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NASA says it learned from mistakes for new mission

Artist's concept of a Mars 2003 rover  

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Still reeling from the spectacular failures of two Mars missions last year, NASA said Thursday it had learned from its mistakes and would not repeat them in an ambitious new mission for 2003.

Edward Weiler, associate administrator in NASA's Office of Space Science, said communications and software shortcomings, brought on in part staff cuts, had plagued the agency.

But he said NASA had learned important lessons that it would apply to missions in 2001 and 2003. The second mission, which NASA outlined Thursday, will take two roving robots to the planet's surface to look for evidence of water.

NASA said the two golf cart-sized rovers will be catapulted by rockets to Mars and, protected by air bags, bounce to the surface.

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Last December, the Mars Polar Lander smashed to the surface after a false signal caused its engines shut off before it landed. Two associated probes supposedly designed to crash and burrow into the planet's surface simply disappeared.

Just months before, the Mars Climate Orbiter burned up in the planet's atmosphere after an embarrassing misunderstanding over English and metric measurements. In March, an 18-member committee headed by former NASA official Thomas Young criticized NASA's "faster, cheaper, better" philosophy, saying it had caused programs to be underfunded by about 30 percent and encouraged staffers to cut corners in vital areas.

The Young report also said there were not enough people to do the job right and not enough communication between NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and NASA headquarters in Washington when problems loomed.

It found poor communication between the laboratory and Lockheed-Martin, the primary contractor for the Mars probes.

Weiler said the agency had responded by putting all the Mars projects under one official, the newly named Mars program director, Scott Hubbard, who is now based in Washington, D.C.

"The bottom line is there are some very clear recommendations from the Thomas Young committee," he told reporters.

He said NASA was following a virtual checklist handed down by the group.

"One of the consistent themes was a lack of communication," Weiler said. "Had higher-level managers known there was a problem about the software communication between Lockheed and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, we would have been all over it."

He said staffers had been afraid to report problems because they knew of budget and staffing restraints and did not want to add to the burden.

Now, he said, clear lines of communication had been established and program would be funded more carefully.

"We are no longer going to do a Mars program that is very challenging and very aggressive with 10 percent reserves," Weiler said.

"Is this a step away from faster, better, cheaper?" he added. No, he said, adding that the 2003 mission will still cost about a quarter of what the Viking lander missions cost in the 1970s.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.



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