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For the rest of America, the New Year was already two days old. But for dozens of NASA scientists gathered in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 3, the old year-the bad year-was not yet fully in the past. The loss of the space shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated in mid-air on Feb. 1, 2003, had cast a pall over the entire space program. NASA desperately needed a big success to assure its own future, and that meant sticking the landing-on Mars.
After a journey of seven months and 302 million miles, the Mars Rover Spirit did just that, rolling to a stop in the middle of a dusty crater after a nail-biting, six-minute descent through the Martian atmosphere. As the spacecraft hit the atmosphere at 12,000 miles an hour, its heat shields endured temperatures as high as the surface of the sun. Slowed by parachutes and reverse rockets, the landing module dropped the final 60 feet in a free-fall, hitting the surface at 54 mph and bouncing some two dozen times on giant airbags.
One bad bounce, one sharp boulder, and the mission could have been over. For 15 minutes, the team in Pasadena waited for a sign that Spirit's delicate electronics had survived the fall. When listening stations in California and Australia picked up a signal from the rover, the room erupted in cheers.
"We're back!" exulted NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe, and he didn't merely mean back on the Red Planet, the site of three previous U.S. missions. With a successful landing by Spirit, billed as the most complicated robotic mission ever attempted, the entire space program seemed to step back from the brink.
Almost immediately, the golf-cart-sized rover began transmitting the highest-resolution photos ever taken of another planet. After a week of testing and set-up, Spirit will roll across the extraterrestrial terrain for three months, looking for signs of water and clues to the planet's past.
On Jan. 25, NASA will try again, landing another rover on the opposite side of Mars. Back-to-back successes will go a long way toward restoring the space agency's faith in itself and winning back the confidence of lawmakers who control its purse strings. NASA hopes to relaunch the space shuttle program later this year, and there are rumors that President Bush, if reelected, will press for the return of manned flights to the moon.