Red Planet, Red Faces

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OK, so let's review: Round 2 of NASA's "faster, better, cheaper" strategy is complete, and all we have to show for our $300 million-plus are a few conspiracy theories, a lot of disappointed people and some heavily trafficked web sites. NASA has all but given the last rites to its latest probe now that Mars Polar Lander has for the fourth straight day obstinately refused to phone home. Couple that with the failure three months ago of its sister ship, the Mars Climate Orbiter, and you could forgive space agency officials for feeling more than a little grumpy today.

And more than a little worried. While this is hardly the first or even the most expensive ship ever to be lost around the Red Planet (that would be the billion-dollar Mars Observer, lost en route in 1993 and now presumably doing its observing outside the Oort cloud), NASA officials have to be concerned by the timing of these high-profile failures. Tuesday, the agency announced it would reevaluate the Mars program, a move that could delay or even abort NASA's ambitious plans to send a lander and an orbiter to Mars every 26 months for the next decade. The loss of two straight probes prompts questions about whether the agency isn't cutting too many corners, sending out untested spacecraft without enough built-in redundancies, and it's hoped that an investigation into the apparent failure of the Mars Polar Lander will provide some much-needed answers. In the meantime, NASA stands behind its strategy. "Would you rather go back and spend $2 billion to $3 billion a spacecraft," NASA administrator Daniel Goldin asked this weekend, "and send them up every 10 years and lose one of them?" But there should be a more effective middle ground. In the end "faster, better, cheaper" may be replaced by another saying: "Penny wise, pound foolish."