A late-summer afternoon in Springfield, Illinois, 1938: Jim Martin, age 17, launches a balsa wood model plane from a blacktop county road. The plane has a five-foot wingspan and a gasoline engine that screams. Martin built it himself. He sets the flaps, puts in just enough gas for, he hopes, a short flight, fires it up and jumps back. The plane jolts down the road, soars up, climbs and keeps climbing. Too much gas. Martin runs after it as fast as he can but the plane dwindles to a dot in the sky and disappears. He’ll never see it again. He stands on the hot tar road, staring after it, amazed and delighted.
August 20th, 1975. A Titan-Centaur rocket at Cape Canaveral holds at T minus two minutes. Sixteen stories high, it shudders and groans with the load of fuel and liquid oxygen bulging beneath its thin skin. Lightning stitches up the afternoon sky. Jim Martin, 55 years old and director of the Viking project, anxiously watches the western sky from his post in the launch control building. Lightning striking within five miles can craze the computers and send ‘Viking One’ – four tons of gear, a lander clean as a surgeon’s scalpel and an accompanying orbiter –not to Mars but into the Gulf Stream. The summer storm piles up, falters, ambles a mile or two north. The meteorologists nod and the count resumes.
The stuttering roar of the rocket engines sweeps over the sand spits and salt marshes of the Cape. A couple of sandpipers and a heron take wing. Two silver mullet jump in a shallow pond. The rocket shrinks to a scratch in the sky. The birds fly back and settle down by the pond. The sun comes out. A soft breeze blows off the ocean. The plume of smoke left behind by the launch rises and joins the thunderheads stalking north.
That night the Viking people celebrate in an oceanside apartment rented by Jerry Soffen, the chief project scientist. Martin, a husky man with a white brush-top haircut, smiles and pours champagne. “We got it up,” he says. His voice is high and tight, strange coming from so big a man. “It’s up there,” he calls to the partying crowd.
July 20th, 1976. The ‘Viking One’ lander, a gray spider with the bulk of a big motorcycle, detaches from its orbiter and drops down between the outstretched crescent arms of Mars. It cuts into the upper atmosphere, a metal surfer holding its own poise and counsel – the humans are too far away to help now. As the air grows thicker, the lander casts off a protective shell, spreads a parachute, descends toward the red landscape. At 4000 feet three engines ignite. The parachute falls away; the winds of Mars will tear that parachute into a girdle of bright threads, ornaments from Goodyear.
The lander slows, steadies itself and touches down on Chryse Planitia, the broad delta of a dead Martian river, late on a summer afternoon.
I. SERMONS IN STONES
WHEN VIKING ONE landed on Mars, none of us at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena – guests, press, scientists, the flight teams – had the slightest idea whether the thing had worked. JPL was in “control” of the flight, but, at a distance of 220 million miles, there was no such thing as direct control. Radio signals from Viking, traveling at the speed of light, took 19 minutes to reach Earth. So the JPL people – longhairs, dry old men in drip-dry shirts, a few women in miniskirts, a backwater fop in bright Dacron, one thin black man in shades – rocked back and forth in their desk chairs, smoked cigarettes and waited. It was 5 a.m. “It’s on Mars,” one said, “one way or another.”
When the good news arrived, Jim Martin, who had been hunched over a set of computer terminals in a plexiglass-walled office he’d had built so he could keep an eye on everyone, stood and accepted congratulations from a half-dozen colleagues who rushed in and surrounded him. He wrested away long enough to take another look at the screens, just to make sure, then walked out into the lander-team area wearing a dazed smile. He pulled on a T-shirt given him hours before by a local mescalito. It portrayed a frightened Martian shouting, “The Americans have landed!” Martin posed for photos.
The arrival of the first photographs suspended the celebration. Technically they were superb (in fact, they got from Mars to Pasadena in better shape than they got from Pasadena into the newspapers and TV shows). I think what made them so startling was that they so obviously came from another world. Many of us had been accustomed to talking and writing about “Mars,” throwing the word around as if it served to capture Mars the planet, just as I can write “whale” on the page, without having touched a finger to even one genuine whale gliding beneath the waves of some specific sea. Now the whale was at the door. The photos on the screen came not from a dot in the sky, but from a piece of a sovereign world.