NASA Head Discusses Curiosity Rover Worst-Case Scenarios

Charles Bolden, NASA's administrator, says the agency had a 'plan B' in place if Curiosity crashed.

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NASA Administrator Charles Bolden had a Plan B if the $2.5 billion Curiosity Mars Rover, which the agency spent seven years developing, crash landed onto the surface of Mars. Luckily, he didn't have to use it. 

"Plan B would have been to remind the world we still have a functioning rover, Opportunity, getting data from the surface of Mars, that we still have the Mars reconnaissance orbiter. We still have enough things gathering data to help us understand the potential of exploring the planet," he told a group Tuesday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. "Would [a crash] have been a setback? Yes, it would have. Would it have been the end of the world? Not by any stretch of the imagination."

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Curiosity, which is the size of a Mini Cooper and weighs three times as much as any other rover landed on the Red Planet, used a proprietary landing system that had never been tested. A rocket-powered "sky crane" deployed from the rover's capsule slowly lowered Curiosity onto the planet's surface. NASA dubbed the descent "seven minutes of terror." 

Because it takes 14 minutes for telecommunications to reach Earth from Mars, scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory knew that when they received word that the capsule had entered the Martian atmosphere, its fate was already sealed.

"We were all biting our fingernails off," Bolden said. "When we got word it had entered the Martian atmosphere, it's either a crumpled mass on the surface of Mars or had successfully landed. We didn't see a lot of in-betweens." 

With money tight in the agency, the massive loss that Curiosity would have represented would have certainly turned heads in Congress and would have cast serious doubt into future Mars missions. After Challenger crashed in 1986 and Columbia crashed in 2003, NASA grounded its shuttle program for nearly three years in each instance.

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A few days before the rover landed in early August, Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, told U.S. News that NASA was "betting the house" with the rover, and that a crash would cause NASA to be "discredited at exactly the wrong time." 

"If it fails, the voices of criticism will be phenomenal," he said at the time. 

Both Zubrin and Bolden say that the public needs to realize going to space isn't easy, and that there are going to be failures. 

"We have to get away from Plan B being to walk away from [a mission]," Bolden said. "We're going to lose people, we're going to lose vehicles, but that's what we do."

So even though Curiosity has been a rousing success, Bolden says they're not all going to go as smoothly. 

"You do not go places people have never been before if you're not ready to take a risk and accept the loss," he said. "We lost way more people in the western expansion of the United States than we will ever lose in space exploration."

Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at jkoebler@usnews.com