Twenty years ago today—on February 17, 1996—NASA launched into space an unmanned aircraft named NEAR, or Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous. Its primary mission was to gather information about asteroids, as explained on the NASA Discovery website:
The mission was designed to answer many fundamental questions about the nature and origin of asteroids, which are of great interest both because of their potential for colliding with Earth and for the clues they hold about the formation and evolution of our solar system.
The NEAR launch didn’t immediately go as planned. From an AP report that day:
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Equipment trouble forced NASA to delay the launch of a spacecraft toward an asteroid Friday. Managers halted the countdown with less than an hour remaining because of problems with the safety system used to track ascending rockets. They said they would try again today to launch the unmanned Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Once launched, the spacecraft--called [NEAR]--will spend three years flying to the asteroid Eros and then become the first spacecraft to orbit an asteroid.
NEAR entered into orbit around Eros on February 14, 2000, and Michael Benson wrote about the union for a 2002 issue of The Atlantic. He described the craft’s landing on Eros “not unlike an adolescent confronting the object of his or her erotic fascination for the first time”: