The Great Galactic Ghoul

As I sit here writing this, a team at the European Space Agency are still living with the faint hope that their lander has not become the latest victim of the “Curse of Mars”

In over 50 years of attempts, no Russian launched space vehicle has ever made it for more than a few seconds successfully on to the surface of the red planet.

Whilst many in the scientific community, ourselves included, would pay no heed to superstitious mumbo-jumbo, it is pertinent that since Apollo 13, no NASA spacecraft has ever had that number, and that the Russian Cosmonauts always adhere to a ritual going back decades involving urination on the wheel of the van taking them to the launch site. Even the “Right Stuff” have their superstitions, scientifically valid or not.

NASA have so far, been the only ones to touch down on Mars, and in many respects, despite a few failures of their own, are the ones seen as being able to do this almost routinely.

Two rovers traversing the surface for over a decade between them, with the third rover on its nuclear power source, still also delivering outstanding science. It’s hard to conceive of so many robotic cars doing science on a planet millions of miles away, but it’s happening.

Accompanying and preceding this were the pathfinders, the static lander craft Viking 1 and 2, dating back to the 1970s, so it’s not that getting to the surface is impossible, but it does require solid planning, thorough testing and support. If we could do it with something that big 40 years ago, why is it still so hard now?

Viking Lander
Viking Lander

Is it funding, testing, support? These are all something which the ill fated Beagle mission lacked in many respects, but even that made it through a flawless EDL, only not working as we now know due to an errant solar panel not unfurling.

Today’s news of the latest failure though, goes to show just how difficult space missions really are. With Juno also in “safe mode” orbiting Jupiter, we ┬ácan easily forget just how complex this type of work is, when he see missions like New Horizons, seemingly easily perform a flawless flyby of Pluto, or Rosetta orbit around comet 67P delivering remarkable results.

So should we believe in the “Great Galactic Ghoul” as it is oft known, gobbling up spacecraft on their voyages through our solar system?

Well no, of course we should not, but we should pay heed and look at the statistics for missions that have failed, and look at what may be a common thread or issue.

Testing can be stepped up to almost insane levels (See post the Apollo 1 fire), but look at the rewards. Six landings that still are regarded as the greatest technical achievement in human history cam about from that level of rigour.

One only has to look at Voyager, Cassini, Rosetta, New Horizons, MSL and many other missions to see that, done right, space not only looks easy, but astonishes the world. The brilliance of the scientists and engineers who worked on all of these missions should be lauded, but every single engineer working on every space project should adopt the mindset of “speaking up” if they thing something is not quite right. This is what saved Apollo, and what ultimately could save future missions now in planning.

All of us have a responsibility to do our best, our utmost, and whatever we can to ensure every aspect of our lives is as good as it can be.

The story goes that an Apollo astronaut was walking along a corridor and saw a person sweeping the floor “What is it you do?” asked the astronaut “I am helping to land a man on the Moon” came the proud reply.

It is only with that level of pride, that level of determination and also the right to question everything, that we will, together, move on to the like of Mars and beyond..



(and when you do… make sure you do them to the very best of your ability)



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *