Emily LakdawallaMay 25, 2008

Have some courage, NASA!

So today, at last, I've finally been hearing several mainstream media outlets mention today's Phoenix landing -- until today, there's been little mention of Phoenix except on space and science outlets. Most mainstream TV and radio outlets work in one- or two-sentence chunks, so they have to distill the message coming from NASA down to what they hear as the most important one. And what's the most important message that NASA seems to have gotten across to the mainstream media? That Mars is hard to land on and we're not sure if we'll succeed.

On CBS Sunday Morning this morning, host Charles Osgood mentioned the upcoming landing and followed that with one sentence, something like, "but most attempted Mars landings in the past have ended in failure." On National Public Radio, the host actually said that Phoenix would be attempting a landing near the north pole, and that if it succeeds, "it will be the first successful landing since 1976." Which is totally wrong, and I'm ashamed that the host didn't know so and question her copy; evidently the writer confused statements that have been made about the last successful rocket-assisted landing being in 1976, with both Vikings. There has only been one unsuccessful American landing, Mars Polar Lander. Now that's certainly relevant, because the design of Phoenix has a lot of heritage from Mars Polar Lander, but there have also been stunning successes in Mars exploration since then, not the least of which are three successful airbag-assisted landings, Pathfinder in 1997 and the two rovers in 2004. In sum, there have been five American landing successes, and only one failure. (The checkered history of Mars exploration can be read here.)

I'm not objecting to NASA admitting that landing on Mars is challenging. It is, and it's important to state that. However, with the constant drumbeat of "it might fail" from NASA Headquarters, they sound not only unconfident, but even pessimistic about their success, and I find that frustrating and irritating.

Tonight, shortly after the landing, the Los Angles Lakers basketball team will be playing game 3 of their 7-game conference finals against the San Antonio Spurs. The Lakers lead the series 2-0 (Go Lakers!) But are the Spurs wringing their hands and saying "beating the Lakers is hard. Be prepared for us to fail." No, they're saying (and I'm booing myself for quoting Spurs guard Manu Ginobili here) "It's going to be even harder now. But we still believe."

Here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and at the science operations center in Arizona, the mission team is confident, not necessarily of success, but that they have done what they can to achieve success. Here, on landing day, as Phoenix project manager Barry Goldstein just said that things have been going so well that they've waved off the last two opportunities for course corrections, it's not the time for hand-wringing. Today, it's time for hope and excitement, preparation for a successful landing and the promise of a new and never-before-seen vista on Mars. Phoenix might go missing tonight, true, and the mission team is prepared for that with a huge fault tree of possible failure modes and how to act if any of them plays out. But please, let's be prepared for success, too! Instead of "it's hard, so we might fail," NASA's message should be "it's hard, but we have worked harder to succeed."

Go Phoenix!

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