Fuzzy time tables

Earlier this year, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which are still sending images back from Mars, celebrated their sixth anniversary on the red planet.

The mission was slated to last only three months.

In 1997 the Mars Pathfinder mission lasted more than three months when it was originally expected to cease functioning in a week to a month.

Am I the only one who suspects that these extended mission times have more to do with NASA’s inability to calculate the expiration date of their equipment and less to do with the surprisingly well built and remarkably efficient machines?

Or even more likely, is it possible that MASA purposely underestimates the length of their missions in order to avoid the perception of failure? Perhaps Spirit and Opportunity were originally projected to last ten years, but wanting to bolster public support and increase the overall perception of the effectiveness of the agency, NASA officials underreported the expiration dates of this equipment in order to impress the general public when the machines double and triple their projected lifespan.

After all, is it really impressive for engineers to be so inaccurate when it comes to estimating the length of time that these machines will function? They are starting to sound like meteorologists.

“It’s going to snow six to twelve inches tonight,” which really means, it’s going to snow six inches, or twice that amount.

With variances like this, how could one get a forecast wrong?

Same thing with the NASA engineers: Spirit and Opportunity are going to function for three months, or possibly sixty months. I thought these guys were smart.

Am I also the only one who remembers the Viking program of the 1970’s, which also placed two landers on Mars? Though these landers were not mobile, they sent back many images of the planet and conducted a score of experiments as well, and they managed to last three and six years before finally ceasing to function, one because of a battery failure and the other due to human error in a software update.

To put that in perspective, thirty years before we landed Spirit and Opportunity, we managed to land similar craft on the surface of the planet in order to take photos and conduct experiments, and one of these machines, launched during Gerald Ford’s Presidency, managed to last longer than our current Mars missions.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m as excited as the next guy about all the recent discoveries made by this current mission, but I’m just skeptical about the time frames and not as overwhelmed with awe as many seem considering that thirty years ago, we managed to do accomplish something very similar.

How soon we forget.