In The Field

Phoenix landing: Bittersweet history


No, that isn’t Phoenix PI Peter Smith. And that’s not the Surface Stereo Imager.

That’s a decade old picture of David Paige, PI for the doomed Mars Polar Lander, with the previous incarnation of the SSI.

On one of the recent Phoenix conference calls, a journalist asked — had anyone talked to Paige? Did he watch the landing? Good questions. I called him up — he’s a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles — and had a quick chat. Turns out he did watch the Phoenix landing from JPL, with his 5-year-old son.

First, the background. Mars Polar Lander was headed to the south pole to perform a similar mission as Phoenix, but was lost upon entry to the atmosphere in 1999. Its failure led to the cancellation and closeting of the parts that were going into the Mars Surveyor lander — and it was those parts that were resurrected to make Phoenix.

Paige recalled the tense moments of his landing operation, which also occurred at JPL. It was a low budget operation, and Polar Lander didn’t have direct telemetry to Earth during its descent. From the time it left the cruise stage, until it touched down and started beaming signals back to Earth 20 minutes later, mission managers had to wait in silence.

Paige recalled the silence persisting after 20 minutes. And persisting. That began weeks of fruitless searches for any signal that Polar Lander was alive. Its wreckage (though it might not have crashed) still hasn’t been found. Instead of seven minutes of terror, Paige had months of anxiety, followed by years of disappointment. “We’ll get closure eventually,” he says. “It’s like the lost relative that went on the hiking trip and never came back. And you never found the body.”

“We came very, very close to doing something unique. You can’t help but wonder what we might have discovered…” he says, trailing off.

But he’s not feeling bitter by the success of Phoenix. Bittersweet, maybe. It brings back difficult memories, but he’s not jealous. “They deserve success and so far it looks like they’re getting it.”

He also puts a positive spin on the failure of Polar Lander, saying it was necessary in order for Phoenix to succeed. The Phoenix team scoured the old Surveyor parts relentlessly, and identified and eliminated failure modes.

After several months of searching for Polar Lander, Paige sent an email to his team, saying it was time to call off the mission. Paige didn’t drop off the face of the Earth, but he did decide not to get involved with Phoenix. Five years down the drain was a lot, but not his whole career. He’s now a PI for a thermal mapping instrument on the upcoming Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. “There are always more chances. It’s not the end of the world,” he says. “No mission is the last mission to Mars.


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