On 10 August 2000, NASA announced its next Mars mission. It was actually two missions, each with separate rovers. The Mars Exploration Rover (MER) program would launch two highly sophisticated and autonomous rovers to Mars in 2003 to take advantage of the closest proximity of Mars to Earth in 60,000 years.
"For the past few weeks, NASA has been undertaking an extensive study of a two-lander option,'' announced Scott Hubbard, Mars program director at NASA Headquarters. "The scientific appeal of using the excellent launch opportunity in 2003 for two missions was weighed carefully against the resource requirements and schedule constraints. Our teams concluded that we can successfully develop and launch these identical packages to the Red Planet. We also determined that, in addition to the prospect of doubling our scientific return, this two-pronged approach adds resilience and robustness to our exploration program.''
Whereas the Mars Pathfinder mission was a technology demonstration, the MER program would draw on that technology as intended, but would improve upon it with a vastly expanded science mission designed to return unprecedented images and scientific data about the discoveries these two rovers would make. The suite of scientific instruments included on the rovers had been proposed by Steve Squyers, a professor of astronomy at Cornell University. Squyers had, in fact, been proposing such a scientific package to go on a rover since 1995, but he had numerous scientific competitors also seeking a NASA mission to Mars. In keeping with the mythological names given to high profile programs like Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, Squyers selected Athena for his scientific payload, after the Greek goddess of wisdom, art, and war. He had been persistent, and he, and his team of scientists who wrote the proposal for a more elaborate Martian rover mission as part of NASA's Discovery program, finally succeeded in 2000. The Mars Exploration Rover missions would be far greater in scope and engineering difficulty, and would involve scientific partners from around the world.
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