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Ion propulsion is now a legitimate propulsion option for future deep space missions. The long journey required to get from the first laboratory test of an ion engine in 1960 to the first successful flight of an ion propulsion system on NASA’s Deep Space 1 mission in 1998 is briefly summarized herein. An overview of the operation of the Deep Space 1 ion engine is provided along with a description of the complete ion propulsion system on the spacecraft. Engine performance measured in space compares well with that based on ground test data. Future deep space missions desire improved engine performance in the form of longer engine life (greater total impulse) and greater specific impulse. Derivatives of the NSTAR ion engine are being evaluated to assess their capability to meet these future needs. © 2002 American Institute of Physics.