20 years ago today on on June 10, 2003, NASA’s Spirit rover lifted off from Cape Canaveral and began its 7-month journey to Mars. It left Earth one month before its twin, Opportunity as part of the collective “Mars Exploration Rovers” mission. At that time, only one rover had successfully operated on the surface of Mars*—the microwave-sized Sojourner, which arrived in 1997 onboard the Pathfinder lander. This landing was just months after the arrival of NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft in orbit. Beyond these two missions however, the 1990s/early 2000s weren’t kind to humanity’s attempts to get to the Red Planet.
In 1993, NASA lost contact with the Mars Observer spacecraft just three days before it was set to enter Mars orbit. A failure of the propulsion system is the presumed culprit. Mars Observer was NASA’s first attempt to return to the Red Planet since the Viking missions in the 1970s, making this failure a bit of a gut punch. Russia attempted to send an ambitious mission in 1996 carrying two landers, and two “penetrators” that would plunge into the ground. Alas as was the case for many of Russia’s martian attempts, a failed launch caused Mars 96 to crash back down to Earth. Japan’s Nozomi mission launched in July 1998, but malfunctions in the fuel system left the spacecraft without enough fuel to slow down and enter Mars orbit. Instead, Nozomi went careening past Mars and ended up orbiting the Sun. In December 1998 and January 1999, NASA launched a pair of ill-fated missions: Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander, respectively. Mars Climate Orbiter may perhaps be the most infamous NASA mission ever, lost due to the human error of a metric/imperial unit conversion issue. This led to the spacecraft either burning up in the atmosphere of Mars, or like Nozomi, blazing past Mars into the darkness of space. We’ll likely never know for sure which was the case. Mars Polar Lander is thought to have smashed into the surface due to an engine malfunction during landing. Unfortunately, this occurred as many around the world watched the landing events live. In 2003, the European Space Agency attempted its first Mars landing with Beagle 2, which never contacted Earth after it was deployed from the Mars Express orbiter. From 1990 through 2003, over half of the spacecraft sent to Mars by humans failed in some capacity.