Pathfinder soars toward Independence Day landing
December 4, 1996
Web posted at: 9:50 a.m. EST
From Miami Bureau Chief John Zarrella
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) -- After two "dress
rehearsals," the Mars Pathfinder probe is on its way to Mars
and NASA is celebrating the launch.
The spacecraft's 310 million-mile journey began in darkness
as the probe lifted off at 1:58 a.m. EST and will end, NASA
hopes, in seven months, when the probe lands on Mars July 4
and gathers new data about the Red Planet.
Two planned launches for the probe, which a relieved mission
manager Tony Spear euphemistically called "dress rehearsals,"
were canceled earlier this week because of bad weather and an
onboard computer glitch. (256K/22 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)
The Pathfinder mission is exactly what its name implies: It
represents experimental ideas and new methods of space
"One of the major mission objectives was to demonstrate a
low-cost delivery to the surface of Mars," Spear said. "We
get a lot of points for landing safely."
The unmanned probe is expected to land on the rocky planet's
surface using airbags as cushions and to provide stability.
Pathfinder was organized under the new NASA mandate -- get it
done better, cheaper and quicker. The project took only
three years to complete and costs $196 million, a fraction of
what the Viking mission to Mars cost 21 years ago.
"Their computer cost as much as the Mars Pathfinder project,"
Once on Mars, Pathfinder will take pictures and gather
weather data. A robotic land rover will collect and analyze
samples of the planet's surface.
Spear points out that the mission was planned before the
evidence of possible primitive Martian life was discovered.
"Had we known a couple years ago, you can bet that we would
have some type of other instrument on board to do, possibly,
a life-detection experiment," Spear said.
Those experiments will come on future missions. NASA has
planned 10 trips to Mars over the next decade, one of which
was launched ahead of Pathfinder. Global Surveyor was put
into orbit November 7 and is scheduled to land on Mars in
The Russian probe Mars '96 was launched a week after
Surveyor, but it fell from orbit and plummeted back to Earth.
Since Pathfinder seems to be well on its way, Spear said he
is proud of the project's success so far. "There's a lot of
people who would have given you good odds that we wouldn't
have made it this far."
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