Planetary exploration marked its passage from science fiction to real-world technology 35 years ago this week when NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory successfully built and flew the first spacecraft to another planet -- Mariner 2's flyby of Venus -- on Dec. 14, 1962.

The public is invited to share in a celebration of this legendary mission on Friday, December 12, with a lecture by the original Mariner 2 project manager, space pioneer Jack James, at 7 p.m. in JPL's von Karman Auditorium, 4800 Oak Grove Dr., Pasadena.

This daring, pioneering endeavor -- accomplished in just nine months from the project's start to liftoff -- occurred at a time of great international tension and rivalry, coming in the days following the standoff between the U.S. and Soviet Union over the placement of missiles in Cuba. With the Space Race in full swing, JPL engineers and scientists labored in a world of high hopes and bitter disappointments, occasional successes and frequent failures. The resounding success of the Mariner 2 mission made Caltech's JPL the world's leading institution for solar system exploration with robotic spacecraft.

Mariner 2 came within 34,000 kilometers (21,000 miles) of Venus on December 14, 1962, an unprecedented feat of navigation and engineering know-how. Designed, built and remotely controlled at JPL, the 447-pound Mariner 2 carried six science instruments and provided the first measurements of Earth's nearest planetary neighbor.

James, now retired, will describe the origins of this first Venusian mission, the problems that he and his team encountered and the solutions they devised to get the spacecraft on its way to Venus. He will also share with the new generation of JPL staff members the significance of the U.S.-Soviet competition to be first in space; why Venus, rather than Mars, was selected to be the first planet other than Earth to be explored; and how the six science instruments were chosen.

Mr. James will be joined by Dr. Jeffrey Plaut, the deputy project scientist for JPL's highly successful Magellan mission to Venus of 1990 to 1994. Dr. Plaut will review all that has been learned about Venus to date from Mariner 2, Magellan, the earlier American Mariners 5 and 10, the two Pioneer/Venus probes and the series of Soviet Venera spacecraft.

JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA.

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