Latest Mars Mess May Not Be NASA's Fault

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The latest spin on the fate of the Mars Polar Lander suggests that the vessel may have accidentally been guided by NASA to a touchdown in a canyon, where it broke apart on impact. This theory, put forward in the Denver Post by an unnamed Lockheed Martin scientist, has refocused attention on the state of affairs at America's aerospace agency, where a spate of recent high-profile (and high-priced) gaffes has led to declining confidence, with many saying the agency's cost- and time-cutting measures have led to negligence. In fact, the Polar Lander mission was billed as a chance for the agency to regain public favor, and NASA even arranged a live Internet broadcast to deliver the first sound recordings of the Red Planet. But web surfers waited and waited and the signal never came.

This latest theory, however, isn't necessarily evidence of NASA's mismanagement. TIME science writer Michael Lemonick says the failed December mission has suffered an unfair level of scrutiny by being linked to its sister mission, the Mars Climate Orbiter, which was lost because one of its programmers used inches instead of centimeters. Lemonick points out that the Martian region the Polar Lander touched down on has very few canyons, so NASA was right to expect a smooth landing. "Until the day when we can survey the entire planet with incredibly high precision, which is probably 100 years away, you can't control exactly where you're going to land," says Lemonick. "It would be absurd for Congress to take money away from NASA because of this." Maybe so, but for $250 million the public is going to want at least a few photographs.