WASHINGTON -- NASA attempted to do too much with too little, leading to a failed mission to Mars, according to assessment of the space agency's efforts to explore the Red Planet.
Thomas Young, head of an independent team that investigated the failure for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said his group was ''almost certain'' that a $165 million Mars Polar Lander probe failed in December because of an early shutdown of its braking rockets.
The spacecraft is thought to have dropped in free fall for the last 130 feet and then smashed into the Mars surface at about 50 mph, fast enough to destroy the craft.
Young presented his report Tuesday at a news conference as NASA announced it was canceling a Mars lander mission scheduled for next year and was reassessing the entire Mars exploration program.
Young said the engine shutdown that doomed the Mars Polar Lander on Dec. 3 probably was caused by a spurious signal from one of the spacecraft's three landing legs. It's thought that the on-board computer interpreted this signal to mean the craft had landed and it then commanded the engines to stop.
''We're almost certain that if the lander got to this point (above the Mars surface), then this was the cause of the failure,'' said Young, a retired NASA and industry executive who led the investigation team.
However, Young pinned the underlying cause of the failure on ''inadequate funding and inadequate margins'' in the planning and execution of NASA's Mars exploration program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
The Mars program, he said, ''was underfunded by at least 30 percent.''
This forced contractor and NASA engineers to cut corners, work up to 80 hours a week, and limited testing of equipment and procedures, leading to an ''unacceptable high risk'' for a very complex and demanding mission, he said. The contractor for the Mars project was Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver.
NASA administrator Daniel S. Goldin made a similar point last week in testimony before Congress. He said that the agency ''probably cut too tight'' in reducing the NASA work force from 25,000 to 18,500 over the last seven years.
Ed Weiler, NASA associate director in charge of science, said the space agency would ''fully respond'' to Young's recommendations.
He said Scott Hubbard, a NASA executive at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., would take over a new position as head of the Mars program in Washington. A new Mars manager would also be named at JPL, said Weiler.
Additionally, Weiler said he was canceling plans to launch a new Mars lander next year, but would allow a Mars orbital mission to proceed. That mission calls for a spacecraft to map the minerals and water on the Red Planet.
Weiler said the Mars mission could have been saved if it had been better financed at the start, but the effort was driven by a ''faster, better, cheaper'' NASA philosophy that started in the 1990s with reduced space agency budgets.
''We were pushing the envelope too far'' by asking JPL engineers to ''do the impossible,'' said Weiler. ''We pushed them too far and I will not condemn them because they failed.''
Weiler also ordered a detailed re-examination of NASA's whole Mars exploration program, which involves launches every two years ending with a 2006 attempt to bring back to Earth soil samples.
He said that program will be revised to allow for budget limitations, a reduction in risks and a relaxed schedule of launches.
''The dates will just fall where they fall,'' said Weiler.
Goldin ordered an assessment of the Mars program by Young's committee after the agency experienced a failure of two missions to Mars.
The $125 million Mars Orbiter disappeared around Mars in September. Another committee determined earlier that its loss resulted from the failure of Lockheed Martin engineers to convert English measuring units to the metric units used for navigating the spacecraft.
On the Net: The report may be found at: http://www.nasa.gov
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