Reaching Mars

On June 19, 1976, Viking і swung into Mars orbit. “After eight years, we’re finally in orbit,” a relieved James Martin exclaimed.46 This was an achievement in and of itself. But NASA knew that this was but the first step. Soon, Viking was transmitting photos of Mars’s surface, including the region where NASA planned a landing for Viking і. Various NASA officials and others gathered at Mission Control, Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Gentry Lee, JPL mission planning director, recalled how grown scientists and engineers behaved like 10-year-olds as pictures of Mars from the orbiter came in. They whooped and yelled and ran to the screen where images appeared with cries of “wow.”47

While the images were fascinating and spectacular, they also produced anxi­ety. Sagan, a member of the landing site team, remarked that Viking could see the larger-scale features, and many were menacing. But what about smaller – scale features the orbiter could not see? If Viking landed the wrong way on a boulder the size of a trash can, it might be wrecked.48 Looking at images of the previously selected landing site, Harold Mazursky, on loan to NASA from the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS), felt that the risk was acceptable.

Martin, however, was not so sure. He conferred with superiors at NASA Headquarters up to Fletcher. NASA had scheduled the first landing for July 4, aligned with the national celebration of the country’s 200th birthday. Presi­dent Gerald Ford was “enthralled” and eager to make the landing part of the celebration. Fletcher and other top managers told Martin not to worry about the scheduled July 4 landing date. If he believed the site in question was too dangerous, they said, he should delay the landing and look for a place that was safer. On June 28, Martin informed a vast media assemblage that had gathered for the historic event that the chosen site “had too many unknowns, and could be hazardous.”49 Fletcher, meanwhile, informed the president that the July 4 rendezvous was out. Martin “would have thrown his badge on the table if we’d taken the risk of landing on July 4,” Hinners recalled.50

The vital importance of Viking to NASA kept Fletcher intimately involved. On July і, Fletcher announced from JPL’s Mission Control Center that NASA had found an alternative 150 miles northwest of the original place. “Mars is a lot different planet than we thought it would be,” he stated. “By a combination of intuition, wise judgment, and a little bit of luck, we found a site close by that exceeded all expectations.”51 But just a few days later NASA examined radar signals of the new site from Earth, and they indicated that the orbital images could be wrong as to the smoothness of the terrain. Again, Martin and his team decided they had better keep looking, and senior NASA officials once more went along with the judgment.

This time the reconnaissance was even more thorough, using orbiter pho­tos, radar, and expert analysis. The problem was that as NASA looked farther from the original site, it moved more distant from potentially fruitful places of scientific interest. The search for life was the prime announced purpose of the mission, and that purpose was in danger of being jeopardized. The Viking team had to find a place that was both reasonably safe and scientifically interesting, which was becoming extremely hard to do.

The meetings of scientists took place every day for long hours, amidst grow­ing frustration about getting consensus on a place to land. There was no time for personal lives. Viking dominated all schedules. Gentry Lee worried that the landing date would coincide with the birth of his first child. Tim Mutch, a Brown University geologist in charge of the lander’s camera system, tested the system again and again, so often that he became mesmerized by his routines and, at one point, confused testing with reality. He went home one evening to tell his wife how well the photos had gone only to be reminded that the actual work lay ahead.52 Everyone was on edge and getting cranky. Minds wandered and speculations roamed amidst the nervousness and loss of sleep. Mazursky imag­ined great floods taking place on Mars carving giant canyons. His USGS col­league, Mike Carr, countered that the surface features were more likely caused by slow-moving streams that took eons to carve the cleavages. Observers called Mazursky “the great inundator” and Carr “the long, slow trickler.”53

No one was more frustrated or tense than Martin. “We always had it in the back of our own minds that Mars would not cooperate, and it hasn’t,” he complained.54 One day he exploded over a trivial matter, signaling to everyone the exasperation they all felt about the exigency to make a decision soon about where to land.55 Finally, at midnight, July 14, the landing-site team reached agreement on a particular site. It was 200 miles to the northwest of the original target in the plains of Chryse, where water was believed to have flowed.56 An­nouncing the decision the next morning, Martin said Viking 1 would land July 20, a date that marked the anniversary of the first Moon landing of Apollo.

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