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Mars mission must succeed

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NASA has announced plans to put two robot rovers on Mars, placing them on the planet 18 days apart in 2004. Officials believe sending two spacecraft will boost the likelihood of success, which is critical after the failure of two unmanned Mars missions last year.

As this page has noted before, the benefits of space exploration are incalculable and should be supported wholeheartedly. However, the failures of back-to-back Mars probe missions in 1999 are fresh in the public's mind — not to mention the minds of members of Congress who hold the purse strings for NASA's operations. Because of that, the 2004 missions, which would cost an estimated $600 million between them, will receive extraordinary scrutiny.

Hopefully, the newly announced projects — which would search for the mysterious Mars water and help explore the possibility that the Red Planet once harbored life — will enjoy the same success as the Mars Global Surveyor and the Mars Pathfinder. Both were proud milestones for the agency that seem to have been overshadowed by recent failures.

In announcing the 2004 missions, scientists spoke with enthusiasm and confidence about the groundbreaking mission. Each spacecraft would be equipped with sophisticated mobile robots designed to be mechanical geologists, examining and even breaking open rocks to search for clues to Mars' history. Instruments would analyze the rock chemistry, and a microscopic camera would send close-up images back to Earth.

Images collected by the rovers would be relayed immediately to a Web site and made available to the public, which ought to enhance interest in the missions, the first of which is scheduled to depart May 22, 2003, and the second on June 4. The solar-powered robots are expected to operate at least 90 days each, communicate independently with Earth and are said to be so intelligent they could avoid obstacles and attempt alternative plans without being told.

Although a manned mission to Mars seems a long-range project, successful missions in 2004 could perhaps give added impetus to the prospect of sending astronauts to the planet, perhaps launching a vehicle from a space station. At one juncture, a joint mission with Russia was envisioned.

There is considerable pressure for the upcoming Mars missions to be successful, and NASA's latest announcement is one of optimism. The agency should venture forth with courage and a sense of adventure.