At 1 a.m. failure just feels like fatigue. Nerves shot. Adrenaline spent. Effort wasted. The sound of air rushing out of your lungs when you didn't realize you were holding your breath. The hole in the pit of your stomach--disappointment. Or hunger, maybe, since you haven't eaten in hours.
The history of science is a history of failure. But most of it wasn't televised. And most of it wasn't a target for David Letterman and Jay Leno. NASA's failure, its failure to make contact with the Mars Polar Lander early this morning, is abject and public. And it falls on a group of about 15 scientists who don't like losing much. Even when it is to the Great Beyond.
Leno: "NASA has a new game show: 'Who Wants to Lose $165 million.' "
Some of the excruciatingly smart people here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory face it with a sort of anger.
Right now, project manager Richard Cook is staring through a void of television cameras and saying fiercely: "I don't like to fail. It's something I don't plan to do in the future." Others are born optimists.
David Paige probably fits that category. The payload of experiments for Mars's south pole that just went "poof"--as he put it so lightly--was mostly his idea.
After attempts to raise the lander failed early today, the puckish and tousle-haired (who wouldn't be at 1 a.m.) 42-year-old scientist from UCLA picked up his backpack and headed off to the Westwood campus to party with his fellow scientists.
It was a goodbye party. Scientists, gathered from around the world to soak up data from the lander, are instead having a few drinks before heading to their various homes.
There are the older ones, more stoic; they've failed before, they'll fail again. "We can weather something like this," insists Dan McCleese, chief scientist for the Mars program. For 10 years he labored on the Mars Climate Orbiter, the gizmo lost in September because someone failed to convert English units to metric. "It's not going to be easy. But these missions are sequential and independent. What we need to do is ask ourselves, What is the sensible next step?"
But the truth is, NASA had already started to look at the next step before all the journalists packed up. Before the live coverage stopped. Before writers for "Saturday Night Live" began to think about the next show's jokes ("Analysts are saying this is the most disappointing $165 million space project since 'The Phantom Menace' ").
These people are explorers. So failure was on nobody's lips when a core group of experts gathered at 10 a.m. Monday to brainstorm in the Mission Control building at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. The meeting lasted most of the day, a freewheeling, five-hour discussion about what might have gone wrong and why, how to approach things differently next time.
It helped, in a way, to throw some positive energy at the funereal atmosphere that has reigned since the lander failed to phone home last Friday. "There had been a feeling of not being able to do anything," says Jim Cutts, a planetary scientist and 30-year veteran of NASA missions, wiggling his fingers to suggest the sense of dissipation. "This got the adrenaline flowing, it was kind of exciting. In general there's a feeling that we can't look at it as just a failure. We've got to take stuff out of it, move forward. We can't abandon this mission."
He smiles wryly. "I haven't seen anyone sobbing in a corner."
Reality check. Failure? Well, sure. But this is Mars we're talking about. A planet that takes seven months to reach when you take a shortcut; otherwise it's more like a year.
The moon? Three days. Mars? A year.
Here's Mars: You send a beep out into the void from Cambria, Australia, and 14 minutes later--at the speed of light--it arrives. Your little spaceship orbiting the planet--it's called the Mars Global Surveyor--gets the signal, and sends it back, which takes another 14 minutes.
It's a long way. And scientists have been trying to contact a machine the size of a Go Kart stuck on the planet's south pole along with two little melon-size probes.
"What are we doing here? We're landing on the surface of Mars," says Jennifer Harris, a 31-year-old aerospace engineer hanging out in the JPL newsroom a few hours before the last "credible" attempt to contact the lost lander. She's not whining, just putting things in perspective. "We don't do Earth. We don't do simple issues. You're gonna fail. Y'know--it's Mars."
Harris has soaked up the can-do attitude of most of the people on the project. They're "problem solvers," she says. "The attitude is not 'Let's give up.' It's 'Let's solve it.' That's what we do." She sighs when a reporter brings up the question of public support for the Mars mission.
"I got hundreds, thousands of e-mails from people who thought the Pathfinder mission [in 1996] was the coolest thing that's ever happened. You can't deny the emotional pull of it. The emotional draw to the unknown. And yet when we have a failure we think, 'Will we lose public support?' "
All day long, theories are being tossed about, from local talk radio to the journalists killing time to the public affairs flacks behind a makeshift desk in the makeshift newsroom that is really the lobby of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
For a high-tech operation, you could hardly find a more low-tech place. There are dated brown and beige earphones for listening to NASA's in-house TV station. They look like leftovers from the 1975 Mars mission. They're attached to little plastic blue switch boxes with raised letters: "Shuttle Mission." Shuttle mission? What year was that?
A big sign--"Interview Desk"--is attached to a pillar on one side and, on the other, to a full-scale model, hanging like a massive black spider from the lobby ceiling, of Galileo, the billion-dollar explorer that went to Jupiter in 1986. That was before NASA got the word in the early '90s to adopt the credo "faster, cheaper, better." Now everybody here says it like it's one word, as in, at a news conference: "Doesn't this prove that fastercheaperbetter is a failure?"
Well, maybe. Sure, the lander cost $165 million, and it's disappeared. But scientists here are fond of reminding reporters that "Titanic"--the movie--cost $200 million.
Still, where is it? Maybe it's stuck under a cliff that blocks out radio signals. Maybe it landed just exactly wrong, so that none of its transmitters can transmit. Maybe it crash-landed and broke to smithereens. Maybe there's something destructive in the atmosphere of the south pole that scientists couldn't have anticipated. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Engineer David Crisp on a local radio talk show Monday: "It seems baffling. . . . There must be something we haven't thought of yet. At this point we're at a loss as to what went wrong."
Talk show host Larry Mantle: "But how do you re-engineer if you don't know what went wrong?"
Engineer Don Bickler, sotto voce: "It's really bad news."
11:30 p.m., Pacific time, Earth. Press room slowly filling up. Boredom reigns. A Reuters reporter is playing Adam Sandler's "Hanukah Song" over his computer.
Scientist Paige has come down from Mission Control to share his optimism, a few minutes before the so-called "A-List" attempt to contact the lander. "We're actually very upbeat. It's a very good test of whether or not we'll be able to conduct the mission," he says. "We'll never be closer to being successful than we are tonight."
Someone turns on Jay Leno and pumps up the volume. "So, uh, guess we're trying to find the Mars Polar Lander," Leno is saying. The newsroom, Paige too, titters. Leno dials a phone and gets a busy signal and then a nasal recording: "The lander is unavailable. It is outside your coverage area." Broad laughter. Leno goes on, "Have you heard NASA has a new book released today? 'Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, Where the Hell Is the Polar Lander?' "
Paige guffaws, long and loud.
They click over to Letterman. It was a repeat. No Mars jokes.
They switch back to Leno.
High noon on Mars. Midnight plus 20 minutes on Earth, Pacific time. About 15 people are gathered in Mission Control, a small room in the black and white '60s-style building at the NASA laboratory. The minutes tick by as "Ace," a scientist at Lockheed Martin in Denver, which built the lander, gets the go-ahead to send commands to the Global Surveyor, orbiting Mars, to contact the Polar Lander on the planet.
Silence. The scientists at Mission Control--Paige hovers above Polar Lander scientist Richard Zurek and JPL Director Edward Stone--are staring into the middle distance, expressionless. Some are fingering black-and-white images of the south pole on the table in front of them. NASA spokesman and scientist David Seidel keeps up a low monotone of explanation for journalists, who are watching the scene on closed-circuit TV. The dialogue is barely intelligible to a layman.
Ace to Mission Control: "We still have India 690001 in active state, radiating. Still have two minutes left on radiation. Still no luck."
Mission Control doesn't answer. Ticktock, ticktock.
Ace to Mission Control: "India 690001 has completed radiation. Stand by for India 690001."
Silence at Mission Control.
And another voice: "I'm sorry to report that all we have is KHTKM. It seemed to be nominal no-par pass."
Seidel to the newsroom: "What we have is not good news. . . . There were only housekeeping files generated by our cameras."
12:36. The scientists stand up, swiftly leave the room. And they head down to the NASA auditorium to face the news cameras, and the bitter reality of human fallibility.