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AT 5.32am co-ordinated universal (read: Earth) time on August 6th, staff at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California broke out in wild cheers. Curiosity — the biggest, most sophisticated rover ever sent to Mars — had touched down successfully, its spectacularly complicated landing procedure going off without a hitch. The landing was a triumph of creative engineering, allowing the car-sized robot (one of whose wheels is visible in the picture above) to bring an unprecedented array of scientific tools to the Martian surface. In the "seven minutes of terror" it took Curiosity to descend from orbit, fingernails at JPL had been chewed back to the quick. According to Charles Bolden, NASA's administrator, John Holdren, Barack Obama's science advisor, was so worried that something would go wrong that he had almost been physically sick.Dr Holdren had good reason to be concerned. Counting Curiosity, only 15 of the 41 missions that humans have sent to Mars have been successful.In Moscow, Alexander Zakharov ticks off some of the failures experienced by Russia's space program over the past couple of decades. Phobos 1 perished on the way to Mars in 1988; its twin Phobos 2, launched five days later and also aiming for the Martian moon of Phobos, went silent and probably never landed. Mars 96, the next effort eight years after that, was lost after launch. The latest mission came to grief on January 15th this year, when Phobos-Grunt burned up in Earth’s atmosphere somewhere over the Pacific. "It was a very big disappointment, of course. We very much hoped for this mission," he recalls. Russia had not had a successful interplanetary mission in 25 years.A quarter of a century adds up to whole careers. A few floors down from Dr Zakharov's office, the institute's exhibition hall proudly displays mock-ups of the Venera probes put on the surface of Venus in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1985 two modified Veneras delivered instruments to Venus and then went on to a fly-by of Halley's comet.In Tucson, the skies are as clear and predictable as they get. In the backyard of his house in the hills on the outskirts of town, William Boynton, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona, has installed a small telescope to take advantage of the excellent seeing conditions. Professionally, his objects of study come in the form of meteorites, or from instruments installed aboard spacecraft.Mars Observer should have been one of those. It was launched in 1992 and was expected to arrive at its destination a year later, carrying, among other kit, a gamma spectrometer that Dr Boynton built. His whole department was planning a celebration for when the probe reached the Mars orbit and the instrument would be fired up. But then contact was lost. Two anxious days followed. If the rockets were not ignited during that period, Mars Observer would simply pass the planet by. In the end everyone just had to assume it had done just that.Dr Boynton recounts how strange it was to walk through the corridors of the university's physics department afterwards. People, ill at ease and unsure what to say, would mumble "so sorry, Bill", as if his mother or wife had died. He decided to give a small lecture, just for the people in the department, to explain what happened and what the mission was supposed to have done. There had been a lot of talk in the press about how $800m was wasted and the Mars Observer team had nothing to show for it.