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Project Manager for the Voyager Interstellar Mission, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
What do you think are the most significant events that have occurred in the past fifty years of robotic planetary exploration? Why?
In no particular order I would say:
Mars Pathfinder landing on Mars, July 4, 1997. Pathfinder showed the world that the U.S. was "back in the game" of landing spacecraft on Mars after a 22 year absence (Viking 1 and 2). And we did it on the 4th of July too.
Pathfinder used innovative air bag technology for the landing, and its rover, Sojourner, was the cute little rover that could -- and it did.
Voyager Neptune Encounter, August 1989.
This was the furthest planet we had, and still have, ever visited.
Neptune is very blue in color and its moon Triton is the coldest body in the solar system.
Once past Neptune, Voyager 2 just kept on going and going and today (34-plus years after launch) it and its twin spacecraft Voyager 1 are very near the heliopause; where the effects of our sun stop and interstellar space starts.
I find the Ranger program to the Moon in the early 1960s significant. It was the early days of space exploration and a time of many quick turnaround launches. Not very many were successful in their goal of hitting the Moon -- It took seven launches to get it right -- but the engineers and the US government never gave up.
In your field of work, what are some examples of the great achievements and discoveries in planetary science and robotic exploration throughout the past 50 years?
Every time we launch a new mission, whether to another planet, or to look at Earth from above, we learn something about the planet that is new and surprising and causes us to change our models and perceptions. I think our search of knowledge and the abililty to build machines to acquire this knowledge is our greatest achievement.