The near-earth asteroid rendezvous (NEAR) mission is the first of the NASA discovery programs. Discovery-class programs emphasize small, low-cost, quick turnaround space missions that provide significant science returns. The NEAR spacecraft and ground control system are currently being developed and tested at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). The NEAR spacecraft will orbit, 433 Eros, possibly the most studied of the near-Earth asteroids. Subsequent to a 3-year cruise, the NEAR spacecraft is inserted into a 50-km-altitude orbit about Eros for 1 year to permit data collection in the infrared, visible, x-ray and gamma-ray regions. One instrument, the NEAR laser rangefinder (NLR), will provide altimetry data useful in characterizing the geophysical nature of Eros. In addition, ranging data from the NLR will support navigation functions associated with spacecraft station-keeping and orbit maintenance. The NLR instrument uniquely applies several technologies for use in space. Our configuration uses a direct-detection, bistatic design employing a gallium arsenide (GaAs) diode-pumped Cr:Nd:YAG laser for the 1.064-micrometer transmitter and an enhanced-silicon avalanche-photodiode (APD) detector for the receiver. Transmitter pulse energy provides the required signal-to-noise power ratio, SNRp, for reliable operation at 50 km. The selected APD exhibited low noise, setting the level achievable for noise equivalent power, NEP, by the receiver. The lithium-niobate (LiNbO3) Q-switched transmitter emits 12-ns pulses at 15.3 mJ/pulse, permitting reliable NLR operation beyond the required 50-km altitude. Cavity aperturing and a 9.3X Galilean telescope reduce beam divergence for high spatial sampling of Eros's surface. Our receiver design is an f/3.4 Dall-Kirkham Cassegrain with a 7.62-cm clear aperture -- we emphasized receiver aperture area, Arx, over transmitter power, Pt, in our design based on the range advantage attainable according to the simplified range equation, Rmax equals [(Pt(rho) BArx)/(SNRp NEP)]1/2. Asteroid reflectivity, (rho) B, is estimated to be 0.05 at our wavelength. A reasonable power signal- to-noise ratio for reliable operation, SNRp, was assumed. To minimize our noise equivalent power, NEP, we carefully designed and selected the receiver components. The receiver circuit uses leading-edge detection of the laser backscatter. Our detector circuit is an enhanced-silicon APD hybrid using a video amplifier, an integrating Bessel filter, and a high- speed programmable threshold comparator. We accomplish time-of-flight (TOF) measurements digitally with an APL-designed GaAs application-specific integrated circuit. A radiation-hardened FORTH microprocessor controls range gating, data collection and formatting, and operational modes. Implementation of control and data communications between the spacecraft and rangefinder uses the MIL-STD 1553-bus architecture. Functional testing and calibration indicate exceptional performance; return power levels were reliably detected over several thresholds with 71-dB attenuation, while observed range jitter was equivalent to the resolution determined by the TOF GaAs chip (31.5 cm). This paper discusses NLR performance requirements, design implementation, and qualification testing. It also provides preliminary results from calibration and performance testing.