Another July 4th Anniversary: Pathfinder’s Landing On Mars
It was twenty years ago Tuesday, a small lead probe called Pathfinder landed on Ares Vallis on the surface of Mars.
It did not land in the traditional way, with retrorches on until it reaches the surface. No, Pathfinder gained its landing place, cushioned by giant airbags.
It was an innovative approach and successful operation paved the way for a system similar to that used by the Twin Spirit Rovers and Opportunity in 2003.
I was at the NASA Propulsion Laboratory on the day of landing. JPL is the home of mission control for most of NASA’s planetary missions.
Before landing at 10 o’clock, the engineers were nervous watching their consoles, although there really was nothing they could do if there was a problem. It takes several minutes for a radio signal. Mars comes to Earth, so the landing sequence was already in progress when the first signals have reached Earth.
It had been a long time before the day of landing to meet the scientists and engineers involved in the mission. I did not talk to them, but it was a relatively small team, and I talked a lot with them.
I knew very well how they had worked on the mission, and how many things they had to do to succeed. I knew they had good reason to fear.
But the landing was flawless, and witnessed that anxiety became unbridled joy. This day is one of the best moments of my career in scientific journalism.
In a press conference after the successful landing, the scientific mission Matthew Golembek was in full swing.
“We basically have the ideal site,” he said. “We have the perfect spacecraft, we have the perfect instruments, and we have the perfect vehicle, and now we’re just more excited than it seems to go there and start investigating what needs to be done.”
The Golembek vehicle spoke of being called Sojourner, a quaint version of the larger explorers. NASA sent Mars later. Sojourner lasted 83 days and covered 100 meters.
Before the street, the local people and the vehicle has returned more than 17,000 images. The mission did not re-write exactly the textbooks on Mars, but the images and data from the scientific instruments of the probe suggested that it was once the red planet was warm and humid, otherwise the cold place dried up we see today.
On this 20th anniversary of the Pathfinder landing, I would also like to take a moment to correct a misleading statement we made two decades ago on all things considered. In the introduction to an interview between me and host Robert Siegel, we said the following:
“After traveling for seven months and more than 300 miles, the US probe Pathfinder landed on Mars.”
Although strictly speaking, it is true, that he wanted to write “300 million miles.” I do not think many people think that Mars and Earth are 300 miles away, but they did not want to give the impression that I was one of them. I felt bad about it ever since.
That did not help a few years later, NPR decided to send a transcript of one of our shows on all their business envelopes, and they do not know, they chose the transcript with this misleading statement.