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.