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Exploring Mars: Failure... failure... failure... success! [Photos]

August 04, 2012|By Amy Hubbard
  • Mars has long pulled at our imaginations. As Curiosity gets ready to land, it's a good time to look back at the history of Mars exploration. This image was taken in 2003 by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Mars has long pulled at our imaginations. As Curiosity gets ready to land,… (NASA / Associated Press )

The history of Mars exploration provides strong evidence of human stubbornness. It was a case of "if at first you don't succeed, try -- and fail -- repeatedly."

The former Soviet Union was the original pioneer in exploring the Red Planet.

A broadcast clip from History.com catches the flavor of the late-1950s and early '60s space race with the launch of Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957: "The first artificial Earth satellite in the world has now been created.  This first satellite was today successfully launched in the USSR."

PHOTO GALLERY: Highlights from the history of Mars exploration

Three years later, with Mars ambitions, the Soviet Union sent up two probes. The craft, launched in October 1960, weren't named at the time of launch. Perhaps the Soviets knew they shouldn't get too attached? Neither spacecraft managed to reach Earth orbit.

But the Soviet Union had a can-do spirit when it came to space. In 1962, it tried again ... and failed again.

The goal of that attempt -- Sputnik 22, launched Oct. 24, 1962 -- was a Mars fly-by to send back pictures of the planet. The spacecraft managed to make Earth orbit but failed to get past that point by the time the final rocket stage exploded. Alas, this happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Debris from the exploded spacecraft was initially identified by an early warning system in Alaska as nuclear warheads. Fortunately for us all, the mistake was cleared up.

The United States kicked off its Mars effort with failure too. Mariner 3 was launched Nov. 5, 1964, for a fly-by of Mars. The solar panels didn't open; fly-by scratched.

The U.S. saw its luck turn with the success of Mariner 4. The craft launched on July 14, 1965, and traveled for eight months to reach Mars, where it took the first close-up images of the planet.  Twenty-two close-up shots revealed "a cratered and moon-like surface," according to NASA.

A lot has changed in the decades since Mariner. NASA scientists are now biting their fingernails as they await the outcome of the landing of the heaviest rover sent to Mars, the Curiosity.

That piece will be added to the Mars exploration history books after its landing Sunday, timed for 10:30 p.m. Pacific time.

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