The failure rate of Mars Missions is high. Many things can go wrong, and the smallest overlooked detail can result in disaster. In 1998, a miscalculation as a result of a mix up of metric and standard measurement units cost NASA its Mars Surveyor Climate Orbiter. The most common cause of failure has been lost communications.

These failures can be very expensive. Billions of dollars have been spent on Mars exploration, triggering some to question whether or not the scientific payoff of space programs is worth their funding and support from tax dollars.

But recent, successful missions such as Mars Pathfinder, the Mars Exploration Rovers and the ESA’s Mars Express have garnered worldwide attention and interest. New discoveries providing evidence that Mars was once a watery planet, perhaps more like Earth, together with the looming possibility that forms of life could exist on the Red Planet have fueled the impetus to further explore this distant frontier.

A human mission, such as that depicted in the Race to Mars mini-series, is even more complex.  Not only does the mission need to bring supplies and fuel for a return-trip, as well as launching living quarters, vehicles and equipment…but the cost of failure is incredibly high in human terms, economic terms, and for the very future of the space-program.

 The Mars Curse and the Galactic Ghoul

Because of the high rate of failure in reaching and landing on the Red Planet, some have suggested, although often in jest, that there is a Mars Curse plaguing missions to Mars. Time Magazine journalist Donald Neff imagined that the curse is a result of the Galactic Ghoul, a fictional space monster that consumes Mars probes.

By the numbers
Number of successful Mars missions
1960-2005: 14
Number of failed Mars missions
1960-2005: 27

Failed missions to Mars
1960s
1960: Marsnik 1. Flyby. Launch failure.
1960: Marsnik 2. Flyby. Launch failure.
1962: Sputnik 22. Flyby. Broke up in Earth’s atmosphere.
1962: Mars 1. Flyby. Contact lost.
1962: Sputnik 24. Lander. Broke up en route to Mars.
1964: Mariner 3. Flyby. Mechanical failure. Lost in orbit.
1964: Zond 2.  Mars flyby. Contact lost.
1969: Mars 1969A. Orbiter. Launch failure. 1969: Mars 1969B. Orbiter. Launch failure.

1970s
1971: Mariner 8. Orbiter. Launch failure.
1971: Cosmos 419. Obiter/lander. Failed en route.
1971: Mars 2. Orbiter/lander. Failed en route.
1971: Mars 3. Orbiter/lander. Contact lost after landing.
1973: Mars 4. Flyby. Failed to slow and flew past Mars orbit.
1973: Mars 6. Lander. Contact lost.
1973: Mars 7. Lander.  Landing probe separated early, missed planet.

1980s
1988: Phobos 1. Orbiter/lander. Contact lost.
1988: Phobos 2. Orbiter/lander. Contact lost.

1990s
1992: Mars Observer. Orbiter. Contact lost.
1996: Mars 96. Orbiter/lander. Trajectory failed. Broke up in Earth’s atmosphere.
1998: Nozomi . Orbiter. Into orbit then failure. Abandoned in space.
1998: Mars Climate Orbiter. Navigation error. Destroyed in Mars atmosphere.
1999: Mars Polar Lander. Contact lost.
1999: Deep Space 2. Penetrators. Contact lost after landing.

2000s
2003: Mars Express. Orbiter and lander. Contact lost with Beagle 2 lander.

The following discussion uses the Race to Mars mission-plan as an example.

What can go wrong:

Launch:

  • Possible equipment or systems failure, including guidance system, seals or valves, rocket boosters can cause crashes, gas leaks and explosions.
  • Structural failure can break up the rocket.
  • Decompression can suffocate the crew

36-48 hours into flight:

  • Docking with the crew transit vehicle. This is a slow and methodical process. Dangers include possible collision and pressure failure.  If computerized process fails, a manual override is available, but risky.
  • Ship spun up to provide Artificial gravity to protect astronauts’ health. Spining too fast would make the crew sick and cause structural damage to the ship.

2-5 months, traveling to Mars

  • Elevated radiation from a solar flare could harm crew and damage electronics.
  • Loss of communication (here or at any other phase of the mission): would make the mission much more difficult, with the crew reliant on their own skills and equipment
  • Astronauts could be harmed by cosmic radiation and excess carbon dioxide in the air.
  • Puncture from a micrometeorite could cause partial decompression.

5 months, arriving in orbit

  • Critical navigation moment. No margin for error.
  • Astronauts must transfer to the MADV lander already orbiting Mars. Docking is always dangerous.

Landing on Mars

  • Known as the most dangerous 6 minutes in the mission.  Everything from parachutes to retro rockets to LIDAR equipment to Terminal Descent Engines must work precisely in order to slow the lander down. Any variation in the timing or function and the lander can end up kilometers out of place.  And with the vehicles, supplies and surface-habitat already in position on Mars, ending up too far off course could compromise the mission.

On Mars: 60 days

  • Astronauts are under threat from dust devils (static-electrical discharge), Martian dust storms (poor visibility, long duration) and radiation (a risk due to the thin protective atmosphere of Mars). If their space suits malfunction or rip, depressurization and extreme cold can cause loss of limbs or death.

Ascent from Mars

  • The ascent from Mars and docking with the crew transit vehicle again requires split-second timing.

Leaving Mars and re-entry

  • The return trip is as risky as the initial journey. Re-entry once the crew reach Earth is always dangerous.

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