Mars Pathfinder, 1997

Peter Smith

In the midst of building the instrument for the Huygens probe, it became possible to propose for the next mission to Mars. There hadn’t been one in twenty years. I had a dream about transforming our Titan camera into a Mars camera. I sketched out some ideas and equations, and did some drawings, and ended up proposing for Pathfinder. We won that. We did our proposal in two weeks.

That changed my whole life. I had started in a temporary position 15 years earlier and now I was a Principal Investigator of a six million dollar project. We needed to design and build a camera; I quickly hired 30 people. It was a very strange time for me. I had to grow into this new life very quickly.

Timothy Swindle

In some ways, that camera, I think, is what brought back the Mars program. Pathfinder got there over the Fourth of July in ’97, and the cover of Time magazine the week before had been the upcoming big celebration at Roswell, New Mexico: The 50th anniversary of the Roswell incident.

Suddenly, the pictures came back from Pathfinder. I remember sitting in the auditorium downstairs at the celebration for LPL employees, and I had the family with me. We hadn’t signed up for the food—we were going to eat elsewhere—so we just went and sat in the auditorium, and all of the sudden here come these pictures from the surface of Mars, just flashing across the screen. No commentary or anything, but real-time photos from the surface of Mars.

That was just so cool, and apparently other people thought so too, because while Roswell had been the big news the week before, as soon as those pictures hit you never heard anything more about Roswell. Pathfinder was the top of the news. If it had been a very successful spacecraft with instruments that had made a lot of good measurements, but no camera, that would not have been true. I have to say that I think that camera might have been the biggest success; the imager from Mars Pathfinder.