Mars Odyssey Blasts Off

ByMarcia Dunn

C A P E  C A N A V E R A L, Fla., April 7, 2001 -- The Mars Odyssey spacecraft rocketedaway today on a 286 million-mile journey to the Red Planet andwhat NASA hopes will be a mission of redemption.

It is the space agency's first launch to Mars since a pair ofhumiliating failures in 1999.

"Absolutely fantastic," said Ed Weiler, head of NASA's spacescience office.

NASA program scientist Jim Garvin, noted that every rocketlaunch is accompanied by exhilaration, as well as trepidation.

"But for Mars and the fact this is such a vital step for us tokeep the progress going, our sense of electricity is heightened,"he said. "There's literally electricity in the air."

Scenic Launch

Some 100 people gathered at the press viewing area at CapeCanaveral Air Force Station, a larger crowd than usual for anunmanned launch. Everything went well as the Delta rocket liftedoff at the appointed moment at 11:02 a.m., carrying Mars Odysseytoward its destiny. The weather was perfect, with a stunninglyclear aqua sky.

An on-board camera showed the launch site, then the cape, thenthe Florida coast growing smaller as the rocket climbed higher.Another camera panned on the golden-colored Mars Odyssey at the topof the booster, coasting 100 miles above Earth and eventuallyspinning away.

An exuberant Garvin oohed and aahed as he watched the flight ona video monitor.

A half-hour after liftoff, right on cue, Mars Odyssey waspropelled out of Earth orbit at more than 25,000 mph and spedtoward an October rendezvous with Mars.

"Mars Odyssey: Have a safe journey to Mars," the launchcommentator said as flight controllers applauded and shook hands.

Scrutinized Effort

Named after Arthur C. Clarke's science fiction novel and movie,"2001: A Space Odyssey," Mars Odyssey is quite possibly the mostscrutinized spacecraft ever sent to the Red Planet. Its primarymission is to search for water at or just beneath the Martiansurface, from a 250-mile-high orbit.

"This mission has to succeed, there's no question," Weilersaid Friday. "We've done the kind of testing, we've done the kindof checking that we know how to do … and beyond that, I reallydon't know what else we could do."

Mars Odyssey is scheduled to reach Mars on Oct. 24 and slip intoorbit around the planet. For 2½ years, it will study minerals inthe rocks and measure chemical elements like hydrogen in a questfor water.

"NASA's main goal here is looking for life. And so life meanslooking for water," said Arizona State University geologist PhilChristensen.

Perhaps just as important for NASA is showing the public thatthe Mars program is viable.

"There are a lot of people on the team who worked" on thefailed 1999 missions, said George Pace, Odyssey's project managerfor the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "They wantsome kind of redemption. They want a chance to show they can makethis right."

Past Failures

In September 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter ended up in piecesaround Mars or smashed on the planet because engineers mixed upEnglish and metric units of measurement. Just 10 weeks later, theMars Polar Lander crash-landed on Mars and was lost, most likelybecause of a premature engine shutdown.

To avoid another fiasco, NASA spent millions of extra dollars onOdyssey, boosting the total mission cost to $297 million, and addeddozens of extra sets of eyes to the project. About 22,000parameters in the computer software, any of which could doom themission if wrong, were double-checked.

The fact remains, though, that Mars is tricky to reach. NASA'ssuccess rate at Mars is about 60 percent. Counting Russia's failedefforts, the overall success rate is less than 30 percent.

"We certainly learned a few years ago how difficult it can beand how you don't want to take anything for granted, that this canbe a one-strike-and-you're-out kind of business," said ScottHubbard, NASA's Mars program director.

Besides its own scientific value, Odyssey's reconnaissancemission will help NASA choose the touchdown sites for a pair ofrovers to be launched in 2003 and follow-on landers.

Christensen hopes to find hot springs on Mars, which would makeideal landing sites. An infrared camera will search for any hotspots 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," hesaid. "You never quite crack the champagne."

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