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The U.S. Now Has More Rovers On Mars Than Men’s World Cup Wins In Last 25 Years

With the Perseverance rover landing successfully on Thursday, NASA surpassed the USMNT in major accomplishments.

The Mars Pathfinder launched on Dec. 4, 1996, NASA’s first attempt to land a rover on another planet. Since then, the U.S. has landed more rovers on Mars than the USMNT has World Cup wins. That’s where we’re at as a country after the rover Perseverance landed successfully on Thursday.

The Pathfinder lander and its rover Sojourner landed successfully on Mars on July 4, 1997, exactly three years after the USMNT lost 1-0 to Brazil in the 1994 World Cup Round of 16. Sojourner was the first rover to operate on Mars, and at that point it seemed like there was no limit for exploring other planets or the USMNT, which outperformed all expectations at the prior World Cup.

But like landing a spacecraft on another planet, things don’t always go to plan. The U.S. has recorded fewer wins at the World Cup — four — than NASA has landed rovers on Mars — five.

Here’s a brief rundown on Mars rovers compared to USMNT World Cup success.

Mars Rovers vs. USMNT World Cup Wins Since 1996

Sojourner (1997)

After the Soviet Union had two failed rover missions in 1971, Sojourner became humanity’s first rover to actually operate on another planet. It lasted about 10 weeks, traveling about 100 meters before NASA lost contact. 

Rovers: 1
World Cup wins: 0

1998 World Cup

In its follow-up to a successful run at the 1994 World Cup, the U.S. failed to win a single game in France 1998. It was a disastrous showing for the Americans, who lost to Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia, managing only a Brian McBride consolation goal in a disheartening loss to Iran. 

Rovers: 1
World Cup wins: 0

2002 World Cup

The USMNT had its most successful World Cup run in the modern era in South Korea, winning two whole games! The U.S. advanced through the group stage with four points, stunning Portugal 3-2 in the opener, drawing with co-host South Korea 1-1 and losing to Poland 3-1. Then came the memorable dos a cero over Mexico in the Round of 16 before a heartbreaking 1-0 defeat to eventual finalist Germany. 

Rovers: 1
World Cup wins: 2

Spirit and Opportunity (2004)

In June of 2003, NASA launched its Mars Exploration Rover mission, which landed not one but two rovers on Mars, Spirit and Opportunity. Both were successfully deployed after landing in January of 2004. Spirit traveled just under five miles before becoming stuck in 2009. Its last communication with Earth came on March 22, 2010, a few months before the 2010 World Cup. 

Opportunity became the current record-holder for distanced traveled on Mars. It remarkably lasted until 2018 when a dust storm prevented it from recharging its solar-powered batteries. Finally declared dead in 2019, Opportunity traversed 28 miles. But it was an impressive lifespan for the rover; imagine using your cumbersome Nokia cellphone that’s only game was Snake in 2018. 

Rovers: 3
World Cup wins: 2

2006 World Cup

While the 1998 World Cup showing was arguably the worst ever, the 2006 World Cup has to go down as the most disappointing World Cup showing ever, as the U.S. finished winless despite reaching a record FIFA world ranking of fourth in April 2006. The USMNT started with an embarrassing 3-0 capitulation to the Czech Republic before salvaging a 1-1 draw with eventual champion Italy. But a 2-1 defeat to Ghana doomed the Americans to a 25th-place finish, once again failing to win a World Cup game.

Rovers: 3
World Cup wins: 2

2010 World Cup

The 2010 World Cup was a wild ride for U.S. fans. There was the fun 1-1 draw with England, frustrating 2-2 draw with Slovenia and an unforgettable 1-0 win over Algeria to win Group C. But the U.S. couldn’t build on the momentum, losing a winnable game to Ghana in extra time in the knockout stages. Despite reaching the Round of 16 and winning its group, the USMNT recorded just one win, evening the score with NASA’s rovers.

Rovers: 3
World Cup wins: 3

Curiosity (2012)

NASA launched the Mars Science Laboratory mission in November 2011 and successfully landed the Curiosity rover in August 2012. Originally scheduled for a two-year mission, Curiosity is still in operation today and has traveled about 15 miles, with no end in sight. 

Rovers: 4
World Cup wins: 3

2014 World Cup

The Brazil World Cup was another rollercoaster for U.S. fans. The USMNT started with a dramatic 2-1 win over now-rival Ghana before conceding in the 95th minute to draw 2-2 against Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal. A 1-0 loss to Germany didn’t prevent the U.S. from advancing to the knockout rounds, where Tim Howard became a national hero and Chris Wondolowski a national scapegoat in a 2-1 extra-time loss to Belgium.

Rovers: 4
World Cup wins: 4

2018 World Cup

The USMNT couldn’t even get a draw against Trinidad and Tobago on the final day of World Cup qualifying — and Mexico refused to pay back the favor of Graham Zusi in 2014 — so the U.S. didn’t even qualify for the Russia World Cup. 

Rovers: 4
World Cup wins: 4

Perseverance (2021)

Launched in July 2020, the Perseverance rover landed successfully on the surface of Mars on Thursday, Feb. 18. Percy is similar to Curiosity but will also include Ingenuity, a small helicopter-like vehicle that will attempt the first powered flight on another planet. Perseverance will search for signs of previous life on Mars, with a little luck, the USMNT will show signs of life in 2021.

Rovers: 5
World Cup wins: 4

That’s five American rovers on Mars to just four USMNT World Cup wins since 1996. Sure, NASA has an annual budget in the billions (around 20 billion per year since 1996), but Ghana also has four World Cup wins since 1996 with a fraction of the budget of U.S. Soccer. 

For those wondering, the USWNT has 30 Women’s World Cup wins since 1996, including three World Cup titles. 

Maybe with a little *looks around* Perseverance the USMNT can catch up with or even pass NASA in 2022.

(For more obscure soccer-NASA stories, check out this piece on Arsene Wenger and the Cassini mission.)

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