Spaceflight Insider

Inside Opportunity: Red (Planet), White and Blue

The Rock Abrasion Tool on one of the two Mars Exploration Rovers. Image Credit: NASA / JPL -Caltech/Cornell University

The Rock Abrasion Tool on one of the two Mars Exploration Rovers. The metal “shield” underneath the U.S. flag comes from the remains of the World Trade Center and was flown in memoriam of those killed on 9/11. Image Credit: NASA / JPL -Caltech/Cornell University

PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. — Today, as the United States celebrates its 240th birthday, I thought that it would be fitting to look back, honor, and remember our nation’s unrivaled success pioneering the exploration of the surface of the planet Mars. I also wanted to include some of my personal reflections on these missions since they were and are such a large part of my career.

Thus far, the United States of America is the only nation in history to successfully place a total of four landers and four rovers on the Martian surface. The Opportunity and Curiosity rovers are still currently driving and conducting science operations on Mars as this update is being written.

Some may not recall that 40 years ago today, on the U.S. Bicentennial, the Viking 1 Lander was set to become the first U.S. attempt to land on Mars as part of the celebration. However, images from the Viking 1 Orbiter showed that the original landing site was too rugged to attempt a safe landing, so the Team had to work feverishly to find a new spot to set down at.

A new site was soon located, and on the morning of Tuesday, July 20, 1976 (the seventh anniversary of Apollo 11’s first lunar landing), Viking 1 became the first mission to ever successfully land on the surface of the Red Planet. The Viking 2 lander followed on Sept. 3, 1976. Between 1962 and 1974, the Soviet Union tried six times to land on Mars – all six ended in failure.

Stars and Stripes on Mars NASA JPL images posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Image Credit: NASA / JPL

The twin Viking 1 and 2 missions were a tremendous display of American engineering and scientific skill. The success of these missions rewrote the science book on Mars and paved the way for all future Martian missions.

On a personal note, I was 17 years old at the time of the Viking 1 and 2 landings in the summer of ’76 and they had an enormous impact upon on both me and my career trajectory. In fact, the combined inspiration of Apollo and Viking are why I am doing what I do today as Geology Team Leader on the Mars Exploration Rover project.

The next U.S. attempt to land on Mars was more than two decades later – by the Mars Pathfinder mission. However, on the morning of Friday, July 4, 1997, we finally got our birthday landing!

Mars Pathfinder also deployed the first rover (Sojourner) on the surface of Red Planet. I was working on my Ph.D. at the time and the landing site selected was near the one that I had proposed two years earlier at a NASA Mars Landing Site Meeting.

The next missions to successfully arrive on the Martian surface were the twin Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Jan. 4, 2004, 04:35 UTC, and Jan. 25, 2004, 04:54 UTC, respectively. This time around I was fortunate enough to have been selected by NASA to be a Science Team Member on both missions.

On May 25, 2008, 23:53 UTC, the Mars Phoenix lander settled down in the Arctic region, becoming the first polar landing on the planet. This mission was pretty much a re-fly of the failed Mars Polar Lander Mission of 1999, hence the name Phoenix.

I was on the Science Imaging Team for the ill-fated Mars Polar Lander which was the first Mars Mission I worked on; however, the severe pain and loss of a job from this mission was replaced years later with the highly successful dual Spirit and Opportunity rover landings.

The most recent mission to place American hardware on the Red Planet was Curiosity which landed on August 6, 2012, 05:32 UTC.

As I look back over the years that I’ve spent working to explore Mars, it hasn’t been lost on me that the United States leads the way in terms of successfully exploring the flash-frozen plains of Mars. The United States’ founders would be hard pressed to imagine that just 240 years later, their revolution would result in a nation capable of exploring other worlds – but as NASA’s Juno spacecraft enters the orbit of Jupiter, that is precisely what has taken place.


Dr. Jim W. Rice, Jr., is an Astrogeologist at the Planetary Science Institute, he has over 25 years research experience specializing on the surface geology and history of water on Mars. Dr. Rice is currently a Co-Investigator and Geology Team Leader on the Mars Exploration Rover Project (Spirit and Opportunity). Rice also has extensive mission experience as Associate Project Scientist on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey Orbiter Projects. He has been involved in Mars landing site selection and certification activities for every NASA Mars Mission since Mars Pathfinder. His career includes working for NASA, Astrogeology Headquarters of the United States Geological Survey, the Mars Spaceflight Facility located at Arizona State University and the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory located at the University of Arizona.

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