How ILC Dover Helped Pathfinder Land Safely on Mars

The NASA team, when preparing for the 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission to Mars, faced a daunting problem: If Pathfinder completed the 300 million-mile trek to the Red Planet, how could it land gently enough to keep the finely tuned research equipment on board from being damaged? In its search for a solution, NASA contacted ILC Dover.

Developing a System for Landing on Mars

Earlier tests by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) showed that using an airbag system to cushion Pathfinder’s landing just might work, but more testing was needed. NASA collaborated with ILC Dover on 20 “drop tests” using prototype airbag systems made by ILC Dover. The data culled from the testing proved invaluable.

“The initial full-scale prototype drop tests were very successful,” said Tom Rivellini, lead subsystem engineer at JPL, at the time. “Engineers were able to test several air bag fabric construction techniques simultaneously. The tests showed that air bags constructed of a double-layered fabric will be necessary to provide a sufficiently rugged cushioning effect.”

ILC Dover manufactured a $4 million airbag landing system composed of 24 interconnected spheres that protected Pathfinder and its payload—a landing vehicle, a camera and a rover equipped with scientific instruments. The pyramid-shaped system measured 17 feet tall and 17 feet in diameter, and was made of materials similar to the type that ILC Dover used to construct space suits for NASA astronauts.

As it neared Mars, Pathfinder would follow a complex descent and landing sequence. The spacecraft would be hurtling at 17,000 miles per hour when drag from the atmosphere, a parachute and retrorockets would slow it to 60 miles per hour and stop its descent 12 meters above the Martian surface. At that point, four airbags made by ILC Dover would fully inflate in half a second and facilitate a gentler landing.

The ILC Dover airbag system was successfully used in the Pathfinder mission on July 4, 1997. Gregory L. Davis, Ph.D., California Institute of Technology, wrote that the principal objective of the mission was to “demonstrate a simple, reliable and low-cost system for placing a scientific payload on the surface of Mars. The successful landing returned scientific data in amounts greatly exceeding the original mission objective.”

A Safe Landing for Spirit

With the Pathfinder mission accomplished, NASA called on ILC Dover in 2000 to collaborate on an airbag landing system for the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) named Spirit. The initial plan was to do a rebuild of the Pathfinder airbag design, but substantial changes were made and new materials used.

Delivery and installation of the MER airbag system happened in 2003, and aided by the ILC Dover system, Spirit made a successful landing on the surface of Mars in 2004.

ILC Dover in Space

In addition to the airbag system and NASA space suits—ILC Dover has outfitted every U.S. astronaut in the Apollo program, including the twelve that walked on the moon—the company crafted units worn by astronauts for extra-vehicular activity on space shuttle missions and on the International Space Station.

Since the 1960s, ILC Dover has been onboard with NASA as it travels millions of miles to perform research that makes our lives better here on Earth.