Keeping the Dream Alive

While NASA pondered options and postponed advocacy to the White House and Congress, a diminished but persistent band of supporters inside and outside government struggled to keep the dream of Mars exploration alive. Rather than being depressed by the consensus view of Viking’s failure to find life, a cluster of planetary science graduate students at the University of Colorado Boulder were electrified by what Viking did discover. Carol Stoker, one of their leaders, read everything she could about Viking and concluded that there had been a “rush to judgment” about the absence of life on Mars.39 Also, if life perhaps was not on Mars, then human life should be brought to Mars, she and her peers believed. Another of the leaders of the group—one who, like Stoker, would later work for NASA—was Chris McKay.40 Meeting in halls, over meals, and eventually organizing a course, this group in the late 1970s began studying what it would take to revive robotic and human Mars exploration in the post-Viking period.

The students were given legitimacy by Charles Barth, the director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder. However, they acted largely on their own. Another person who ener­gized them was Ben Clark, a former Viking team member from Martin-Marietta, the prime contractor for Viking. Clark was based in Denver and had written a paper titled “The Viking Project—the Case for Men on Mars.” He extolled the possibilities and communicated with the students. The students were enthused and let their imaginations soar, considering the potential of “terraforming” Mars, engineering the planet so as to make it habitable.

As the group reached out, they gained new members, developed their “Mars Study Project,” and took on a catchy and enticing name, the “Mars Under­ground.”41 Members wore red buttons they concealed and could flash to nonbe­lievers and others. The buttons conveyed the impression that the group consti­tuted a secret society. Members discovered many other “closet Martians” willing to join their cause. Stoker recalled that the group seemed to be filling a need, attracting adherents in the manner of a “social movement.” A journalist the stu­dents met suggested they hold a national workshop on Mars. He thought there would be considerable interest. The students, even as many looked to graduate, began planning such a conference for 1981. It took place, and 100 scientists, engineers, and others came. Those from NASA were primarily from JPL and Ames. Participants gave papers and networked. This ranged from serious Mars researchers to what McKay called “the lunatic fringe” of the Mars community. In contrast to the majority view that there were no intelligent Martians, this group, known as the “Face on Mars” advocates, believed that Viking had re­vealed a structure on Mars that resembled a face. Moreover, they charged that NASA had conspired to hide this reality from the public. They were a distinct minority at the “Case for Mars” conference, as it was called, but they were wel­come. The Mars Underground was open to all Mars adherents.42

What the Boulder meeting did for those who attended went well beyond technical matters that consumed most of the formal presentations. “The first conference was magic,” Stoker said. “People walked out of there feeling like they’d been freed from prison… we broke the taboo.” It was possible to think about Mars and all its possibilities for those who came.43 By the time this meet­ing took place, there was another advocacy group also asserting its claims. The Mars Underground was ad hoc, calling itself a “closely knit but loosely woven network of individuals, representing government, private industry, and indi – viduals.”44 In contrast to the Mars Underground, this other body was organized, well funded, and led by established and influential scientists.

The dynamo was Carl Sagan, who refused to give up on his quest. Sagan was convinced that Mars needed grassroots advocacy. Perhaps more than any other scientist of his time, Sagan sensed the public pulse and what it would take to mobilize opinion behind space exploration. He also was frustrated with NASA and various fellow Mars scientists. He sensed a “disreputability about looking for life on another planet.”45 He wanted to take his case more forcefully to the public and political establishment. The Mars Underground and like-minded interests in the public, he felt, needed an organized interest group working on their behalf to persuade politicians to spend more money on space exploration. He passionately wanted NASA to go back to Mars and search for life.

His former nemesis, Murray, the JPL director, felt similarly about the need to generate support to study Mars and other planets. Once adversaries and still disagreeing on the life issue, Sagan and Murray nevertheless sought common ground in organized advocacy lest the nation lose sight of a noble dream. Ener­gized by what they perceived as NASA indecision and the budget travails of the Carter years, they discussed the concept of an organized interest group with a third individual, Louis Friedman.

Friedman was an advanced-program manager at JPL with an activist tem­perament, broad perspective, and enthusiasm for Mars. In 1979, he was just back from a year as a staff member on a congressional science committee. He recalled how Murray had summoned him “to his office on the top floor of the administration building at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.” Murray explained that he and Sagan believed that planetary exploration was “threatened” and to save it they had “to form an organization with tens of thousands of members to demonstrate that people wanted space exploration to continue.” “Would you lead it?” Murray asked. Friedman readily agreed.46

The next year, 1980, Sagan and Murray established an entity, the Planetary Society, with Friedman as its executive director; Sagan, president; and Murray, vice president. They gathered a board of prominent individuals. The Planetary Society was announced to be “dedicated to planetary exploration and the search for life.” With Sagan actively publicizing the organization, it would eventually grow to 125,000 members, publish a newsletter, get support from foundations and wealthy individuals, and become a force in influencing federal space policy.47 From the beginning, the Planetary Society “focused much of its activity on the exploration of Mars.”48 Sagan announced the formation of the Planetary Society in 1980 during one of his many appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

The Mars Underground, the Planetary Society, and a few other external in­terest groups gave evidence that public support for Mars exploration remained in the wake of Viking. They were complemented to some extent by certain advocates within NASA, particularly in the field centers. One field center espe­cially nurtured exobiology.

Perhaps the greatest casualty of Viking disappointment had been exobiology. Detractors had derided the field as being a discipline without a known subject to study. They now said, “We told you so!” Most Mars scientists were down on exobiology, as was NASA in general. What helped keep the field going, albeit with fewer researchers, was the maintenance of an institutional base at the re­search center, Ames. There, Harold Klein refused to give up after Viking, and he encouraged other researchers to persist, especially Sherwood Chang. They were able to mine Viking images and data. Even at Ames there were occasions when Klein “went to the mat” to protect exobiology from being shut down by an Ames center director.49

It helped enormously, in the view of David Des Marais, an Ames veteran, that Ames was a civil service laboratory.50 The researchers had more leeway and security in what they did than scientists and engineers at JPL, who had to seek contracts on more fashionable and/or fundable topics. Many JPL employees

had to work for agencies other than NASA, especially the Department of De­fense, to survive in the post-Viking years.

There was precious little money for exobiology research at Ames. What there was came from intrepid program officers committed to the field. Des Marais estimated that the funds Ames had averaged $6 million a year.51 Don DeVincenzi ran a modest exobiology program at NASA Headquarters and pro­vided funds to Ames. John Rummel, NASA’s planetary protection officer, also funneled some money to Ames for exobiology. Beginning with Apollo and other lunar journeys, NASA had been attentive to contamination risks from Earth and also back to Earth. Lederberg and Sagan had helped get planetary protection inserted into NASA policy. Sterilization procedures for Viking were “so vigor­ous that the mission’s launches may have had fewer terrestrial microbes aboard than any other craft yet launched,” according to Michael Meltzer, whose book on planetary protection was published in 2011.52

At a time when exobiology was decidedly unpopular in the Mars scientific community, the low funding levels may have been helpful in its survival. Des Marais remembered that it was “too small a budget item to attract much atten­tion,” but there was a payoff. Over time, researchers at Ames played an impor­tant role in helping to reframe exobiology from a direct search for life to a search for “habitable environments.” A habitable environment could be a subject of study.53 Moreover, it brought exobiology closer to nonlife scientists, who had been arguing for more attention to the physical setting of Mars.

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