It's impossible, even two months after the landing, to avoid writing about the Mars Pathfinder and the pint-size rover, Sojourner. Talk about projects that have put engineering on the front page! With the massive media coverage, is there anyone in your neighborhood who didn't know about the mission? Anyone who wasn't agog, even if only for a few minutes, at the brilliance behind a project that lands a spacecraft with nearly pinpoint accuracy on a planet about 120 million miles away?
The mission's success brings at least three things to mind:
NASA Administrator Dan Goldin keeps his word. Four years ago, he told Design News that the space agency would follow prudent business procatices while continuing to take risks. "You can't go to the cutting edge without taking risks," he said. The "faster, cheaper, better" mode NAS has embraced under his leadership is both risky and prudent. And it can work. At about $170 million for design and construction, Pathfinder and Sojourner certainly prove NASA's seriousness, and is ability to achieve its economizing goals while scoring technical triumphs.
While some consumers might have misgivings about the design of automotive airbags, the aerospace industry in general and NASA in particular, have no such qualms. One of the triumphs of Pathfinder was the successful activation and retraction of the airbag system that cushioned the spacecraft's landing. The four bags, made from hoechst Celanese's Vectra(R) liquid crystal polymer, enveloped Pathfinder in a protective cocoon that enabled it to survive the three-bounce landing. In 1996, this magazine named Jet Propulsion Lab engineer Tom Rivellini winner of an Excellence in Design Award for leading the air-bag system design effort. The award was a Computervision grant of $5,000.
H.G. Wells and orson Welles had it wrong. The former, in 1898, wrote The War of the Worlds, about an invasion of Earth by malicious Martians. in 1939, Orson Welles produced a radio version of the novel that caused panic among listeners. The Pathfinder mission has turned up no monsters on the red planet. And the interplanetary travelers, far from war-like invaders, turn out to be gentle machines from Earth that only want to take pictures and gather data.
Will humans be the next visitors to Mars?