Mars Observer, 1992

William Boynton

The Mars Observer mission was interesting in the sense that the instrument that I was the leader of—it was called the gamma ray spectrometer, but we weren’t building it. This was what’s called a facility instrument. For a facility instrument, NASA takes responsibility for building the instrument and the design, and the science team which I was leading was just responsible for running the instrument and collecting the data and publishing the results.

The people who were building the instrument, Lockheed-Martin—at that time it was just called Martin-Marietta, in Denver, but it’s the same group that’s building the Phoenix Lander. We got a good instrument out of it. Now, when that mission failed, NASA decided to—first they were thinking of just rebuilding the mission, rebuilding the Mars Observer Spacecraft. In the previous era—like in the Voyager days, or the Viking days—NASA always built two spacecraft, just with the idea that something might go wrong with one, and if you have two you’re better off.

Well, in this case NASA was trying to save money, so they built all of the parts for two spacecraft but they only built one spacecraft, with the idea that if something went wrong then, two years later, we could put all of these parts together and fly it again. In fact, that’s kind of what everybody was thinking would happen, and they had some plans for how to rebuild it.

Everyone thought that was going to happen but there was a new NASA administrator named Dan Goldin, and he came up with this idea of “faster, cheaper, better,” and he was saying, “Well, rather than sending one big spacecraft to Mars, let’s send three little ones and we can do that for a lot less money.”

Not many people believed him. I remember we had a big meeting on the subject of people who were involved in the Mars Observer mission, and virtually everybody thought what made sense was to rebuild the spacecraft as they originally intended and fly it to Mars two years later. In the end I have to give him a lot of credit, because in the past we were going to Mars once every ten or twenty years, and with this new plan, for a while we were actually sending two spacecraft to Mars at every opportunity, and we’ve now gone back to just one. But you actually can do a lot with several little spacecrafts, and one of the big advantages was that you can learn something on one mission and then have a chance, four years later, to take what you’ve learned and build some new instruments to sort of capitalize on questions that might have come up with the earlier mission. So that worked out pretty well.

I actually remember when the Mars Observer mission failed. The spacecraft just stopped communicating. It went into a maneuver, it was going to do a certain observation, and it never came back.

For a while people were thinking, well, it has different safe modes that it’ll go into, and eventually it will figure out what’s wrong and it will start talking back to Earth. Those kinds of things happen. People were used to the idea that sometimes spacecraft have problems, and very often can figure out what’s wrong for themselves, maybe with some help from the ground, but they at least can reestablish communication.

For two or three days we kept hoping it would phone home. But it never did. I suspect it’s like when somebody is missing in action in a war, and you never really know if they’re dead or if they’re going to be found. It was one of these things that, after a while we finally had to realize this thing’s not coming back.

We had planned a big celebration here for after we arrived, and we had already arranged for the catering service and everything, and I remember Gene Levy, who was the Department Head, said, “Well, I guess maybe we ought to cancel that party.”

I said, “Well, how about if we do this?” I realized a lot of the people in the Department were, you know, kind of nervous and didn’t really know what to say to me if they saw me. Some would say, “I’m so sorry, Bill,” and some really wouldn’t know what to say, and some people would wonder what happened.

I said, “Why don’t we actually have an event where I’ll spend a half hour to an hour talking about the mission and what it was supposed to do, and what we know or don’t know about why it failed.” There are some upbeat things too, in the fact that one of the reasons we do these missions is to train new students and scientists and engineers, and that happened. Those people are still going out into the field even though the data doesn’t come back, people who were involved in building the instruments and calibrating them and building the spacecraft—they’ve all learned, and helped develop that technology.

So we did that, and it was kind of like a wake. I think it worked out very well, and people got to understand what was going on, and we kind of got to the point where we could say, “We’ve actually buried this dead spacecraft and now we’ll go on with the next mission.”

Fortunately I had another mission in the wings so I could work on that and didn’t have to spend all my time moping around. But these missions do take a lot of time, and you go some years without very many publications betting on the outcome, that you’ll get these wonderful data back that’ll make up for three or four lean years without very much in the way of publications. Having two in a row that failed, and another one, the [NEAR-Shoemaker] comet penetrator, that was cancelled, it was looking pretty bad. But fortunately Mars Odyssey came through and just made up for it.