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John Zarrella: NASA's high stakes in latest Mars mission

John Zarrella  

(CNN) -- CNN Miami Bureau Chief John Zarrella covered the launch of NASA's latest unmanned Mars probe, the Odyssey, from Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Q: What's the significance of this mission from NASA's point of view?

ZARRELLA: Because of the failures of the Polar Lander and the Climate Orbiter, there is no way to underestimate the significance of the success of this mission. NASA really needs to jump-start the Mars program and get back on track. There were such high expectations for the last two vehicles, which of course ended in terrible failure.

Q: After losing two probes in 1999, what was the mood among NASA crews as they launched Odyssey?

ZARRELLA: The outlook today is very, very positive. Following the loss of those two -- the Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander -- NASA went back and conducted a top-to-bottom review and restructuring of the Mars program. Out of this restructured Mars program comes the Odyssey spacecraft. There has been more review time, more paper chasing, more technical oversight than any program in at least 20 years.

Q: How confident is NASA that they have solved the kinds of problems that killed earlier missions?

ZARRELLA: They are extremely confident, as one of the project scientists put it to us, that if this vehicle doesn't work, it will be Mars that gets them. It won't be for lack of their efforts.

The earlier missions in essence both were human error. Both were mistakes ... it was a numbering sequence in the case of the Climate Orbiter, a case of zeroes and ones that weren't in the right order. In the case of the Polar Lander, it's believed that the landing engines shut down too soon. The reason it shut down was because there was a shimmy in the vehicle as it was descending, and the vehicle sensed that was the martian surface and shut itself down -- and at that point it crashed on the martian surface.

Q: What will it be doing once it arrives and assumes orbit around Mars?

ZARRELLA: It's going to begin a search for elements, looking for things like hydrogen in particular. If there is the presence of hydrogen on the planet, either venting from the surface or just below the surface, that would be an indication that there is water somewhere on Mars that certainly would be in a water ice state.

They're also going to be looking for minerals. The kinds of minerals they are looking for are the kinds of things that would only be formed in the presence of water ... The third thing that they're going to do is look for potential landing sites. In 2003, there are going to be twin rovers sent to the planet's surface.

It is hoped that this vehicle, when it gets to Mars in six months, will be able to find ideal landing sites to continue the exploration of Mars and continue the search for water, which ultimately is answering the bigger question -- the search for life.

Q: When you talk about life, are they looking for anything indigenous to Mars or are they looking for the prospect of future human life?

ZARRELLA: In essence, it's both. What they're looking for is any evidence of microbial life that might have existed at some point in Mars' history. We're not talking about little green men running around on the surface. We're talking about single-celled structures that they would be looking for, somewhere in Mars' history or perhaps in the present.

Going hand-in-hand with this is looking for places where there is water because ultimately down the road ... the first human expedition going to Mars is going to need to go to a place particularly where they can find hydrogen. From hydrogen, if you can get it, or from water, if you can find it, you can make rocket fuel for the trip back to Earth.

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