Wackiest Missions That Never Happened (or Ended Badly)

The Titan Mare Explorer was proposed to be the first interplanetary "boat" to sail the methane seas of Titan. Like so many missions proposed and considered by NASA - it wasn't to be. Image Credit: NASA
The Titan Mare Explorer was proposed to be the first interplanetary “boat” to sail the methane seas of Titan. Like so many missions proposed and considered by NASA, it wasn’t to be. Image Credit: NASA

For every triumph, such as the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity, there are any number of missions that never made it off the drawing board. Here’s what happens when space flight stops being polite and starts getting real. Five missions that were as audacious as any plan to lasso an asteroid.

Every mission has one thing in common: they held great promise and would have possibly yielded incredible scientific dividends gleaned from their data and findings, but, alas, some never happened, some never worked, and some worked perhaps a little too well. 

Missions That Never Were:

Image Credit: NASA / GSFC
Image Credit: NASA / GSFC

Comet Hopper: Comet Hopper, or  “CHopper,” would have been a bold undertaking; its goal was to land on a comet (you read that right—CHopper would have landed on Comet Wirtanen). Even better, its mission would have been to orbit and land on the comet more than once, recording changes taking place as the comet approached the Sun. It was a finalist in the Discovery Program, which was an initiative founded by former NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin in 1992 to provide budget-friendly interplanetary exploration. Alas, it was not to be. NASA selected the Mars Phoenix lander clone, InSight, and CHopper got chopped.

Why It Didn’t Happen: The Comet Hopper mission and another unique mission (see below) were passed over in August 2012, as mentioned,  in favor of InSight, a Mars lander that would study the structure and composition of Mars. Perhaps this and the other mission were a little too outlandish for NASA. However, they both would have been fascinating and could have provided us with invaluable knowledge about the makeup of comets or, in the case of our next mission, strange alien moons.

Image Credit:  The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Lockheed Martin
Image Credit: The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Lockheed Martin

Titan Mare Explorer: Titan Mare Explorer, or “TiME,” as it was more commonly known, was another finalist in the Discovery Program along with CHopper and InSight. Its mission profile boasted a lander … of sorts. The lander was actually a “lake lander probe,” designed to explore Ligeia Mare, the largest methane lake of Saturn’s largest moon. Its mission was to determine the chemistry, depth, and marine processes on Titan; its goal was to see if Titan’s lakes were potentially habitable, shedding some light on possible extraterrestrial life. 

Why It Didn’t Happen: TiME was also passed over in favor of the InSight mission to Mars. This was probably done given that InSight was based off of a mission that had already been successfully completed and therefore was considered to be less risky than a Titan boat (or as with CHopper, a comet lander.) But don’t fret—the idea was incorporated into a proposed NASA/ESA mission, the Titan Saturn System Mission (TSSM), which might be launched in the 2020s. So sometime within our lifetime, we might actually see a mission launch to Saturn’s moon and have it deliver a tiny boat to surf the seas of Titan.

Missions That Experienced Epic Fails:

Image Credit: Roscosmos
Image Credit: Roscosmos

Phobos Grunt (or Fobos Grunt): In November 2011, Phobos Grunt, funded by Roscosmos, was launched in a bid to make a sample return from Phobos, one of Mars’ moons. Its lander was fitted with a return stage in a bid to make this possible. It was Russia’s first attempt at an interplanetary mission since Mars 96, which failed to reach Mars. It failed to escape Earth orbit, eventually conducting a controlled reentry and burned up in Earth’s atmosphere in 2012. Phobos Grunt seemed ambitious and, admittedly, a sample from another planet’s moon traveling back to Earth is a pretty lofty ambition, but it was perhaps, a little too lofty.

Why It Didn’t Happen: To make a long story short, following its launch in November 2011, Phobos Grunt failed to reach its intended orbit. Efforts to communicate with the spacecraft through various tracking stations were unsuccessful, meanwhile the spacecraft began to run out of battery life. Making things worse, the spacecraft carried tons of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide on board (these chemicals are used as propellant and are extremely toxic). It reentered somewhere between South America and New Zealand on January 17, 2012. It’s remains have not been located. Again, don’t fret, we might see samples returned robotically from another world.  NASA announced last week an initiative to “lasso an asteroid.” 

Image Credit: NASA
Image Credit: NASA

Genesis: Genesis was a NASA mission that, if successful, would have made a sample return from the Sun.  This would have been NASA’s first sample return mission since the Apollo program, which brought back 842 pounds of Moon rocks. The Genesis spacecraft was launched August 8, 2001, and deployed its collector arrays to “catch” solar wind particles. And, for a while, it looked like it would be a resounding success. That is until the capsule with the samples tried to conduct a safe landing back on Earth.

Why It Didn’t Happen: Genesis may have been a champ at collecting bits of our closest star, but it did not get the memo about deploying its parachutes. Due to an error in a deceleration sensor, the spacecraft crash landed going about 193 miles an hour, which is awesome if you’re in a demolition derby, but not so great if you’re trying to return to Earth. However, all was not lost. Genesis still contained some usable samples, despite the force of its impact and the subsequent contamination caused when the samples were exposed to the Utah desert air.

Image Credit: NASA
Image Credit: NASA

DART: DART, or Demonstration for Autonomous Rendezvous Technology, sounded like one of Buzz Aldrin’s waking dreams. It would have allowed for automated rendezvous among satellites in orbit, limiting the need for a human-powered spacecraft (such as the space shuttle) to perform risky rescue missions and extravehicular activities. All of its rendezvous functions were to be performed on board, with no guidance from the ground. It was launched by a Pegasus rocket on April 15, 2005, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. 

Why It Didn’t Happen: After 11 hours, the DART system worked a bit too well and rendezvoused right into its target satellite. This was caused by a navigation error that occurred when the two satellites were 200 meters apart and the collision avoidance system failed. However, lessons were learned; Orbital Express, a two-spacecraft system that was launched in 2007, demonstrated that autonomous rendezvous between satellites for servicing was possible.

NASA lost several spacecraft due to the failed policy of “better-faster-cheaper,” and with the current budget restrictions and cuts, NASA will likely choose missions that are more likely to succeed and be approved. The rationale behind why something as audacious as grabbing an asteroid and bringing it into lunar orbit has been chosen hearkens back to the directive issued by the president in 2010. At one time a mission to send an impactor barreling into a comet, to land a probe on an asteroid and on the moon of a gas giant, all seemed improbable. However, as Deep Impact, NEAR-Shoemaker, and Cassini-Huygens have shown us, NASA is fully capable of accomplishing the improbable.

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  1. How can one talk about wacky missions and not mention the early ’60s plan that was mooted seriously by James Webb to launch a Gemini capsule with a man in one couch next to a chimp in the other? I kid you not: Newsweek June 23, 1962, p. 59: “Gemini: Man and Friend.”

  2. Talking about a bad ending, there’s always the Mars Climate Orbiter launched 11 December 1998 and the “metric mix-up”. Flight system software on the Mars Climate Orbiter used the metric unit Newtons, ground software that generated instructions used Imperial unit Pounds, resulting in some VERY expensive scrap metal on Mars.

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