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On Mars: Exploration of the Red Planet. 1958-1978

[156] Born in the winter of 1965, Mariner Mars 69 was supposed to be only a modest improvement over Mariner 4 . Early plans for a 1969 orbiter and hard-lander mission had been scrapped, and in its place a flyby craft had been substituted that would approach Mars at a distance of about 3200 kilometers, rather than the 13 800-kilometer pass made by Mariner 4 in 1965. 2 The 1969 spacecraft would also carry more weight (384 kilograms) than earlier Mariners (Mariner 2 -203 kg. Mariner 4 -261 kg), because of the performance capability of its Atlas-Centaur launch vehicle. (Detailed information on the Mariner flights is given in Appendix C.) Building on Project Ranger and Project Mariner experience, JPL engineers borrowed a number of fundamental mission and systems features for use with Mariner Mars 69. The most important of these was three-axis stabilization (roll, pitch, and yaw), provided by gyroscopes and celestial sensors, switching amplifiers, and cold-gas jets. This attitude control system permitted orientation [157] of the solar panels and thermal shields, which provided temperature control, relative to the sun. The high-gain communications antenna could be aimed toward Earth to improve communications, and the scientific instruments could be directed toward the objects of their study. The attitude control system also permitted the craft to be maneuvered more precisely. 3 Other characteristics of the Mariner spacecraft included an extensive ground command capability and a large number of engineering and scientific telemetry measurements. The ground command capability was used primarily as a backup to the onboard central sequencer, a mini-computer that also reacted to commands from Earth.
Mariner Mars 69 followed the general design pattern of Mariner 4 . The central body was octagonal with a magnesium framework (127-centimeter diagonal, 46-centimeter depth). with electronic assemblies and onboard propulsion system fitted into the equipment bays on all sides. Four hinged solar panels radiated from the body. On the side of the spacecraft opposite the solar panels was a platform for mounting the television camera, an infrared radiometer, an ultraviolet spectrometer, and an infrared spectrometer. The omnidirectional antenna and the fixed, high-gain, reflector antenna were attached on the side generally oriented toward the sun. Ground stations could communicate with the spacecraft continuously for tracking and the return of scientific data. Images would be stored by an onboard tape recorder for relay to Earth at a reduced play-back rate, since the cameras necessarily acquired imaging data at a rate much higher than the telemetry channel could accommodate.
As they worked on early Mariner and Ranger spacecraft, specialists at JPL had also evolved systems for tracking and controlling spacecraft from Earth, recognizing the requirement for a highly sensitive, steerable antenna (radio telescope) for communication with deep space probes. For continuous long-range coverage, a network of three stations, about equidistant in longitude, was normally sufficient. The first stations were at Goldstone, California; Johannesburg, South Africa; and Woomera, Australia. By the time Mariner 69 was ready to fly, there were eight 26-meter radio antennas and one 64-meter antenna in the Deep Space Network. Signals from the Space Flight Operations Facility at JPL were directed to the spacecraft by the appropriate ground station. 4
As first established, Mariner Mars 69 had three objectives. The primary goal was to fly spacecraft by Mars to investigate that planet, establishing the basis for future experiments, especially those related to the search for extraterrestrial life. While exploiting existing technology, Mariner 69 engineers also hoped to develop new technology necessary for future missions. A tentatively approved objective to investigate certain aspects of the solar system was dropped from consideration by NASA Headquarters managers in April 1966. Mariner 69 would concentrate its efforts on Mars-related science. Experiment proposals were solicited and received by the Space Science Board, which acted as an advisory body to the NASA Office of Space Science [158] and Applications. As had been proposed several times before, an atmospheric entry probe was suggested, but it was also rejected as before, because it would have significantly increased both the time required to develop the craft and the budget for the project. Scientific payload selection was announced on 26 May 1966.
By mid-1966, the design of the mission and the spacecraft was well under way. Money was the problem faced by N. William Cunningham, program manager at headquarters, and Harris M. Schurmeier, project manager at JPL, and their Mariner 69 team. Successive budget cuts each fiscal year forced the team to defer delivery of certain parts and components, which repeatedly required the engineers to reschedule the assembly and testing of the spacecraft. The budget reductions also forced the deletion of some spare parts and tests and led to several mission design changes. Despite financial constraints, the Mariner project staff was able to expand the scope and effectiveness of the spacecraft. An increase in mission science, for example, affected the planetary encounter phase of the mission. JPL specialists developed an improved telemetry transmission system that would return information at a higher rate than previously possible, increasing the overall volume of scientific return substantially. Since scientists would be using their instruments more frequently, the central control computer and sequencer through which ground controllers talked to the science instruments and manipulated the instrument scan platform would experience greater demand.
As early as September 1966 at the second project quarterly review, it became apparent that the 1969 mission was going to be much more than just a repeat of the Mariner 4 flight. The instrument scan platform alone had grown in weight from 9 kilograms to 59. Throughout 1967 and 1968, as work progressed on the spacecraft and Earth-based systems, Schurmeier reported to NASA Headquarters that experimenters would be able to take more pictures of the Martian surface with the Mariner 69 equipment than previously anticipated. The accumulated improvements in telecommunications-increased telemetry data rates, expanded communications network, and better computer processing-would lead to a rate of data transmission 2000 times better than anything they had received before. 5 For the scientists associated with the television experiment, this was exciting news. Instead of taking only 8 television pictures during the last day of the spacecraft's approach to Mars, Robert B. Leighton and his colleagues on the television experiment team could gather some 160 images, starting two or three days before encounter with the planet. These approach pictures of the entire planet would bridge the gap between photos taken from Earth and closer images gathered by Mariner 69 craft as they passed by Mars. 6
Engineers and technicians at JPL assembled components supplied by about a dozen subcontractors into four spacecraft-a proof-test model (PTM), two flight craft (M69-3 and M69-4), and one assembled set of spares (M69-2). While the proof-test model would never fly, it was a very important [159] part of the 1969 project because it had to endure simulated conditions worse than any that were expected during the flight to Mars. The other three units were tested more gently on the vibration table to rehearse the launch and in the thermal-vacuum space-simulation chamber to practice the mission through deep space.
Following several visits to the test bench and much rebuilding and repairing, the craft were pronounced ready for their voyage. While the proof-test model remained behind in Pasadena to continue its service as a test article, the other three craft were sent to the Kennedy Space Center during December 1968 and January 1969. All went well with the preflight checks of Mariner F and Mariner G (preflight designations) until about 10 days before the scheduled launch. On 14 February while the Atlas-Centaur- Mariner F vehicle was standing on the pad undergoing unfueled simulation of launch, the Atlas began to collapse like a punctured tire. Most of the structural strength of the Atlas is provided by the pressure in its fuel tanks. While this balloon-like structure saves a great deal of weight, it means that the pressure must be maintained at a constant level. On this day, a faulty relay switch had opened the main valves, permitting the pressurizing gases to escape. As the Atlas began to sag on its launch tower, two alert ground crewmen sprinted to the scene and shut off manual valves inside the launch vehicle. Pumps restored tank pressure, and the big rocket resumed its original shape. The terrible scar in the thin stainless steel skin of the Atlas made it clear, however, that another launch vehicle would have to be used in its place.
The Centaur and Mariner components were unharmed, and on 18 February KSC personnel moved the Mariner F craft and the Centaur upper stage to the Atlas originally scheduled for Mariner G. Six days later, 24 February, Mariner 6 began its journey to Mars. After being mated to a new Atlas shipped from San Diego by General Dynamics/Convair, the second Mariner 69 craft was launched on 27 March. 7 As Mariner 6 and 7 were en route, another group of JPL specialists was at work preparing for the next mission to Mars.