Mars has inspired dreamers and space enthusiasts as the next logical step after going to the moon. In 1998, the Mars Pathfinder mission captured public attention by demonstrating the first beloved rover (Sojourner) to travel the surface, leading to the later Mars Exploration Rover program (Spirit and Opportunity that landed in 2004).
The Mars Pathfinder mission reveals a significant shift in the relationship between the scientists and the public, which traditionally used science journalists as an intermediary to convey information through the mass media. During earlier missions, the public primarily heard about space news from science journalists; these stories included their spin and any conclusions about why it might be important to the reader. The mission’s public affairs staff also provided a press release and supporting data, as well as photographs, to the journalists for distribution through mass media outlets. Mars Pathfinder made a groundbreaking transition into digital media, becoming a record setting web event with more than half a million hits surrounding its landing. The web event illustrated direct public interest in the mission and would fundamentally reshape how future missions started communicating their news through websites and listservs. The Mars Exploration Rovers would further engage the public though more sophisticated websites and social media.
The following xkcd webcomic provides an excellent example of how the rovers captured the hearts and minds of the public:
By Giny Cheong