NASA’s Ranger series of robotic probes, flown in the early 1960s to obtain close-up images of the Moon, got off to a rough start. The first six Ranger probes either experienced launch failures or malfunctioned during their trips to the Moon.
Engineers and scientists meticulously analyzed each of these failures, though, and the program ultimately succeeded with its final three Ranger probes.
These missions, which were intentionally slammed into the lunar surface, were designed to record and transmit images of the Moon right up until their moment of impact. Ultimately, the images they captured helped NASA plan the crewed Apollo lunar landings that would later come.
Mariners venture further afield
Then there’s NASA’s Mariner series of robotic space probes, which were designed to make the first reconnaissance passes by Mercury, Venus, and Mars.
Amazingly, seven out of 10 of these early interplanetary missions were successful, at least by some measure. However, Mariner 1, which was launched amidst great fanfare, experienced multiple failures of its guidance system and was intentionally destroyed just 300 seconds after launch.
To this day, it remains unclear exactly what caused the problem for Mariner 1, but most accounts suggest that a minute error in its computer code led to the failure. In fact, noted science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once quipped that Mariner 1 “was wrecked by the most expensive hyphen in history.” Fortunately, Mariner 1’s sister ship, Mariner 2, was able to complete a successful flyby of Venus.
Mariner 3, designed to zip by Mars, failed to separate from its protective payload fairing after launch, which made it impossible to deploy its solar panels. Starved of electricity, the craft fell silent eight hours after blasting off. Mariner 4, was launched less than a month later, and it successfully performed a flyby of Mars, providing the first close-up views of the Red Planet.
The Mariner program exemplifies how NASA was learning the value of duplicating spacecraft to hedge against the high risk of catastrophic failures. (This approach also brings to mind a quote from the 1997 science fiction film Contact — “The first rule of government spending: Why buy one when you can have two for twice the price?”)
The trouble with Mars
No target has pushed back on our attempts to explore it quite like Mars. Missions to the Red Planet fail at an alarming rate. Part of the problem is distance, part is the challenges of interplanetary communication, and part is our strong impetus to go beyond martian orbit, opting to instead place landers and rovers directly on its surface.
The United States has launched 29 missions to Mars, six of which were failures. But that’s still a pretty good track record. For comparison, the USSR launched 20 missions to Mars before its demise, and 17 of them either partially or completely failed.
Some of NASA’s notable Mars failures are worth a closer look, though.