Twenty years ago Tuesday, a plucky little probe named Pathfinder landed at Ares Vallis on the surface of Mars. It didn't land in the traditional way, with retrorockets firing until it reached the surface. No, Pathfinder bounced down to its landing site, cushioned by giant air bags. It was a novel approach, and the successful maneuver paved the way for a similar system used by the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity in 2003. I was at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on landing day. JPL is the home of mission control for most of NASA's planetary missions. Prior to the landing at 10 a.m. PT, engineers nervously watched their consoles, even though there was really nothing they could do if there was a problem. It takes several minutes for a radio signal from Mars to reach Earth, so the landing sequence was already well underway when the first signals reached Earth. I had spent a lot of time before landing day getting to know the scientists and engineers involved in the mission. I didn't talk to all of them, but it was a relatively small team, and I spoke with a lot of them. I knew well how hard they had worked on the mission, and how many things had to go just right to make it a success. I knew they had good reason to be apprehensive. But the landing went flawlessly, and I witnessed anxiety turning into unbridled joy. That day is one of the highlights of my career in science journalism. At a news conference after the successful landing, mission scientist Matthew Golembek was gushing.
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