|In 1992, NASA inaugurated a new "Discovery" program aimed at producing a series of inexpensive, competitively selected, science-focused missions. NASA chose JPL to manage three of these missions: Mars Pathfinder, Stardust and Genesis. Of these, Mars Pathfinder was unique. It was assigned by NASA like a traditional project, not selected via a competition, and it was built 'in-house' at JPL, not by a contractor.
For a total cost of $265 million, project manager Tony Spear and his team were to land a small, short-lived spacecraft on Mars using a new airbag-based landing technique. Pathfinder would also deliver a cigarette-carton-sized 'microrover' to the surface. The mission was launched in December 1996 and landed July 4, 1997. Pathfinder, and especially its rover, Sojourner Truth, were hugely popular during the mission's short life. Its flight team had established one of NASA's first Web sites, and in the mission's first week, it drew more than 136 million hits. This confirmed for NASA leaders the popularity of Mars.