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Pathfinder's Legacy

Officials at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California bid a "reluctant goodbye" this week to the Mars Pathfinder and its roving sidekick, Sojourner. For US space scientists, this was a hugely successful mission - both in generating fresh data about the fabled red planet, and in demonstrating that planetary exploration could be done on a budget.

In the long term, the latter accomplishment could prove more important than the former. It became clear years ago that open-ended, Apollo-type projects were no longer an option. That approach got men to the moon, but it wouldn't carry them - or their technological surrogates - far beyond that. Politics and cost can be tougher to overcome than gravity.

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Pathfinder operated longer than its creators anticipated. Its pictures and chemical analyses will feed scientific curiosity for years. And all on $266 million - peanuts by space standards.

Will Pathfinder mark a milestone in the evolution of space travel? Some scientific thinkers, such as physicist Freeman Dyson writing in the current Atlantic Monthly, emphasize the need for a more economical approach to space travel, with a time frame of 100 years out. To what end? Ultimately, human colonization of Mars and even more distant spheres.

The space age has only begun.

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