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Friday, December 10, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mars Will Be Waiting

DISAPPOINTMENTS last but briefly, while Mars waits forever.

It's time to let a little of the eternal cosmos sink in to relieve the sharp sense of loss that has descended on the Mars project. Silence from the Mars probes sent to the Red Planet have stirred the dust of failure back on Earth, with repercussions about money, planning and perhaps public enthusiasm for further exploration.

The distances and the engineering obstacles are so great, it's worth keeping in mind that only 30 years have passed since the moon landing, no time at all in the age of exploration. It took a hundred years for Western explorers to penetrate the Arctic and more than 20 years between the first real attempt at the summit of Mount Everest and the final ascent. In contrast, Mars is so far away, only once every 26 months can probes be launched and then they take more months to arrive.

NASA has tried several Mars projects under a new strategy of smaller, cheaper and faster, relying less on enormously complicated projectiles in favor of mechanical miniatures. Some, such as the Mars rover, have been spectacularly successful. Recent missions, including the Mars Polar Lander at $165 million and the Mars Climate Orbiter at $125 million, have failed. The $1 billion Mars Observer disappeared without a trace in 1993.

Despite the losses, the Mars strategy is to keep sending little space craft to the fourth planet well into the next decade, perhaps with retrieval of some Mars dirt by a returning rocket ship in 2008.

In going to a small and fast strategy, NASA makes the case it can produce scientific results at cost efficiencies the public and Congress will swallow. That strategy also leaves NASA without a human face to put on exploration and leaves Mars missions the province of specialists. That was also the case during the early years of the first leap outside the atmosphere. What's important in this dawning period of planetary exploration is that immediate failures do not stop the overall aim to know more and go to more places in the solar system.

After this week's depressing silence from Mars, the only thing to do is push on, keep funding Mars exploration and let Mars reveal its secrets in due time.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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