Early on the morning of Dec. 4, 1996, a Delta rocket streaked into the dark sky above Florida's Cape Canaveral. Its cargo? A small but sophisticated spacecraft called Pathfinder. Its destination? A neighboring planet that has fascinated people for hundreds of years.
After traveling more than 123,000 miles, the craft touched down on July 4, 1997, the first vehicle to reach the red planet in 20 years. Soon after, the mission's star took center stage when it rolled onto Mars under the command of NASA technicians at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
On Mars, Pathfinder was an instant hit with both scientists and spectators, generating a wealth of new data about the planet and transmitting breathtaking views of its red, rocky surface.
Above: The Martian surface, as captured by Pathfinder's camera. (JPL/NASA)
On Earth, the Hot Wheels JPL Sojourner Mars Rover Action Pack Set (below) was a similar hit in toy stores as kids and collectors quickly emptied shelves of the tiny replicas.
"It really has exceeded any of our highest hopes," Merle McKenzie, manager of the commercial technology program at JPL, told the Associated Press less than a week after Pathfinder landed. "It has hit exceptionally well," she said.
Created by Mattel in a partnership with JPL, the set includes miniature versions of the Sojourner rover, the Pathfinder lander, and the spacecraft's cruise stage.
"I've been with Mattel for 16 years and had some successes but nothing that's generated the excitement this has," Keith Hippely, the leader of a five-person design team, told People magazine. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing for a toy designer."
Four months after Pathfinder touched down on Mars, NASA announced on Nov. 4 that it was scaling back efforts to contact the lander and rover.
"I think we managed to inspire a lot of people," project manager Brian Muirhead said in assessing the mission's impact.
"What you can say about Pathfinder is it lived long and had a very useful life," added the University of Arizona's Daniel Britt, project manager for the lander's camera. "You can't ask for more than that from a spacecraft."
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