbit.
"This mission has to succeed, there's no question," Weiler said Friday. "We've done the kind of testing, we've done the kind of checking that we know how to do … and beyond that, I really don't know what else we could do."
Mars Odyssey is scheduled to reach Mars on Oct. 24 and slip into orbit around the planet. For 2½ years, it will study minerals in the rocks and measure chemical elements like hydrogen in a quest for water.
"NASA's main goal here is looking for life. And so life means looking for water," said Arizona State University geologist Phil Christensen.
Perhaps just as important for NASA is showing the public that the Mars program is viable.
"There are a lot of people on the team who worked" on the failed 1999 missions, said George Pace, Odyssey's project manager for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "They want some kind of redemption. They want a chance to show they can make this right."
In September 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter ended up in pieces around Mars or smashed on the planet because engineers mixed up English and metric units of measurement. Just 10 weeks later, the Mars Polar Lander crash-landed on Mars and was lost, most likely because of a premature engine shutdown.
To avoid another fiasco, NASA spent millions of extra dollars on Odyssey, boosting the total mission cost to $297 million, and added dozens of extra sets of eyes to the project. About 22,000 parameters in the computer software, any of which could doom the mission if wrong, were double-checked.
The fact remains, though, that Mars is tricky to reach. NASA's success rate at Mars is about 60 percent. Counting Russia's failed efforts, the overall success rate is less than 30 percent.
"We certainly learned a few years ago how difficult it can be and how you don't want to take anything for granted, that this can be a one-strike-and-you're-out kind of business," said Scott Hubbard, NASA's Mars program director.
Besides its own scientific value, Odyssey's reconnaissance mission will help NASA choose the touchdown sites for a pair of rovers to be launched in 2003 and follow-on landers.
Christensen hopes to find hot springs on Mars, which would make ideal landing sites. An infrared camera will search for any hot spots on the dark, cold side of the planet.
Until then, Christensen is keeping his fingers crossed. "You never stop worrying about it. It's like having a kid," he said. "You never quite crack the champagne."