The year 1977 marked a transition for Viking and a punctuation point in the Mars exploration journey. It was a year in which the Viking team gained many accolades, but it was also a year in which the experiments specifically to find life ended and critical Viking participants who had not already left moved on. On April i, “Members of the Viking Team” received the prestigious Goddard Memorial Trophy. President Jimmy Carter, taking over from Ford, wrote his congratulations: “The Viking mission is a striking example of how our operations in deep space have opened up vistas of new worlds. Its success is the finest tribute that can be paid to the dedication and tremendous skills of the men and women who made it possible.”22 Carter’s NASA Administrator was Robert Frosch. He was a 49-year-old physicist with a background in government and industry management. However, he was not particularly associated with space policy. He added his congratulations to Viking participants in writing an introduction to a special issue on Viking of the Journal of Geophysical Research and calling for a “continuing, highly productive planetary exploration program.”23
Viking was fading into NASA’s history. In late May, NASA ended all communication with the automated biology laboratory. Other components of the Viking equipment functioned for a while, but eventually, one by one, they expired. NASA terminated the project in 1983. NASA provided funds for ongoing data analysis. The debate over life dimmed. Even Sagan muted his position to some extent. Levin strongly held out from the dominant view. He argued that he did detect life. He would stoutly defend that position for years. He said in 1977, “We’re in the unexpected position of explaining away results that we would declare on Earth as unequivocal evidence of life.”24
The fate of Soffen, the Viking chief scientist, symbolized the poignant reality of Viking’s aftermath. The failure to find life, he recalled later, “clobbered exobiology. Absolutely laid it to waste.” With planetary work now centered at JPL, he tried to transfer back to Pasadena. He wanted to continue in exobiology, maybe work on exobiology issues beyond Mars. The director of JPL, Murray, said Soffen could come back to JPL, but he couldn’t work on exobiology. “I’m sorry,” said Murray. “You can have a job here, but you’re not going to work on exobiology.” And Soffen could not work on exobiology beyond Mars. Said Murray, “Hey, if there’s nothing on Mars, there’s nothing anywhere.” That, complained Soffen, was a “geologist’s point of view.”25
Soffen decided to stay at Langley for a while and then took an adjunct professorship at Harvard, eventually returning to NASA and settling at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland where he turned to applications of space satellites to monitor planet Earth. Lederberg, Sagan, and other academics closely associated with Viking went back to their universities. Lederberg pursued research other than exobiology, as did most of the Viking scientists. Sagan, who had lived for two years in Pasadena during Viking’s apex as a project, returned to Cornell. More a celebrity-scientist than ever through his popular writing and a television series he hosted called Cosmos, he tried to maintain his advocacy for Mars exploration and the search for life generally, but he had few allies. The advocacy coalition that had initiated and sustained Viking atrophied.
While dubious of exobiology, Murray remained a Mars champion. He encouraged JPL to pursue follow-on work, which fell under a classification of top priorities for the lab he called “purple pigeons.”26 These were areas of research with both intrinsic scientific and public interest. The JPL research emphasis for Mars was the concept of a Mars rover, what had once been called Viking 3. The problem for JPL and NASA was that there was minimal discretionary money for exploratory research for prototype development, and there were “purple pigeons” JPL wanted to pursue other than follow-on Mars work, some that Murray put ahead of the rover.
In 1977, a high-visibility project, Voyager, was launched. This mission had nothing to do with the earlier “Voyager” to Mars that was aborted prior to Viking. This project was conceived years before NASA’s budget plummeted to take advantage of a fortuitous alignment of the outer planets. It took on the name “Voyager” because of its extensive journey in the solar system. Voyager consisted of two probes aimed at flybys of Jupiter and Saturn, with trajectories to Uranus and Neptune. Voyagers went up in August and September, carrying golden phonograph records with a message from Earth, just in case, eons in the future, Voyager probes passed into another solar system with intelligent life. President Carter’s words were on this record with a message of peace.27
In 1978, NASA sent a mission to Venus. Like Voyager, this Venus mission had been approved before Viking landed in 1976. To the outside world, this sequence of missions—Viking, Voyager, Venus—made it appear that NASA’s planetary program was healthy and robust. Within NASA, the view was decidedly different. There were scientific advocates inside NASA who wanted to work on Mars, but they had no approved flight project. In 1977 Hinners went to the Soviet Union. “I asked my Soviet colleagues,” he recalled: “What are you doing about Mars?” He said that Russians replied, “We’ve stopped it! You found no life.”28 The Soviet Union had reoriented its program to other planets, especially Venus.
A main problem for those inside and outside NASA who wanted to elevate Mars on the agency’s agenda was the Space Shuttle and its expense. This project, begun under Fletcher, continued to have top agency priority in the era of Frosch. Human spaceflight trumped space science. Gentry Lee recalled meeting Fletcher when he came to JPL and demanded support for the shuttle. “Young man,” he said to Lee, “line up behind the shuttle.”29 Then, there were the other space science ventures with claims on NASA funding. Ford had approved both Hubble and Galileo; Carter inherited these projects and maintained them.
But when Hubble and Galileo were considered by Congress in 1977, they ran into a roadblock. The chairman of the House subcommittee considering NASA’s budget, Edward Boland (D-MA), pushed NASA to decide between Hubble and Galileo for funding. To emphasize his point, he tried to kill Hubble and, when opposition from a united astronomy community surfaced, switched to an attack on Galileo. NASA and the scientists favoring Galileo pushed back and, after a legislative struggle, prevailed. But the result of the encounter was to point up the challenges all planetary exploration—and especially Mars—faced in the post-Viking era.30
This legislative battle—which was novel in its intensity over space science— made NASA leaders extremely wary of proposing any highly expensive Mars options. The SSB supported the rover concept, but NASA saw difficulty getting a Viking 3-type project through the Carter White House/ OMB, much less Congress. But if not a rover, then what?