“In extremely tense conditions”: How the United States won the Martian race

Written by The Frontier Post

Maxim Borisov

50 years ago, the American spacecraft Mariner 9 entered a near-Mars orbit and became the first artificial satellite of another planet, just slightly ahead of the Soviet stations Mars-2 and Mars-3. Gazeta.Ru recalls the dramatic deta-ils of this Martian race.
On November 14, 1971, the American automatic interplanetary station Mariner 9, having overtaken the Soviet Mars-2 on its way to Mars, entered orbit around another planet for the first time in the world. This achievement was further confirmation that the United States is now overtaking the USSR on almost all fronts in the space race.
The Martian race was preceded by a lunar race. As you know, the first spacecraft to enter a circumlunar orbit was the Soviet Luna-10 in April 1966. The first artificial object launched to the Moon, even if it did not hit the target due to an error in the flight cyclogram and passed 6 thousand km from the surface, was Luna-1 on January 4, 1959; and the first image of the far side of the moon, albeit rather poor quality, was received by Luna-3, launched on October 4, 1959. The first soft landing on the Moon was also made by the Soviet “Luna-9” on January 31, 1966, and then the palm passed to the Americans, who made the first manned flight to the Moon on “Apollo 8” on December 21, 1968 and subsequently landed on a natural satellite Lands six times.
The USSR was the first to launch spacecraft to Mars, and it began at the end of 1960, although it went quite unsuccessfully then – the first three Martian spacecraft never left Earth’s orbit, and the fourth, which finally received the name “Mars-1” and flew in the direction of Mars, due to the failure of the orientation system – a leak was found in the micromotors – was lost on the way and made an uncontrollable flight at a distance of about 193 thousand km from the planet.
The first from a flyby trajectory managed to explore Mars and transfer its photographs to the American apparatus – on July 14-15, 1965, Mariner 4 took pictures of this planet from a close distance.
It was preceded by an unsuccessful launch on November 5, 1964 of the Mariner 3, which did not separate the protective fairing – and due to the extra weight of this fairing, the device did not reach the speed required to enter the flight path to Mars, and in addition, its solar panels could not open … And the Mariner 4, with which the first success is associated, was a copy of this previous unit, launched 23 days later.
Then, also from flyby trajectories, Mars was investigated by two spacecraft of the third generation of “Mariners” – Mariner 6 and Mariner 7 in the summer of 1969. In them, unl-ike previous devices, a la-rge number of integrated circuits were used, otherwise they would have wei-ghed more than twice as m-uch (not 411.8 kg, but more than a ton). These overflights happened immediately after the triumphant landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon, and besides, they actually only repeated the main achievement of Mariner 4, so that too much attention was hardly riveted on them in the world.
Details of the preparation of the Soviet “storm” of Mars at that time are contained in a conversation with Academician Mikhail Marov, one of the developers of the Soviet Martian and Venusian projects, at RIA Novosti . “Soviet scientists knew that the Am-ericans would make a new attempt to send probes to Mars during the next ap-proach of the two planets. In June 1967, just 20 m-onths before the launch, the development of new devi-ces of the M-69 project be-gan. The development was carried out under extremely stressful conditions. To be on time, the engineers worked around the clock (like the canteen) and slept on cots right in the workplace. ” Soviet Martian spacecraft of the third generation were supposed to enter the near-Martian orbit for the first time, but both launches in 1969 ended in failure due to the accident of the launch vehicle.
Meanwhile, American spacecraft did not enter orbit around Mars (they did not plan to do so), and the Soviet Union continued to accumulate forces in order to achieve revenge in the Martian direction at the next approach to Mars. However, there was also Venus, and the Soviet automatic interplanetary station Venera-7 first transmitted scientific data after a soft landing on this inhospitable planet on December 15, 1970, and a number of successful Soviet spacecraft followed. Landing on Venus turned out to be easier in a certain sense, since it had a dense atmosphere and it was possible to use small parachutes. But Mars remained little explored and waited for its discoverers.
For Mars in the USSR, by 1971, spacecraft of the fourth generation, Mars-2 and Mars-3, were created, duplicating each other. Each such automatic interplanetary station consisted of an orbiter, a descent stage and a small Mars rover PrOP-M , which moved “crawling”. In fact, there was also a third similar device, simpler, which did not carry a descent vehicle with it, but also had to explore Mars from a near-Martian orbit. Its launch took place on May 10, 1971, however, already in low-earth orbit, this station was unable to switch to a flight trajectory to Mars, since the wrong time for turning on the engine of the upper stage “D” was entered into the onboard computer – with a great delay. Two days after the launch, the device entered the dense layers of the atmosphere and burned out, therefore, in the messageTASS was simply declared a satellite “Cosmos-419”, and it went down in history under the symbol “Mars 1971C”.
Perhaps, if not for this failure, then at least one more important achievement – the first entry into orbit near another planet – would have remained with the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, after Mars 1971C, Mars 2 was launched from Baikonur on May 19, 1971, and then Mars 3 was launched on May 28. Mariner 9 was launched from Cape Canaveral by the Atlas-Centaur launch vehicle later than the Soviet vehicles – in the late evening of May 30. However, on the way, he overtook them and arrived at Mars on November 14. There was no descent stage or rovers on the Mariner 9. And its launch was preceded by the unsuccessful launch of its twin – Mariner 8, which fell into the Atlantic Ocean on May 8, even before the start of the Soviet expeditions. So the race to Mars was full of dramatic moments from the start. “Mars-2” – the first Soviet spacecraft to enter the near-Martian orbit, – arrived there after a little over six months of flight, but two weeks after the Mariner 9, which lasted less than six months. It happened on November 27. Well, Mars-3 was even more late – it was there only on December 2, 1971.
The dramatic events did not end there, and the intrigue still remained, because the landing of Soviet vehicles on Mars and the operation of the rovers would have been a much louder event than the first entry into a near-Mars orbit. At the same time, the Mariner 9 not only did not carry a landing stage with it, its set of instruments did not practically differ at all from the devices of the previous generation – Mariner 6 and 7. However, due to the need to control the spacecraft in Martian orbit, it had to be equipped with a much larger propulsion installation – so it weighed more than the Mariners 6 and 7 combined. And the S-oviet “Mars” outnumbered him by several times. Ho-wever, due to the lag of the USSR in electronics and obtaining high-quality ima-ges, Soviet engineers still had to put more emphasis on other instruments.
The Martian weather was bad. As early as September 22, a large dust storm, the largest ever observed, began, which raged especially in the southern hemisphere, eventually completely hiding the southern polar cap.
This storm stopped only by the middle of January 1972, forcing to temporarily mothball some of the useless scientific instruments. The storm, of course, hampered the scientific research of Mariner 9 and the Soviet “Mars”, but it turned out to be especially unsuccessful that in this very storm it was necessary to land the descent vehicles “Mars-2” and “Mars-3”. The descent vehicle “Mars-2”, undocked when approaching the planet, entered the Martian atmosphere at a too steep angle, which is why it could not properly brake with its conical body and parachute and crashed on the planet’s surface in the Nanedi valley on Xanthus Land. The angle of entry into the atmosphere had to be observed with an accuracy of 5 °, at a lower angle, the device ricocheted from the atmosphere and went into space, at a higher angle, there was not enough time to open the parachute. Thus, he became the world’s first lander,
The Mars 3 lander was more fortunate five days later. He managed to carry out the world’s first soft landing on Mars – the only one in Soviet history. 1.5 minutes after landing, the transfer of data began – a circular panorama of the Martian surface, but the joy of the developers was quickly replaced by disappointment – the transfer stopped after 14 seconds and did not resume anymore. The transmitted lines of the photo-television signal did not contain any useful information. Perhaps the device itself was damaged during landing, or its antenna was damaged by a dust storm – some kind of electrical discharge in an atmosphere saturated with electricity. The battery could also have failed, but the true reasons for the failure remained unclear.
As a result, the scientific program remained completely unfulfilled, and even the creators of the Chinese rover Chzhuzhong, which began exploring Mars in May 2021, ignore the achievements of the USSR in 1971 and consider China to be the second country after the United States to land on Mars. So from those dramatic events, only one significant achievement remained, and it definitely belongs to the Americans – the first entry into the near-Martian orbit.
All subsequent Soviet descent vehicles sent to Mars until the mid-1970s invariably either crashed, or flew past the planet, or did not even reach Martian orbit. When the American descent vehicles Viking 1 and Viking 2 landed on Mars in July and September 1976, which then operated until August and April 1980, the issue with the priority of landing on Mars for the USSR was finally closed, and Soviet engineers focused on research on Phobos, which however, they also turned out to be unsuccessful.
“The common problem is the work of our electronic devices. The electronic base was weak, a number of failures were associated w-ith this, not only of the first Martian vehicles, the same fate was with the Phobos vehicles, – Academician Marov told Gazeta.Ru.
The orbital stations “Mars-2” and “Mars-3”, which managed to work for eight months and wait for the end of the Martian storm, suffered another big setback. The developers of the photo-television set chose the wrong shutter speeds, and all the pictures turned out to be overexposed, unusable. Therefore, in the end, it was necessary to limit ourselves to carrying out radiometric and photometric studies, studying the composition of the atmosphere and soil in infrared rays, as well as measuring the magnetic field.
The Mariner 9 computer has been reprogrammed from Earth to delay surface imaging for a couple of months until dust settles. Clear photographs of the surface began to be obtained from mid-January 1972.
“When the dust settled a few weeks later, the first clear photographs of the Mariner 9 sparked a lot of enthusiasm,” recalls Ernst Hauber , planetary geologist at the German Aerospace Center in Berlin. “What was revolutionary was that they saw signs of water on Mars, even hopes that the planet could be potentially favorable for life were rekindled – in contrast to what we have previously shown images from Mariner 4, 6 and 7.”
In a year of operation in Martian orbit, Mariner 9 transmitted more than seven thousand images covering 85% of the surface of Mars from a relatively close distance, while previous flyby missions gave less than a thousand images from a greater distance, covering only a small part of the planet’s surface. The pictures revealed beds of dried up rivers, craters, canyons, extinct volcanoes – including the largest volcano in the solar system, Olympus volcano, 24 km high. Evidence has been found for wind and water erosion, river sediments, weather fronts, fogs, and more. The satellites of Mars Phobos and Deimos were also photographed. The results of the Mariner 9 mission formed the basis for the development of the program for the Vikings. The huge canyon system Valles Marineris is named after the achievements of Mariner 9.
After exhausting the fuel supply for the attitude control system, the spacecraft was turned off on October 27, 1972 and remained in near-Martian orbit. It is expected that sooner or later it will burn up in the Martian atmosphere or crash into the planet’s surface.

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