CNN logo


Tech half banner

Pathfinder soars toward Independence Day landing

December 4, 1996
Web posted at: 9:50 a.m. EST

From Miami Bureau Chief John Zarrella

A L S O :
Ice 'most likely' the stuff in moon crater
Life on Mars?

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) -- After two "dress rehearsals," the Mars Pathfinder probe is on its way to Mars and NASA is celebrating the launch.

probe lift off
movie icon (1M/36 sec. Small Frame QuickTime movie)
movie icon (2.6M/36 sec. Large Frame QuickTime movie)

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. icon (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 travel.

"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," Spear said.

probe launch

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 September.

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."


Special section:

CNN Interactive's extended coverage

Related stories:

Related sites:

Note: Pages will open in a new browser window

External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.


Watch these shows on CNN for more sci-tech stories:

CNN Computer Connection | Future Watch | Science & Technology Week

What You Think Tell us what you think!

You said it...

To the top

© 1996 Cable News Network, Inc.
All Rights Reserved.

Terms under which this service is provided to you.