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NASA Cheers 'Mars Odyssey' as it Orbits Red Planet - 2001-10-24

The U.S. "Mars Odyssey" spacecraft has entered orbit around the Red Planet, reviving an exploration program that suffered a setback with the loss of a pair of missions, two years ago. The spacecraft is searching for water.

After the Odyssey's six-month journey, flight controllers in Pasadena, California, erupted into applause when they received signals indicating that the spacecraft began braking and slipped into orbit to become a Martian satellite. Odyssey Project Manager Matt Landano says early tracking data indicated the spacecraft executed an engine firing that put it on target to enter the Martian atmosphere. "Odyssey is in orbit and is healthy," Mr. Landano said. The mission team shared hugs and handshakes with top officials of the U.S. space agency NASA who traveled from Washington to witness the event.

The moment was especially sweet for NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin. He will retire from the agency next month, redeemed after presiding over the loss of contact with an orbiter and a lander near Mars, in late 1999. "It embodies the true American spirit that we could win after being knocked down a few times," Mr. Goldin continued. "And at this trying time for America, I'm so proud of this team for lifting the American spirit."

Although the Odyssey was designed before the 1999 losses, NASA took extra precautions to ensure that it did not suffer from the same bureaucratic and technical problems that led to their failure.

The 1999 orbiter burned up in the Martian atmosphere because confusion over English and metric measurements put it into the wrong trajectory. Three months later, the lander probably crashed on Mars because of a computer software error.

A subsequent investigation revealed NASA had skimped on limited staff and budget for its Mars program, which was bureaucratically fragmented. The agency created a new headquarters office to take charge, added money and personnel to this project and conducted exhaustive tests on the spacecraft.

The payoff came when Project Manager Landano announced this statistic. "Preliminary indications are that the orbital is 19 hours, which is really great because what we were after was an orbit 20 hours or less. So this is really great news," Mr. Landano said.

But Mr. Landano says the job is not over until Odyssey returns what he calls a rich harvest of data. It will spend 2.5 years mapping the chemical and mineral composition of Mars, looking especially for geologic features that could indicate the presence of water. Water could indicate past or present life and provide a resource for future human visits.

Before that begins, however, Odyssey will take more than two months to perform a procedure called "aerobraking." It will use the friction of Mars' thin atmosphere to slow and lower its present egg-shaped orbit to follow a circular path.

When Odyssey's main mission is complete in 2004, it will become a communications relay for future U.S. and international landers.