NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft racing toward Mars; 'Safe Journey'

Saturday, April 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft took off on a six-month, 286 million-mile journey to the Red Planet on Saturday, accompanied by prayers from scientists seeking redemption after back-to-back failures.

``Excited, elated, relieved, all at the same time. It's been a year of sleepless nights,'' NASA's Mars program director, Scott Hubbard, said following liftoff.

Ed Weiler, head of NASA's space science program, called the late-morning launch ``absolutely fantastic.'' But he cautioned: ``It's only a first step.''

``This mission doesn't really get shown to be successful until about six months from now when we go into orbit,'' Weiler said. More than two years of geological surveying will follow in a quest for water on or just beneath the Martian surface.

Weiler noted that the previous two Mars launches also went well, and that it wasn't until the spacecraft reached Mars in 1999 that they fizzled. As a result, the approximately 100 scientists gathered at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for Saturday's liftoff, while exhilarated, were reluctant to celebrate too much.

``Instead of popping champagne, I popped a Pepsi,'' Weiler confided. ``When we get all the science down in two years, that will be the champagne.''

NASA program scientist Jim Garvin said everything was magnified for this launch, including his nerves. His hands shook as he read a prayer seconds before liftoff that was written by an Air Force chaplain expressly for Mars Odyssey. ``Grant us your help to succeed and surmount any obstacles,'' the prayer implored.

Everything went well as the Delta rocket lifted off at the appointed moment of 11:02 a.m., carrying Mars Odyssey through a stunningly clear aqua sky.

An on-board camera showed the launch site, then the cape, then the Florida coast growing smaller as the rocket climbed higher. Another camera panned on the golden-colored Mars Odyssey at the top of the booster, coasting hundreds of miles above Earth and eventually spinning away.

Mars Odyssey catapulted out of Earth orbit at 25,000 mph a half-hour into the flight and raced toward an October rendezvous with Mars. The launch commentator called out: ``Have a safe journey to Mars.'' Applause erupted in the launch control center.

Named after Arthur C. Clarke's science-fiction novel and movie, ''2001: A Space Odyssey,'' Mars Odyssey is quite possibly the most scrutinized spacecraft ever sent to the Red Planet. It is the first probe in a program that was overhauled by NASA to avoid fiascoes like the ones in 1999.

The Mars Climate Orbiter ended up in pieces around Mars or smashed on the planet because engineers mixed up English and metric units of measurement. Barely 2 1/2 months later, the Mars Polar Lander crash-landed on Mars and was lost, most likely because of a premature engine shutdown.

``There are a lot of people on the team who worked'' on those two failed missions, said George Pace, Odyssey's project manager for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. ``They want some kind of redemption. They want a chance to show they can make this right.''

NASA spent millions of extra dollars on Odyssey, boosting the total mission cost to $297 million, and added workers and tests. As of Saturday afternoon, it seemed to be paying off: The spacecraft checked out fine as it sped toward Mars, with the exception of a minor problem with a temperature sensor on the electricity-generating solar panel.

The next six months should be relatively smooth sailing; the next tense moments will be when the engine fires to put Mars Odyssey into orbit around the Red Planet on Oct. 24.

Once settled in a 250-mile-high orbit, Mars Odyssey will begin studying minerals in the rocks and measuring chemical elements like hydrogen in a search for water. Water, NASA reasons, could lead to life _ if it's there.

The findings will help NASA choose the touchdown sites for a pair of rovers to be launched in 2003, an even more elaborate lander in 2007 and possibly a soil-return mission in 2011.

Weiler hopes Mars Odyssey will do for NASA's Mars program what a repaired Hubble Space Telescope did for astronomy more than seven years ago.

``I hope this will be a comeback like that,'' he said.