After traveling 120 million miles in seven months, NASA’s Mars Pathfinder becomes the first U.S. spacecraft to land on Mars in more than two decades. In an ingenious, cost-saving landing procedure, Pathfinder used parachutes to slow its approach to the Martian surface and then deployed airbags to cushion its impact. Colliding with the Ares Vallis floodplain at 40 miles an hour, the spacecraft bounced high into the Martian atmosphere 16 times before safely coming to rest.
On July 5, the Pathfinder lander was renamed Sagan Memorial Station in honor of the late American astronomer Carl Sagan, and the next day Sojourner, the first remote-control interplanetary rover, rolled off the station. Soujourner, which traveled a total of 171 feet during its 30-day mission, sent back a wealth of information about the chemical components of rock and soil in the area. In addition, nearly 10,000 images of the Martian landscape were taken.
The Mars Pathfinder mission, which cost just $150 million, was hailed as a triumph for NASA, and millions of Internet users visited the official Pathfinder Web site to view images of the red planet.