New Martian odyssey begins

Posted: April 7, 2001

Boeing Delta 2 rocket lifts off with Mars Odyssey. Photo: NASA-KSC
NASA's 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft set sail for the Red Planet on Saturday, departing Earth aboard a Boeing Delta 2 rocket fitted with two video cameras that provided spectacular views of the thunderous blastoff.

Coming exactly on time at 11:02:22 a.m. EDT, the rocket's engines ignited and the 286-million mile trek to Mars began as the Delta 2 darted off launch pad 17A at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Florida's east coast.

NASA's Mars program scientist James Garvin could hardly contain his excitement as Odyssey soared into the crystal clear sky on a voyage that the space agency hopes will erase the pain of two straight failures of probes dispatched to the Red Plnet.

"This is better than anything I can imagine! I think our hearts went up on it, our minds are with it and we're go for Mars!"

The 31-minute flight of the three-stage Delta 2 took Odyssey up the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, across the Northern Atlantic and Europe before passing over the Middle East where the probe was released to begin its six-month interplanetary journey.

Third stage
A series of images from the two onboard "Rocketcams" show the launch of Odyssey. Photos: Spaceflight Now/NASA TV
Mission officials and the world at large were able to "ride along" during much of the Delta rocket's flight thanks to a pair of cameras that beamed live television back to Earth.

Made by CrossLink Inc. of Boulder, Colorado, the EagleVision "Rocketcams" are designed to fly on unmanned Delta, Atlas and Titan rockets and the space shuttle. The system's first use was in 1997 aboard a Delta.

The cameras serve two purposes -- giving engineers insight into how rockets perform during flight, while also providing awe-inspiring video to capture the public's attention.

Such was the case Saturday as Boeing was able to see the rocket's third stage spin up and separate from the spent second stage, an event never before viewed during flight. A second camera was pointed downward and showed the Florida coastline in remarkable detail during the first minutes of flight, which wound up on national network newscasts just hours later.

The launch of Odyssey, however, is just the start of this $297 million mission that aims to map the chemical composition of Mars and find the most interesting places on the planet where future probes can be sent to search for water and the possible evidence of past life.

NASA is counting on Odyssey to succeed after back-to-back failures of its last two Mars exploration spacecraft in 1999. The embarrassing blunders have prompted NASA and industry alike to focus on details to ensure success, and the space agency has realized its shoe-string budget for Mars exploration just wasn't adequate.

The Mars Climate Orbiter crashed into the planet after a metric conversion error caused controllers to miscalculate its trajectory properly, and Mars Polar Lander likely impacted the surface due to a design flaw with its descent system that went undetected.

So NASA's Mars effort has undergone a major facelift with new senior leaders, a slower approach to the long-term vision of exploration and more money to ensure the spacecraft are built and flown properly.

Odyssey has undergone one of the most rigorous pre-flight testing and review processes officials can remember subjecting any recent robotic mission.

"It's a little scary when you think about it: 250 million miles, everything's done robotically by pre-ordained computer sequences," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for space science. "On the other hand, we've done every single thing we know how to do on this mission. Money was not an issue. We spent as much money as we needed to. We had independent reviews and then we had reviewers check the reviews. We had people checking units, metric to (English), and then we had people checking the checkers. What else we can do, I just don't know. This thing's got to work."

NASA's success rate at Mars is about 60 percent. When you factor in the Russian missions sent to the Red Planet, the overall success rate is less than 30 percent.

"We always want successes, but if there's one message I try to get through to the American people -- and I say it every single press conference -- this isn't a trip to grandma's house," Weiler said. "We're going to another planet, which is a long, long journey."

An artist's concept of Mars Odyssey at the Red Planet. Photo: NASA/JPL
Odyssey should arrive at Mars on October 24. It will fire its main engine for 22 minutes and slip into an egg-shaped orbit around the planet lasting about 17 hours every revolution.

Over the next 76 days, the Lockheed Martin-built spacecraft will dip into the upper atmosphere of Mars some 273 times, using a complex procedure, called aerobraking, to achieve a two-hour circular orbit at an altitude of about 250 miles above the planet.

From that vantage point, Odyssey will go to work to determine what Mars is made of by mapping its mineralogy, searching for water ice trapped in the planet's crust and examining the radiation environment. Scientists hope by understanding the elements of the planet's surface they could unlock the mysterious history of Mars.

The main science gathering mission is supposed to last from January 2002 through July 2004.

Video vault
The Boeing Delta 2 rocket lifts off from pad 17A carrying carrying NASA's 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft bound for the Red Planet.
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A video camera mounted on the exterior of the Delta 2 rocket's second stage shows the view of liftoff and the first minute of flight through separation of the six ground-lit solid rocket motors.
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Onboard camera shows the spent air-lit solid rocket boosters being jettisoned and the first stage main engine still firing. A steering turn then takes place as the rocket heads on its northeast trajectory.
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Onboard video camera shows the spent first stage separating, second stage engine start and fairing jettison.
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A second onboard camera -- this one pointed up -- shows the rocket's nose cone, separating from the vehicle to reveal Mars Odyssey.
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Upward-facing camera shows small thrusters firing to spin up the third stage and attached Mars Odyssey. The third stage then separates from the second stage.
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Flight Data File
Vehicle: Delta 2 (7925)
Payload: 2001 Mars Odyssey
Launch date: April 7, 2001
Launch times: 11:02 a.m. EDT or 11:32 a.m. EDT
Launch site: SLC-17A, Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Pre-launch briefing
Launch windows - See the daily launch times available for Mars Odyssey to lift off over the 20-day planetary alignment.

Launch timeline No. 1 - Chart with times and descriptions of events to occur during the launch first daily opportunity is used.

Launch timeline No. 2 - Chart with times and descriptions of events to occur during the launch second daily opportunity is used.

Ground track - Trace the Delta rocket's trek during launch.

Restricted zone - Map outlining the Launch Hazard Area where mariners should remain clear for the liftoff.

Delta 2 rocket - Overview of the Delta 2 7925-model rocket used to launch Mars Odyssey.

2001 Mars Odyssey - Technical look at the spacecraft and its systems.

Mission science - Overview of the scientific objectives of Mars Odyssey.

Delta directory - See our coverage of preview Delta rocket flights.