NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit successfully drove off its
lander platform and onto the soil of Mars early today.

The robot’s first picture looking back at the now-empty lander and
showing wheel tracks in the soil set off cheers from the robot’s
flight team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

“Spirit is now ready to start its mission of exploration and
discovery. We have six wheels in the dirt,” said JPL Director Dr.
Charles Elachi.

Since Spirit landed inside Mars’ Gusev Crater on Jan. 3 (PST and
EST; Jan. 4 Universal Time), JPL engineers have put it through a
careful sequence of unfolding, standing up, checking its
surroundings and other steps leading up to today’s drive-off.

“It has taken an incredible effort by an incredible group of
people,” said Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager Peter
Theisinger of JPL.

The drive moved Spirit 3 meters (10 feet) in 78 seconds, ending with
the back of the rover about 80 centimeters (2.6 feet) away from the
foot of the egress ramp, said JPL’s Joel Krajewski, leader of the
team that developed the sequence of events from landing to drive-
off. The flight time sent the command for the drive-off at 12:21
a.m. PST today and received data confirming the event at 1:53 a.m.
PST. The data showed that the rover completed the drive-off at
08:41 Universal Time (12:41 a.m. PST).

“There was a great sigh of relief from me,” said JPL’s Kevin Burke,
lead mechanical engineer for the drive-off. “We are now on the
surface of Mars.”

With the rover on the ground, an international team of scientists
assembled at JPL will be making daily decisions about how to use the
rover for examining rocks, soils and atmosphere with a suite of
scientific instruments onboard.

“Now, we are the mission that we all envisioned three-and-a-half
years ago, and that’s tremendously exciting,” said JPL’s Jennifer
Trosper, mission manager.

JPL engineer Chris Lewicki, flight director, said “It’s as if we get
to drive a nice sports car, but in the end we’re just the valets who
bring it around to the front and give the keys to the science team.”

Spirit was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station,
Fla., on June 10, 2003. Now that it is on Mars, its task is to
spend the rest of its mission exploring for clues in rocks and
soil about whether the past environment in Gusev Crater was
ever watery and suitable to sustain life. Spirit’s twin Mars
Exploration Rover, Opportunity, will reach Mars on Jan. 25 (EST
and Universal Time; 9:05 p.m., Jan. 24, PST) to begin a similar
examination of a site on the opposite side of the planet.

JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in
Pasadena, manages the Mars Exploration Rover project for NASA’s
Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. Images and
additional information about the project are available from JPL
at and from Cornell University,
Ithaca, N.Y., at