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Holding Out Hope : If Mars Observer Doesn't Call Home, Some Scientists Will Lose Theirs


PASADENA — As Mars Observer team members prepare to pack up and a few post for-sale signs on their homes, Edward R. Kelly still hopes for the wondrous dance of a line across his blue computer screen at the missing spacecraft's mission control.

Kelly, a 22-year veteran at these things, would be among the first to spot the jiggling computer line, a sign that the Observer is phoning home to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. It is the same signal that a hushed room of more than 100 media members and JPL officials waited for in vain Aug. 24, the day of Observer's scheduled rendezvous with Mars. The media crowds are long gone, but Kelly keeps waiting.

It has been more than three weeks since the spacecraft's last contact with Earth, and JPL's Observer team is starting to fold its tents. If Observer remains silent, the agency tentatively plans to lay off one-fourth of the 130-member team on Sept. 20. Cutbacks will continue through Oct. 31, until only a few people will remain.

Among the team members soon to be out of a job are a dozen engineers from Princeton, N.J.,-based Martin Marietta Astro Space, six of whom had bought houses in the Pasadena area in anticipation of a long stay on the Observer project.


Team members instead will join other, probably more mundane, projects. The Observer, one of the most sophisticated planetary probes ever launched, was designed to study Mars' geography, atmosphere and climate; its $21-million high-resolution camera was expected to take stunning pictures of the planet, 40 times clearer than the last ones from NASA's Viking orbiters in 1976.

Some Observer team members had spent 12 years nurturing the spacecraft, from conception to liftoff aboard a Titan III rocket last September and through its 450-million-mile journey to Mars. Team members had anticipated that the Observer's scientific instruments would gather 600 billion bits of data through November, 1995, or possibly longer. Instead, they peruse bits on the bulletin boards at Observer headquarters for job postings.

The bulletin boards are also stress-relievers, a place where jokers post mock ransom notes ("We have your spacecraft. . . . Send $20 billion in Martian money") and David Letterman's Top 10 list of NASA's excuses for losing the Observer ("Forgot to use the Club").

Flight controllers lost contact with the Observer just 68 hours before the 5,572-pound, golf cart-sized spacecraft was scheduled to begin orbiting Mars. Some independent experts speculated that the spacecraft blew up as its rockets fired to prepare for orbit; NASA countered that the likelihood of such an explosion is one-tenth of 1%. The space agency has had its scientists continue sending commands to the Observer, under the assumption that it is tumbling through space but unable to communicate.

So Kelly waits, just as he did as mission controller on the Mariner and Viking probes, NASA's two earlier successful missions to Mars. He waits, in a lonely one-man 10-by-8-foot work station with ratty carpet and dim fluorescent lights, and, on the wall, a posted editorial cartoon lampooning the Observer. The Galileo and Magellan crafts routinely beam messages home from space, but Observer remains silent while NASA's independent review board investigates what went wrong.

Kelly, 49, of Lancaster, speaks briskly and professionally about his job, in the manner that the world has come to expect from JPL. His reserve drops for a moment when he considers what it would be like to see a sweet sign from the Observer light his screen and admits that he would whoop so loud that the sound would carry to Observer headquarters, in another building across the JPL complex.

Kelly is one of a staff of five mission controllers who watch around the clock for that signal. One theory is that the Observer eventually will turn its solar panels toward the sun, recharge itself and, at any moment, turn itself on.

Meanwhile, flight engineers are back at the drawing board, penciling scenarios of what went wrong and how to fix possible malfunctions on the Mars Observer, dubbed "Mo Mo" for short. A team of about 15 people meets in "Mo Mo's War Room" three to 10 times a week, sometimes from sunup to sundown. Maybe, they speculate, the spacecraft missed its orbit completely. Or maybe it made the orbit but just can't talk to mission controllers.

Team members devise possible computer commands, which are whisked to appropriate departments for evaluation and then tested on a spacecraft clone. Each command is reviewed by the mission manager. So far, mission controllers have tapped out 1,283 commands--some of them repeats--trying to prompt a response.

Among the attempts: to switch from the spacecraft's main computer to a backup; to quit sending commands, in order to trigger a backup program that prompts a call home if mission control is silent for five days; to shut down one of the spacecraft's computers in case the two computers are confused about which one is in control.

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