Pathfinder's Payoff

With the bounce-down of the Mars Pathfinder, NASA has its best opportunity yet to show what can be done with ingenuity and a smaller budget.

This mission to Mars is, cost-wise, a shadow of its predecessors. The Viking spacecraft that first landed in 1976 were big-ticket items. The Mars Observer, launched earlier this decade, became a $1 billion dollar failure when it was lost in 1992 as it entered the planet's atmosphere on a mapping mission.

Pathfinder rings up a relatively paltry $266 million. But its photography and, most important, its analysis of Martian rocks, should yield a bounty of new information about earth's most fabled planetary neighbor.

The means of that analysis, the toy-sized Sojourner vehicle, is a small case study in space-travel frugality and practicality. The little rover's "brain" couldn't compete with the average laptop. It communicates with the Pathfinder lander via a 9,600 baud modem, an antique to any self-respecting Internet surfer. But Sojourner is suited to its job. Its X-ray spectrometer can pick apart the chemistry of Martian rocks, giving earth scientists their best profile yet of the planet's geology.

Will signs of biological life come into view? The life-on-Mars question probably won't be conclusively answered by this mission. Pathfinder is, after all, one in a series of Mars probes scheduled to culminate with a 2005 round trip that will return samples of Mars rocks to Earth. That, theoretically, will answer the questions.

It's the human thirst for answers that keeps space programs going, even when budgets shrink. Kudos to NASA for a mission that promises to advance both science and efficiency.

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