Farewell to Mars Pathfinder Humans to follow?: Robot's last beeps set stage for Martian ventures in 21st century.

November 08, 1997

The adoration of movie robots -- from Robby ("Forbidden Planet") to R2-D2 ("Star Wars") to Johnny Five ("Short Circuit") -- shows Americans' feelings for artificial life forms. Thus, it was love at first sight when a real-life robot, the tricycle-size Sojourner probe, rolled onto the surface of Mars on the Fourth of July.

Americans by the thousand tuned each day to radio and television reports and Internet updates that came with unbelievably clear photographs of the Red Planet taken by Sojourner and its mother ship, Mars Pathfinder. Fans applauded Sojourner's sturdiness when it hit the rock dubbed Yogi. They grew impatient when a faulty antenna halted communications signals to Earth for two days.

The end of this love story was written at the very beginning. Pathfinder could function only as long as its batteries held out -- supposedly 30 days. Yet this overachiever kept working for three months, sending back to Earth 2.6 billion bits of scientific information, 16,000 images and 15 complete chemical analyses of Martian rocks and soil. Scientists will be busy for years studying Pathfinder's transmissions.

NASA received the last good transmission Sept. 27. Since then, only a few beeps. Sojourner could be roving nearby or stuck on a rock; the spaceship that beams its signal probably has succumbed to Mars' bitter cold. NASA declared the successful mission over Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Mars Global Surveyor will continue orbiting the planet and other robot missions are planned. But is that all?

NASA has made the wise decision to place more emphasis on robotic space exploration. It's less expensive, in dollars and lives. But that doesn't mean manned space flight is passe.

Shuttle missions will continue, space station Alpha is being built and Mars beckons. Advanced life-support tests aimed at sending a human to Mars have been going on for two years. By 2014 that could happen. For now, America must say goodbye to Sojourner and Pathfinder. Better, say until we meet again.

Pub Date: 11/08/97

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