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Is Phobos-Grunt just the latest victim of the ‘Mars Curse’?

Contact was briefly established last week with the wayward Phobos-Grunt probe, still hobbling through low Earth-orbit since failing to fire its thrusters to escape orbit and send it on its way to Mars on November 9th.

Unfortunately, this setback is just the latest in a string of disasters in Earth’s decades old struggle for the Red Planet.  With partial failures and losses of entire missions through the years, we have learned that the conquest of the Martian system is one fraught with danger and peril.

Despite the well-known challenges of interplanetary travel, rumors of a supposed Mars Curse remain persistent.  Wading through the conspiracy theories and outlandish claims of faked missions and mind-control experiments, I wanted to know if there really was a correlation between disaster and attempts for Mars.

In order to see if people’s perceptions and mission outcomes really were in conjunction, I tapped the resources of RussianSpaceWeb.com to see just how many missions met with disaster on the way to or just after arriving at the Martian system.

Out of a total of 35 missions to Mars, 14 missions or 40% of all attempts to reach Mars have succeeded.  We also see that 21 missions or 60% of all attempts to reach Mars met with some type of mission failure along the way.

While journeying to Mars is an obviously perilous journey, the success rates of missions and the beyond life-expectancy performance of the different rovers (Opportunity, Spirit) throughout the last decade fail to show any proof of a mysterious force preventing Humans from reaching our once Earth-like neighbor.

And so, the quest for Mars will continue to drive us past our fears and skepticism and few conceivable setbacks will change people’s hearts and minds.  For it is in favor of the chance that we might yet be able to make a crucial home away from home that truly beckons to Humanity.

If we as a species are to survive even the most catastrophic of events (think Earth-seeking asteroids), then colonizing Mars and other places in the solar system becomes more than just the next logical step for space exploration but indeed one that ensures our very existence as a species.

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5 Responses to Is Phobos-Grunt just the latest victim of the ‘Mars Curse’?

  1. Steve Butler December 6, 2011 at 5:25 PM #

    So how does Mars compare to other classes of missions? I know that Venus landers are almost always “suicide missions,” but that’s generally expected. Might it have something to do with “launch window stress?” Maybe corners are cut to make deadlines?

    Just off the top of my head I’m thinking that missions going inward have more frequent windows, and missions going to the outer planets are less-frequent, less ambitious, and not quite as window-critical … but I could be entirely wrong about that.

    • joebowman December 6, 2011 at 7:29 PM #

      Hi Steve,

      What I don’t show is that Russia has 16 mission failures and 4 successes compared with the US’s 5 mission failures and 10 Successes. This speaks to the heart of the “cutting corners” argument. I imagined that the then Soviet space program was probably not accommodating to the trials and setbacks of space exploration, though this is just an assumption and I don’t want to bad mouth the Russian Federation’s current space program (since we have to carpool).

    • joebowman December 7, 2011 at 2:09 AM #

      Awesome – thanks for the updated stats. The US Mars missions have been out performing the competition for sure.

      The rover missions are close to my heart and I like any mission/spacecraft/lander/rover that exceeds its life-expectancy in terms of years.

  2. Doug Messier December 6, 2011 at 9:06 PM #

    The U.S. success rate is higher than that: 13 out of 18, including six of seven landings. And most of the successes have last far beyond their original mission lifetimes. Europe is 1 for 1. Although ESA’s Mars Express did lose the secondary Beagle 2 lander, the orbiter has been circling Mars for 8 years — four times longer than planned.

    If there’s a Martian curse, it speaks Russian. Their Mars program has been an embarassment. The equivlant of the LA Clippers. The U.S. program is akin to the Lakers.

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  1. SABOTAGE?!? Phobos-Grunt Probe Taken Out by Unknown Force? : - December 7, 2011

    […] But its still an interesting idea. Another site. Joe Bowman’s Science Blog, asks if there is a “Mars curse,” considering the high number of failed probes that have tried making it to […]

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