The term “break the internet” gets used for stupid, vain, idiotic purposes these days, but it was not always so. The Mars Pathfinder Mission and its Sojourner rover really did break NASA’s website in 1997. Now that we have reliable internet access at high speeds and 24/7 access to any content we want, the luster of something like “photographs from the surface of Mars” seems laughably quaint. Nevertheless, we’re still all captivated momentarily by scientific wonders (remember the “heart” on Pluto anyone? — or the discovery of the Higgs Boson?).
In 1997, people went ape shit over pictures from the Mars Rover. I didn’t even own what we now consider a modern computer until winter 1997, but I rode my bike to the public library to use their slow-ass Compaq whatever with a 28.8k modem to make it to this site:
The “Load Capacity” seems similarly quaint (measuring hits in the tens of millions — with an “m” — as opposed to billions — with a “b”). Perhaps anticipating a small number of astronomy enthusiasts, NASA greatly underestimated the way in which the American public and world would react to photographs from the surface of the red planet. How nice it is to think that there were so many people filled with curiosity and so little skepticism (or worse, phony conspiracy bullshit) that they broke down NASA’s doors in a feverish attempt to get a glimpse. And even by today’s standards, it’s quite a glimpse:
How satisfying it must feel to say “this is the best we had, and this is what we produced,” and have the effort produce astronomically (pun intended) more interest than expected.
The images loaded in strips like a digital telegraph, and the screen resolution was so low that it probably looked like an orange blur, but it was Mars, and we made it happen. For those of us not born when the Apollo moon missions were a shared collective achievement, and old enough only to remember the bitter tragedy of Challenger, the Pathfinder mission was a scientific redefinition of NASA as the people’s window to discovery and innovation. Posting photos on the internet was genius: publicly-owned content posted for anyone to view at their leisure. Judging by my students, private companies inspire a similar sense of wonder, but NASA didn’t try to sell anyone anything in 1997, and they don’t do it now. It’s just there for you to see.