Viking Launches

In 1975 the various technology development problems affecting Viking gradu­ally gave way to solutions. Martin’s “Top 10 Problems” were narrowed and then resolved enough for NASA to schedule a launch for August. As August ap­proached, media interest expanded, and so did the angst of all associated with Viking.

From Fletcher on down, there was heightened anticipation of what could go wrong. Fletcher warned associates about how to frame the project in media interviews. He thought NASA might have overreached in emphasizing “life” as

the goal. His staff suggested that NASA speak of the launch as about “compara­tive planetology.”37 Hinners sought to shift the rhetoric to “find[ing] evidence of life,” and to get Sagan to “tone down his rhetoric.” “But I could not get him to change much, and you didn’t want to quell his passion in any event,” Hinners re­called. Sagan “was a tremendously effective advocate, and salesman,” he stated.38 Sagan, who, more than anyone, had framed Viking as a quest for life, worried that the lander would crash and Viking would not discover what was waiting to be found.39 Soffen worried about the biology laboratory. He lamented the deci­sion to drop one of the four experiments it carried. “There was no way to keep it,” he confided. But he worried: what if it had “been the one to detect life?”40

Martin was concerned about everything, but particularly the decision to kill the backup system. What if Viking failed? After all, the four Soviet spacecraft sent to Mars had failed in 1974 either to reach Mars or to perform once there. Would Viking suffer the same fate? As late as July 1975, one month before launch, Martin badgered Robert Kraemer, Hinners’s deputy for planetary mis­sions, about needing a third Viking. It had been killed by Petrone and Hinners, and Kraemer pointed out what Martin already knew—there was no money! Moreover, to go up in 1977 (the next window) would take another launch vehicle (a Titan-Centaur), and the only way to get one would be by “stealing” it from another mission that had been waiting in line. He promised that the spare parts and other hardware of the partially built Viking 3 would be kept for a possible succeeding window.41 Martin was not encouraged. He worried that the political window on Mars exploration might be closing: “I think we will have to find something exciting to have another mission to Mars,” he complained in a media interview.42

Shortly before launch on August 20,1975, a valve issue came up on the launch vehicle. Fletcher, Low, Naugle (now the senior NASA associate administrator), and Hinners all sat around a table in a teleconference with Martin, who was at Cape Canaveral, peering at drawings of the valve, trying to figure out how to fix the problem.43 That the top officials of the agency were so engaged indicated how important all viewed Viking. Fortunately, the problem was solved. Viking 1 went up. The four-ton spacecraft sped away from its Cape Canaveral launchpad “atop a Titan-Centaur rocket, a bright orange and yellow colored flame behind it. Burning solid rocket fuel that built up to 2.4 million pounds of thrust in sec­onds, the Titan-Centaur and its payload of instruments were 30 miles out over the Atlantic in two minutes and moving 5000 miles an hour.” After going briefly into a “parking orbit” 100 miles above Earth, the rocket engine lifted Viking out of orbit at a speed of over 25,000 miles an hour. “We’re finally on our way to Mars,” Martin beamed. “All systems are working fine,” he said. “It’s been sheer hell,” commented Kraemer. “There were times I thought we’d never make it.”44

On September 9, Viking 2 went up—successfully. NASA officials were elated. As the Vikings sped toward Mars, NASA planned political strategy. In December, Low instructed the Science Directorate to prepare a supplemental request for funds in the event of “spectacular results” emanating from Viking. He wanted it ready to go to the White House and Congress by July 1976.45

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