Why you should care

Because they really wanted to get there first.

Talk about pressure. Soviet scientists were desperate to catch up to Americans in the race to conquer space, and after being beaten to the moon, the next frontier was the red planet. Years of frantic, nonstop work — with no time even to test the gear — culminated in three rockets blasting off in May 1971. And against all odds, Mars 3 made history months later as humankind’s first touchdown on the fourth planet from the sun. “When we confirmed that the lander touched down successfully, those involved in the project rejoiced,” says Arnold Selivanov, one of the last surviving members of the mission.

The signal from Mars 3 lasted only 20 seconds, never to be heard from again, and only one mysterious image made it back to the control room. Experts are still debating whether the image just captured noise or the Martian landscape. Nobody knows for sure why it went dark, but bad luck probably played a part: The entire planet was covered by a never-before-seen sandstorm. But while windy gusts may have taken out the equipment, they couldn’t obliterate the Soviet Union’s victory in landing the first-ever human toy on Mars.

The scientists worked under extreme pressure from Soviet authorities.

Some 44 years later, the feat still resonates. It offered proof that the red planet was within reach while providing a treasure trove of information that has informed subsequent missions to both Mars and Venus, vastly expanding human understanding of the solar system. Those contributions, says Don McCoy, manager of European Space Agency program ExoMars, must be “recognized as bold steps in exploration.” In fact, Russia, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, will use an architecture similar to the Mars 3 to land on the slippery planet with the January 2016 launch of the Schiaparelli. As McCoy points out, if the Mars 3 designers could see today’s designs, they “would understand very well why we have this architecture.” The modern version, significantly, can weather sandstorms.

Back in the 1960s when the Soviets began targeting the planet, nobody knew what to expect of Mars, but there was speculation it held traces of a lost civilization. The Mars 3 pushed the debate forward at a high price, coming as it did after years of failed missions. The scientists worked under extreme pressure from Soviet authorities, who demanded they seize the last window to launch the orbiters and landers before the U.S. beat them to it. They toiled with little sleep, round-the-clock schedules, and the threat of being demoted, fired or shunned if things went wrong, as leading mission designer Vladimir Gennadievich Perminov would later recount to NASA.

The first rocket carrying a satellite and a radar beacon blasted off on May 5. It was supposed to relay information on the planet’s position to help guide the two other rockets carrying an orbiter and lander each. But the first rocket failed, and on May 19 and 28, Mars 2 and Mars 3 were sent aloft with a backup direction system. The Mars 2 crashed-landed on Nov. 21, technically becoming the first man-made object to hit the planet. Perminov made several excuses for the blunder, including the lack of time to test the positioning system, and said it also could have been avoided “if the first space barter in the history of human civilization would have happened one year earlier.” Soviets exchanged data they had on Venus for what the Americans had on Mars, but it came too late. With it, they could have corrected the trajectory and perhaps enjoyed greater success. On Dec. 2, Mars 3 landed, transmitted briefly and then fell silent.

The mission, including from the orbiter and lander before it stopped transmitting, delivered information about the planet’s surface, atmosphere, soil density and more. “We later capitalized on this experience in our Venusian missions,” Selivanov, now 80, tells OZY. He was involved in developing cameras and video gadgets on the lander and orbiter and is now head of an expert council in Russian Space Systems. But the biggest accomplishment, said Perminov, was proving that “the scientifically and technically intricate problem of a soft landing on the Martian surface was solved.” The Soviets sent four more missions in 1973, all of which failed, and in 1975, the U.S. sent two Viking probes, each successfully landing and operating on Mars. Since then, five more missions — all American — have successfully landed on Mars.

With next year’s launch, Russia will try again with a vastly updated version of the Mars 3. But the legacy of the 1971 mission wasn’t just technological advance. It was also a better understanding of the the hostile, out-of-this world environment that many hope will one day bring us closer to finding alien life.

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