Twenty-five years ago on July 4, 1997, NASA landed its first rover on Mars and beamed back off photo from the surface of the planet† In doing so, the agency set up its first on-the-go, off-world vehicle science lab, which can visit more than one place over the course of its mission.
The almost 10 months Pathfinder mission and the 83-day voyage of its companion Sojourner rover set the stage for the fleet of interplanetary explorers on wheels to follow – including the two rovers still active on the Red Planet: Curiosity and Perseverance†
As NASAs scout spacecraft flew through the Martian atmosphere on July 4, 1997, a young, ambitious, and untidy team of scientists in California watched anxiously as the data poured into mission control computers. Together they were responsible for what was NASA’s most hardened lander and its first-ever Mars rover.
It took three years to put it together, but now it was showtime. During its descent, Pathfinder came straight for the Red Planet. It had no brakes, sliced through the thin atmosphere of Mars at seven kilometers per second and put in a hard stop on the surface within five minutes.
“Pathfinder was without a doubt the most robust lander we have ever sent to Mars. The others had been afraid of stones,” Matthew Golombekthe mission’s project scientist, says: inverse†
The team kept track of the dramatic event by tracking as the spacecraft carried out more than a hundred commands, and together they waited for that all-important maneuver: the moment when a clever concoction of airbags would open and the shock of their precious Earth hardware as it crashed into space. Martian dirt hit.
Pathfinder had to be tough.
To “get a taste of what the surface looks like” for further exploration of Mars, Golombek, a former geologist, knew they needed a robot the size of a microwave oven capable of actually exploring the ground. A traveling craft on Mars could help answer its predecessor’s key questions Vikingwhich landed on Mars in 1976educated about the ancient history of the planet – a time when Mars may have hosted water.
But the surface exploration images of the planet available in 1997 were blotchy debris compared to the high-resolution images our satellites around Mars provide today. Without a sure guide, Pathfinder risked landing on potentially dangerous rocks.
However, as soon as the descent began, the “mystifying moment” was over: Pathfinder – somehow – landed safely on Mars. The room burst with joy and relief, Golombek recalls.
“Of course everyone was cheering wildly,” says Golombek. He laughs and remembers the moment when guards and people from other divisions of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory poured into the room to look at the photos coming in from Mars.
Their fascination was just a taste of what was to come.
“The response from the public was unprecedented. There could never have been a more popular Mars mission than Pathfinder, as it had been 25 years since anyone landed on the surface of Mars,” said Golombek.
Orbital photos don’t convey the same feeling as a view from the ground, which offers people a glimpse of Mars in much the same way we view our home on Earth — from the surface.
NASA has spent $265 million on Pathfinder and its companion rover Sojourner. Adjusted for inflation, that’s less than a fifth of the price of each of NASA’s two most recent rovers, Curiosity and Perseverance.
When Dan Goldin began his tenure as NASA administrator in 1992, the space agency was in a very different place than it is today. In a 20th anniversary special on Pathfinder, Goldin describes the birth of the agency’s Discovery program as a need for projects that would be “faster, better, cheaper.” Pathfinder was the second project to be given the green light under this umbrella.
In 1992, NASA sent the Mars Observer to the Red Planet. But three days before the planned orbital launch, NASA lost contact with the mission, likely due to a fuel leak. That set NASA back $803 million. Later, the Mars Global Surveyor was launched on November 7, 1996 – a few weeks before Pathfinder – and orbited Mars on September 11, 1997. The price tag was a little north of $200 million.
During a conversation with South Carolina Senator Fritz Hollings before Goldin’s confirmation in 1992, the two discussed the state of the space agency – there had been a series of recent and very expensive missteps.
NASA has grounded the Space Shuttle program for two years after the tragedy of the Challenger in 1986 and it was built Attempt to replace it. The agency also launched the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, but it needed repairs in space. The Galileo probe on its way to Jupiter could not bet its high-gain antenna, hobbling its ability to send data back.
As Goldin puts it, Hollings insisted that if he wanted the job, he had to keep the budget tight. And so Pathfinder, created primarily as a cheap technology demonstration.
(It’s worth noting that after Pathfinder, NASA suffered two high-profile setbacks associated with the mantra “faster, better, cheaper”. System uses metric, the other US standard) during construction. Later that year, the Mars Polar Lander failed on its landing attempt and crashed into the south pole of Mars.)
Exploring Mars like never before
“I call myself the oldest Mars,” says Golombek, referring to the affectionate JPL term for those who study the Red Planet exclusively. He gained the status in 1992 when he joined the Pathfinder project.
As a project scientist, Golombek’s job was to fully realize the scientific aspects of the mission and communicate them to the engineering team.
They had many objectives† If Pathfinder uses the . survived 34 million mile journey to reach Mars, the team had to perform an atmospheric entry move they’d never attempted before. On the ground, the rover Sojourner would capture images of the surface from far away and up close; to be alpha proton x-ray spectrometer would analyze the rock composition. It would take note of the weather on Mars, and this would all set a baseline for future exploration of Mars.
NASA had already sent a lander to Mars. But Vikings 1 and 2 couldn’t travel – they stayed during their 5 and 2.8 year missions (respectively). This made it more difficult to study interesting rocks, which Golombek says are the currency of every geologist. But a rover was also just an exciting prospect to “break the ice,” he says, bolstering future space exploration and how we perceive other planets.
“It was the beginning of a Mars renaissance,” Golombek says.
scout and Sojourner sent back more than 12,500 images of Earth’s surface, performed more than a dozen chemical analyzes of the Martian floor, and found evidence that supported Viking’s findings that water once flowed onto the Martian surface. The spacecraft also observed dust devils.
Mars’ iconic rust-colored grime is now home to various active NASA missionsset in motion by the Pathfinder landing 25 years ago.
“Since Pathfinder, there has been a mission to Mars almost every opportunity,” Golombek says.
“We have a fleet of orbiters, we have three spacecraft, two rovers and a lander on the surface,” Golombek said.
“I mean, we have a small community there.”
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