Through the ever-expanding power of technology, human beings will be able to travel to Mars next year - sort of.
Internet users will have access to "almost real time" video pictures sent from a six-wheeled robot called Sojourner as the tea-tray-size vehicle developed by NASA roves the Martian surface in search of rocks to study. The signals will take from 20 minutes to 40 minutes to reach Earth.
"We hope to produce and show the data that we obtain virtually as it happens," says Matthew Golombek, project manager for NASA's Mars Pathfinder program.
By sharing Sojourner's forays with Earthlings, NASA officials hope to enhance public support for programs to detect life on the Red Planet and eventually land humans there. The next phase of those efforts is set to begin with the Nov. 6 launch of the first of 10 research satellites. Plans call for a pair of satellites to blast off every 26 months through 2005.
The new initiative comes three months after NASA fired the world's imagination by unveiling the first evidence of possible extraterrestrial life. The evidence, detected in a Martian meteorite found in Antarctica, indicated that microscopic organisms may have lived on Mars more than 3.6 billion years ago.
Building public backing for its Mars explorations is critical to NASA in its battle to protect itself from funding reductions amid anger in Congress at massive cost overruns on the international space station and shuttle programs. Officials fear the agency could be targeted for new cuts as Democrats and Republicans pursue a balanced federal budget. Clinton administration projections currently call for NASA's budget to be reduced to $11.6 billion from a high of more than $14 billion in fiscal 1995.
NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin cites massive strides agency scientists have made in keeping down the costs of the Mars satellites. The last US mission to Mars, the failed 1993 Mars Observer, cost about $1 billion. The Mars Global Surveyor, the first of the new initiative, cost $155 million, carries 80 percent of the experiments lost on Mars Observer, and was built on budget and on time.
Mr. Goldin, however, acknowledges that in this era of government austerity, public support is vital to the new Mars initiative.
"We have to be able to show the American people that there is real scientific merit in going. We have to show the American people that we are not going to dim the gross national product to do it," Goldin said last week.
To further offset costs, the US is promoting Mars exploration as an international undertaking. Russia, its main partner in space, is due to launch its own Mars probe - with US and European participation - in December. Japan is planning to send a satellite in 1998.
The first satellite in the new US program is to be the Mars Global Surveyor, due to blast off next month. The spacecraft is expected to reach the planet by next August and spend four months dropping to a low-altitude polar orbit by using the Martian atmosphere to gradually slow itself down. It is then to spend about a year mapping Mars's surface, collecting meteorological and seismic data, and attempting to detect and measure Mars's magnetic field.
Even though it will leave two months later, the Mars Pathfinder will take a faster course than the Mars Global Surveyor and is expected to arrive July 4. Its primary mission is to test a low-cost, innovative approach to landing on the planet.
The Pathfinder, which cost $171 million, will plunge toward Mars on a parachute, all the while collecting data, before deploying a huge cocoon of air bags on which it will bounce to a landing in Ares Vallis, an ancient flood plain.
The $25 million, 22-pound robot is equipped with cameras that an Earth-bound technician will use to select paths along which the rover will steer itself. The robot will travel at 1 centimeter per second. Internet users will see the video from these cameras. Sojourner's mission will last a week.
The rover is fitted with a device for measuring the chemical composition of rocks and soil as well as experiments that will gauge the robot's own performance. Experiments carried by the satellite, which is to operate for about a month, will measure the Martian wind and temperatures and the density of the atmosphere.