by David Kindy/Smithsonianmag.com
Even though three nations are sending exploratory orbiters and landers to Mars this month, it’s far from the first time skywatchers have been mesmerized by a mission to our nearest planet. In 1997, the world watched with wonder as Pathfinder bounced its way to a landing and then deployed Sojourner, the first wheeled vehicle to traverse another planet.
Photos sent back by the rover, operated by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in conjunction with NASA, quickly captured the nation’s attention. A nascent World Wide Web just couldn’t keep up with the demand. In one day, the Pathfinder websites set a record with 47 million hits—still an impressive number even by today’s standards.
“Pathfinder broke the internet,” recalls Jim Zimbelman, geologist emeritus at the Smithsonian’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and Space Museum. “There were so many requests for photo downloads that the JPL was not ready to deal with that.”
The mission took the world by storm in 1997, but interest began to build the year before when scientists announced that a meteorite found in Antarctica contained signs of possible ancient life on Mars. NASA, which was preparing Pathfinder for a later launch, pushed forward the mission and took off for the Red Planet in December 1996.