26 January 2008

Sometimes We Miss

On this date in 1962, the Ranger 3 space probe was launched.

In my opinion, one of the most impressive feats of science and technology, not to mention luck, in recent decades has been the success of the Mars rovers. The small (and relatively cheap) "little data collectors that could" have survived on the surface of Mars for years now, collecting hundreds of times the data originally planned for the mission. In the end, it is estimated that the mission will end because of dust that has settled on the rovers' solar panels. We never even considered they could last long enough for dust to be a problem.

Looking at this sort of success, it's easy to forget just how many times we as humans have tried to reach for the stars and failed. Aside from Apollo 13, which was lucky enough to get its own movie, most failed missions are happily forgotten.

One such mission that we often overlook in the history of space exploration is the Ranger 3. Launched from Cape Canaveral on January 26, 1962, it was meant to fly over the moon taking data on radar reflectivity and surface features, then land and continue to collect more data on the surface itself. It was, in many ways, the direct ancestor of the Mars rovers. Only it missed ... by a lot.

The Ranger 3 was launched by an Atlas-Agena B rocket. The idea was to clear the Earth's atmosphere, make a single course correction, and then ride the forces of gravity for the rest of the trip. It's the sort of calculation that anyone outside of NASA would call then, and many of us would still call today, impossible. But this is the reason you and I don't work for NASA. Their calculations were, in all likelihood, perfectly correct, but a faulty transistor on the rocket threw off its guidance system, and Ranger 3 missed the moon by an impressive 37,000 km on January 28. It then joined the thousands of other small objects orbiting our sun, and it remains out there today, spinning around the same star as us. Maybe someday we'll pick it up, and put it in a museum to remind ourselves that, as smart as we are, we and our technology are not perfect.

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