July 04, 1997

NASA’s Pathfinder spacecraft lands on Mars in the space agency’s first “smaller, faster, cheaper” series of scientific probes. Pathfinder, built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., entered the Martian atmosphere directly, parachuted down, inflated a protective cocoon of airbags, bounced several times and then righted itself. The airbags deflated and then the spaceship’s three petals opened up to expose the ship’s scientific instruments and cameras. The Sojourner rover, a six-wheeled robot attached to one of the petals, begins operation several days later, rolling down a ramp on the spacecraft, exploring rocks on the Martian surface and sending back readings and photographs. Once the first photos from Mars are posted on JPL’s Internet Web site, nearly 40 million “hits” are recorded within the first few days. The spacecraft are renamed as a memorial to noted astronomer Carl Sagan, who had passed away several months earlier. The entire mission cost less than $275 million, including the booster.