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The Odyssey and the Ecstasy

The Vikings’ search for life on Mars

Viking probe

One of the two Viking probes investigates the surface of the planet Mars for the first time, 1976.

MPI/Getty

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.

Clustered around the TV screens in JPL’s Von Karman Auditorium were a few old Mars dreamers who had made the interplanetary trip years ago in their imaginations – Poul Anderson, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon and Ray Bradbury. “We’re in a dangerous situation,” Bradbury was saying. “We can’t stay here on Earth. We have to move out. We should go to Mars for the reason that we do everything we do – for survival. Space travel is a responsible way of reacting to the gift of life.”

Noel Hinners, a boyish-looking man who is associate administrator for space science for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, told a press conference, “I had tears in my eyes this morning for the first time, I guess, since I got married. . . . We’re going out. We’re exploring. Thank you, the American people, who made this possible. It’s fantastic.” In the back of the room Jerry Soffen, a biologist who devoted his career to the Viking project 15 years ago, stood with a sticky champagne glass in his hand. “I think I’m the happiest man in the world right now,” he said quietly.

That night Carl Sagan and I sat scrunched down in a sofa in his Pasadena apartment with a two-foot-long lander panorama photo wrapped around our heads. Sagan, a planetary astronomer with a particular interest in Mars, had spent much of the 18 hours since the photo arrived on network television explaining what it showed, but he had not had a chance to sit back and study it in detail. Perhaps a dozen other project scientists in Pasadena that night also were pausing after the hectic day was over to see what they really had, and I think all may have been wondering, in a remote but genuine way, whether they might find something surprising. Sagan and I stared silently for 20 minutes.

“Bring full concentration to it,” he advised. “Try to imagine yourself there.”

Look hard enough and you’ll find something: soon the jumbled rocks and dunes had arranged themselves into elegant swirls, and I imagined freshets roaring down from the giant Marineris Valley, cutting those swirls in the days when water flowed on Mars. But then the swirls slowly turned into a network of straight lines, and the lines into a honeycomb. I had to admit I’d been looking too hard, had entered that zone where the geometries of nature become indistinguishable from those of the mind.

Maybe this was Mars fever and we were catching it.

“Look at this,” Sagan said, indicating an outcropping of rock about a quarter-mile from the lander. “What do you see?”

I looked closely and was startled to find a shimmering lake. Tangled mangrove trees rose from its banks. A lone palm stood to one side. The oasis was miniature, no more than five feet across.

I described all this to Sagan.

“I had,” he said, “exactly the same hallucination.”

The next day Jim Mitchell, a graduate student studying with Seymour Hess, the chief Viking meteorologist, told Hess that his study of climate data from the lander indicated the Chryse site on Mars might be “a good place for mirages.” By the following day scientists were referring to foreground objects as the “carburetor rock” and the “muffler rock” – this was southern California, remember, and everybody drove to work. The day after that, Alan Binder, a young project geologist, had the misfortune to notice what looked like a letter B on the side of one rock. A television reporter bulletined a story of “Martian graffiti,” and Binder, remarking ruefully that his own name begins with B, had to devote the better part of an hour explaining to the press that your vision can play tricks on you in a desert, even if the desert is Martian. “There is,” Binder said, “a very, very, very strong tendency for the human eye to connect splotchy patterns into something that the human being recognizes. You find faces in rocks, you find boats in rocks, you find every imaginable thing.”

High-resolution photos, and photos taken at other times of day when the sun illuminated the Martian scene from a different angle, determined that there was no B, that the carburetors and mufflers were ordinary rocks, and that the oasis Sagan and I saw was nothing more than patterns of sunlight on stone. All was illusion, as expected, though I like to think of them as shared illusions, in which we play a part but the landscape plays its part too. We have our dreams, and Mars, lifeless or not, may perhaps be permitted its strange dreams as well.

Jim Martin sometimes said, as an exercise in self-deprecating wit – he often exercised his self-deprecating wit – that NASA had hired him because “they were looking for somebody who looked like a contractor,” and it is true that with his rock jaw and inch-long hair he fit right in with the boys from Lockheed, Northrop and Martin Marietta. But more on NASA’s mind was his reputation as a man who made things work. In 22 years as an aeronautical engineer at Republic Aviation, designing fighter planes and military missiles, Martin had distinguished himself as a leader in that great army of engineers whose singular concern, whether what they are designing will reap knowledge or death, is to build it and get it up. He was always learning, schooling himself in human-management matters as well as nuts and bolts, acquiring not only expertise but some considerable, well, charm, and over the years his imagination and wit expanded. He performed impressively as deputy manager of the Lunar Orbiter project – the one that returned the famous first photo of Earth rising over the moon’s horizon – and in 1968 he was named to try to land a package of instruments on Mars.

Martin set up an office in a windowless room in NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia and papered the walls with charts depicting what must be done to get a spacecraft onto another planet. Almost all was engineering: the flight itself occupied only a sliver at the very end of the charts, years in the future. The years turned out to be more numerous than Martin had anticipated. Congress, confronted with the enormous costs of the manned moon landings and the Vietnam war, canceled the original mission plan, a $2.4 billion Voyager that could have roamed the surface of Mars, and replaced it with a scaled-down, $1 billion project named Viking. In subsequent cost cutting, Viking was postponed an additional two years. Martin wasn’t happy about the delays but he used the time to improve Viking‘s design, and the project scientists were able to boost the lander instrument package from 80 to 160 pounds. What had begun as a simple exploratory vehicle became a sophisticated bundle of gear intended to see, feel, taste and smell Mars in dozens of ways. Its central goal remained the same, however, as set years earlier by a science study group including Martin, Soffen and Sagan. Viking was to search for life.

Martin was determined that whatever the thing did on Mars, it would get there. He would not fail. He would employ two spacecraft, so the mission could survive should one crash at launch or upon arrival at Mars. (Actually this turned out to be something of a bargain; since most of the costs of such a space mission are tied up in development and engineering, two complete spacecraft cost only ten percent more than one.) Each Viking would consist of an orbiter, to survey the planet for safe landing sites, and a lander. (Martin was not about to repeat the experience of the Soviets, who had launched several craft to Mars without benefit of an orbiter and had lost them all; one missed the planet, two crashed, two others landed in a raging windstorm and failed instantly.) Each lander would carry a computer so sophisticated that it could carry out observations and experiments on its own, making decisions as it went along, for months if necessary, without hearing from Earth. Each orbiter would have two identical computers, the dormant one programmed to quiz the active one regularly and take over at any sign of trouble. (This led to an odd problem aboard the Viking One orbiter last October, when it began passing through Mars’ shadow. The orbiter normally preserves its orientation in space by sighting steadily on a navigational star and on the sun. As the day approached when the shadow of Mars would begin intercepting the orbiter, a message was sent from JPL informing the active computer, computer A, not to worry when it lost sight of the sun for a while, that the eclipse was to be expected and didn’t mean anything had gone wrong. But JPL forgot to explain matters to computer B. While the orbiter was passing through the shadow, computer B happened to conduct one of its routine quizzes of computer A. It discovered the on-board sun sensor was seeing nothing. It asked computer A how it was. Fine, replied computer A. Computer B then said, in effect, “If you think things are fine you’re crazy, because we’ve lost the sun.” Without waiting for further explanation it shut down computer A, seized control of the orbiter itself and put it into an emergency sun-search procedure. JPL discovered the usurpation when the orbiter emerged from behind Mars, and after some rueful laughter, the flight controllers told the B computer to relax and let A get on with business.)

Martin tried to anticipate every emergency. He had two books compiled, each about the size of a Manhattan telephone directory, filled entirely with things that might go wrong on Viking. Volume one listed problems that could be solved and advised what to do about them. Volume two was devoted entirely to the hopeless; if you had a failure that showed up in volume two, at least you knew there was nothing you could do.

“Contingency planning is good for a project,” Martin said, “even if it turns out you don’t need it, because it makes your people think.”

In case JPL should burn down or be otherwise destroyed, duplicates of vital computer tapes were stored in a vault at nearby Cal Tech. Should earthquake knock out both JPL and Cal Tech, the Deep Space Network radio tracking stations at Goldstone, California, Canberra and Madrid each had emergency manuals telling them how to run Viking with a skeleton crew. There was a contingency plan for nuclear war: six project officials kept up-to-date passports, papers and instructions on hand at all times. Should the grim word come down, they were to fly to Madrid or Canberra, there to carry on Viking‘s investigations of Mars while Earth’s civilizations consumed themselves – good material for a postwar memoir, if a publisher could be found.

Viking One‘s launch from Earth was so accurate that a planned correction early in its trajectory wasn’t needed, but Martin found danger even in perfection. Driving across the country from Cape Canaveral to Pasadena with his wife, he worried that the spacecraft might break down in transit and crash into Mars; the orbiter, which was unsterilized, might contaminate the planet, in violation of international agreement. From a roadside phone booth in Oklahoma, Martin ordered Viking‘s engine fired to aim it a bit away from its accurate path. Months later it could be retargeted. “It’s an emotional matter,” he told JPL. “It would make me uncomfortable otherwise.”

While Viking fell through interplanetary space in the winter of 1975-76, Martin kept the project personnel busy with simulations of what would happen when it arrived at Mars. The engineers and scientists worked for days at a time with data that seemingly came from Mars, but in fact came from a JPL building just across the way, where a team had spent two years programming a bank of computers to imitate the Viking spacecraft. Biologists got biology data, seismologists seismology, and the imaging team received color photographs of “Mars” taken by a functioning lander in a sandbox. Martin insisted that the simulations extend to mock-press conferences, held daily in JPL’s Space Flight Operations Facility. Scientists dutifully explained their results to a gang of persistent, boorish “reporters” played by NASA public-relations men and occasionally by Martin, who imitated Ted Baxter of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

His harrowing concern with detail made Martin unpopular with his staff, but he tried not to let that bother him. He sat up late at night in his clear plastic capsule at JPL, punching buttons on the computer screens, eyeing the parade of numbers coming from between the planets, imagining new problems and dictating memos about them that would infuriate subordinates when they found them on their desks in the morning. Nothing must be left to chance. He knew the project people called him Great White Chief or Der Führer. He viewed this as a management problem. He worked at joking with them, meeting them socially, cultivating an unprepossessing style – but a man had to be tough. Spaceflight is a precarious business, failure a constant danger. Martin’s father, an iron-clad, no-nonsense engineer, had once told his son he couldn’t see the point of Viking, that space exploration was a gimmick. Disneyland stuff, he called it. Martin would show that it was serious business.

II. ICE PALACE OF NUMBERS

Detroit, August 31st, 1932: Jerry Soffen, age six, watches with his father an eclipse of the sun. The sky turns dark lavender, a few stars appear. Soffen thinks, “They’re real. The moon, the sun, the earth are things. I’m on a planet. It’s like the dream I have, where I’m by myself on a big stage, the music playing and everything, and I’m all alone in this strange place.”

SOFFEN AND I TALKED ONE night in a darkened gallery overlooking the Space Flight Operations Facility, in which accountings are taken of spacecraft venturing beyond the moon. It is a dark room, smaller than a tennis court, with hulking rosewood and green steel consoles illuminated by hooded desk lamps. The people involved sat in little pools of incandescent light, each with a panel of buttons, color computer display screens and a white telephone headset–it is one of those places where science fiction, for better or worse, comes to flower in fact. The front wall, a cosmic Cadillac dashboard, glowed with numbers:

SPACECRAFT     LAUNCH DATE     ENCOUNTER                   LANDING

Viking 1                 20 Aug. 1975           19 June 1976                     Mars July 1976
Viking 2                09 Sept. 1975          07 Aug. 1976                     Mars Sept. 1976
Helios 1                 10 Dec. 1974           Sun, 15 Mar. 1975
Helios 2                 15 Jan. 1976           Sun, 14 April 1976
Pioneer 10            03 March 1972       Jupiter, 04 Dec. 1973
Pioneer 11             05 April 1973          Jupiter, 03 Dec. 1974                                                                  Saturn, 05 Sept. 1979

The people in this ice palace each showed a little flash. Though JPL survives on government money it is an independent operation, and those working there generally are at pains to distinguish themselves from the NASA drones in Washington and Houston with whom they know the public confuses them. They are interplanetary navigators, they will have you know, some are race drivers, sky divers or classical guitarists as well, and they won’t make you wait long in conversation to find that out. They slouched at their consoles in postures of conspicuous ease – a woman in snakeskin boots, a natty guy in a starched shirt and glasses with solid-gold frames, a man with a beer gut and a motorcycle T-shirt – the brains of the outfit, that was the idea; the numbers cascade down from three floors of computers above, they stir and sift them, the commands go forth, numbers in, numbers out, humans think, and the lonely spaceships, Newton’s acrobats, act. Even the old razorbacks with pockets full of ballpoint pens gave the impression of having checked themselves out carefully in the mirror each morning.

Soffen, a slight man with big brown eyes, was himself turned out with customary abandon in a white-on-white shirt, brown and gold striped tie, a white suit with broad brown stripes and shiny white shoes. He was telling me how he’d come to JPL in 1961 with degrees in biology, biophysics and biochemistry, and wound up as chief scientist on Viking.

“I was a young guy with a fresh Ph.D., my career ahead of me, trying to decide if I wanted to stay in this particular area, muscle biochemistry, which I had to admit I was only marginally interested in, or go into something else,” Soffen said, in a voice nearly soft as a whisper. “Along came this tantalizing space program, with the idea of actually going out and searching for extraterrestrial life. I had always been fascinated with the question of how life began. I couldn’t resist it. I thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t space exploration be fun for a couple of years?’ You know, kind of a lark.

“But it turned out to be the kind of a lark where you pass a gaming table, throw down five bucks, and the next thing you know it’s a hundred bucks, then a thousand, and you have an investment going. When I came to JPL it never occurred to me that I’d be in this thing for 15 years. I thought, great, we’ll build something, fly it to Mars, and then I’ll go and do something else, whatever. I didn’t know about Mars, or about the NASA bureaucracy, how hard it would be to beat the managers at their own game and get the machine built.”

The numbers ticked over in the dark. Seven p.m. PST. Viking One had flown another 100,000 miles toward Mars while we’d been talking.

“Slowly I came to understand,” Soffen said, “that to search for life on Mars was really a matter of understanding the planet. We added instruments and the thing grew like an onion. First we thought we would just take a picture. Then we thought, well as long as we’re going to do this we might as well do that, and we added the organic molecule detector, more biology experiments, the meteorology package, the seismometer. . . .

“The cost to me was a tremendous personal loss of science. If Viking bombs out, all the other scientists go back to their research and teaching, but I’m left with nothing. I’m watching the culmination of my life coming up. I feel like a guy running toward a cliff.”

Soffen lit a pipe in the dark. “We really knocked ourselves out to build this machine – just to build it. It was a bloody battle between the engineers and the scientists. The engineers’ goals, you know, are different from the scientists’. Ask one to design a tape recorder for Viking and he goes off and his goal is to make the best tape recorder the world has ever seen. When he comes back with the plans, it’s hard to tell him the machine has to weigh only half as much as the one he’s designed, because as a scientist, you don’t know his business.”

What emerged from the bureaucratic struggles (“We hire fools, try to make it on hardware alone, we’re cruel to ourselves and step on each other,” Soffen said of the process after one tough day) and from the sometimes competing interests of the 70-odd project scientists, was an inquisitive 160-pound package of instruments aboard the lander. It included two color cameras; a telescoping hoe to gather soil samples; a weather station; a seismometer; an instrument to detect organic compounds in the Martian soil and atmosphere; another for inorganics; two devices to analyze the upper atmosphere during descent; magnets to check for iron-rich particles; and three tiny biology laboratories, each capable of running multiple experiments to look for life. Many instruments proposed never made it aboard. One such was a life-seeking laboratory designed by biologist Wolf Vishniac, who died in a fall in the Antarctic in 1965 while collecting samples of microorganisms he suspected might resemble those of Mars. Another was Philip Morrison’s microphone, rejected as lacking scientific value. Morrison, an MIT physicist of high repute, argued that the microphone might happen to pick up an animal cry in the night but, as he later related, “that seemed so unlikely that nobody would accept it. Really, what I had in mind was that you could make a record of the winds howling down the Martian desert.”

Of the instruments that did make it on board, some pushed the state of the art so hard that only the congressional delays made it possible to build them in time, and at that, some were still being bolted on in the last weeks before the landers were sterilized, sealed and loaded atop the launch rocket. Imagine years of this sort of struggle and you can get some idea of how relieved Martin and Soffen were when the lander touched down safely.

Immediate gratification came in the form of the photographs, which were a surprise to virtually everyone. The Martian terrain had been envisioned as almost moonlike – stark wastelands under an inky daytime sky, that sort of thing. Instead, the first color photo to come in from Lander One showed a desert that, for all the strangeness of its red soil and coral sky, looked more friendly than anything yet seen beyond Earth. “Marvelous, rolling terrain,” Sagan called it. “A place where you’d like to take a stroll,” Soffen said. “You want to go over that horizon,” said Bruce Murray, director of JPL.

What was learned added up to mixed news for those who hoped that life, either native or imported, might thrive on Mars. Most encouraging were a discovery by the orbiter science team that the permanent polar caps are made of water, and a finding, made during lander entry, that nitrogen, considered essential to life on Earth, is present in the atmosphere of Mars. Analysis of argon isotope ratios in the atmosphere indicated that Mars, at some time in the past, had a warmer climate and thicker atmosphere than at present. On the negative side, water is present but scarce, and the Mars of the past, according to admittedly tentative attempts by planetologists to reconstruct its history, may have been only marginally more hospitable than the Mars of today. Nitrous oxide – laughing gas – was found in the Martian atmosphere, and Earth’s nitrous oxide is produced by living creatures, but there are other ways to produce nitrous oxide, and its presence is not considered evidence of life on Mars. The modern climate is harsh. During the six months of summer (the Martian year, and therefore its seasons, are twice as long as Earth’s) temperatures seldom exceed 20° Fahrenheit below zero, and at night typically drop to 150° below zero. Atmospheric pressure at the lander sites is only seven or eight millibars, or about that of Earth at an altitude of some 20 miles. If there is life on Mars, it is a tough life.

Earth organisms can be found living happily in boiling sulfur springs and at the floor of the ocean under enormous pressures. Spores blown into Antarctic valleys – the regions Wolf Vishniac was exploring when he died – hibernate successfully for centuries in temperatures that never rise as high as the freezing point of water. So life is tenacious, and probably could survive on Mars. The question is, did life get started there?

Viking was conceived and presented to the public as an attempt to answer that question, but little was done to convey to the public the audacity of the assignment. Science at its present stage of development does not know how life began on Earth, let alone on Mars: only a few of the steps by which biology may have arisen from primordial seas have been reconstructed. Just over a century has passed since Darwin discovered the nature of evolution, less than a generation since Watson and Crick decoded the molecular basis of life, and even so straight forward a matter as satisfactorily defining life remains for the future. Consider this state of affairs, then consider whether two bundles of hardware small enough for a man to carry, landed on a planet 220 million miles away, were likely to answer decisively whether biology had arisen on that planet. Viking was a long shot.

III. PLAIN OF GOLD

July 23rd, 1976. Carl Sagan takes a walk on Mars. He hikes along in loping strides that carry him yards at a time (the gravity is only 38% Earth’s, he reminds himself) and this, combined with the relatively nearby horizon (Mars is about half the size of Earth), makes the landscape speed by like a highway in an arcade race-car game. Sagan stops in a painted desert beside a range of foothills, and there makes the discovery of his life. One of the rocks is a trilobite. He looks carefully. Bilateral symmetry, three lobes, the expected articulation, no doubt about it, a fossil! A sign of life on Mars! He’s got it at last, right in his hand. . . . The alarm rings. Mars fades. Sagan pulls himself up, gets two feet on the carpet, slaps at the clock until it falls silent. Grumbling, he stumbles into the bathroom, shaves, dresses, drinks his customary breakfast of one chocolate milkshake, jams some papers into a suede satchel embossed in wine-colored letters “Embassy of Mars” and leaves for JPL. An eroded red hillside by the highway reminds him of Mars. “How I hate getting up in the morning,” he thinks.

LIFE BEYOND EARTH FORMS the axis of Sagan’s career. He has listened at giant radio telescopes for signals from alien creatures, affixed plaques to spacecraft leaving the solar system to demonstrate the possibility of sending them greetings, and argued that primitive organisms might be found not only on Mars but on Jupiter or even the moon. (The quarantine of the Apollo astronauts resulted from this last suggestion.) Influential in Viking from its genesis, he was sometimes called the “guiding spirit” of the project, with the emphasis on spirit. His official role was small – he served as a member of the lander imaging team – but his unofficial role was major, because he had become one of the best-known scientists in the world, and it was he who turned up on The Tonight Show, Issues and Answers, Meet the Press and the network news shows, explaining Viking when it landed.

Various explanations have been offered to account for Sagan’s rise as a public figure – he knows how to “use” television, he’s a phrasemaker, he’s good-looking and has a deep voice – but I think the more likely reason is that people perceive that for Sagan, science is adventure.

When Sagan took up the pursuit of extraterrestrial life as a student 20 years ago, most serious scientists regarded the subject with about the same enthusiasm as for a rabid dog. The War of the Worlds broadcast, Percival Lowell’s imaginary Martian “canals,” the excesses of pulp science fiction and the UFO craze had made them sick of hearing speculations about extraterrestrial life, and life on Mars in particular. “The general sense was that it was the province of weak-minded sci-fi enthusiasts, and that anybody with an ounce of sense knew the whole subject was ridiculous,” Sagan recalled. While obtaining his Ph.D. in astrophysics Sagan studied biology, and found allies in two of his teachers, the geneticists Joshua Lederberg and Hermann Muller, both of whom won Nobel Prizes for their work in less controversial fields. When the Soviet astronomer I.S. Shklovsky wrote an imaginative book on extraterrestrial life, Sagan greatly expanded it at Shklovsky’s suggestion and published it in English as Intelligent Life in the Universe.

In 1971 the American spacecraft Mariner 9 went into orbit around Mars and began transmitting back what eventually amounted to 7000 photographs of that planet. Copies of those photos fill the shelves of a small room at Cornell University’s Laboratory for Planetary Sciences, which Sagan directs, and he still likes to duck in at odd moments and leaf through them. “My idea of heaven,” he said once as we were looking over some of them, “would be to be able to shut myself up in here for a month.” The photos revealed a rugged but enormously interesting world, whose giant volcanoes, spewing out gases, could have bequeathed ancient Mars a dense atmosphere, and whose network of dry riverbeds spoke of a time when the planet boasted streams of flowing water. In the backwaters of this relatively balmy Mars, Sagan reasoned, life might have gotten started.

Ranged against Sagan were less optimistic scientists, chiefly geologists. Most of the geologists in the space program felt Mars was so hostile a place – cold, dry, bathed in sterilizing ultraviolet sunlight – that the chances of life there were minute, and looking for it a waste of money. As Bruce Murray of JPL put it three weeks after the Viking One landing, “I’m an honest-to-God, card-carrying geologist, and none of us expects to find life on Mars.” A few Viking biologists and astronomers would volunteer, after a few drinks, that the geologists were cranky and unimaginative, but the roots of geological skepticism went deeper than that. To a geologist looking at Mars, the planet is alive. He sees, in its soil and stone, evidence of a writhing, seething evolution that has been going on for billions of years. This drama of planetary fate is all the geologist needs. Whether life happens to be there too strikes him as secondary. He can’t understand why people keep harping on biology.

Sagan dealt characteristically with the geologists’ opposition. First he kept calling attention, in his books and on television, to the excitement and merit of sending life-detection equipment to Mars. “The discovery of even an extremely simple organism on Mars would have profound biological significance,” he wrote. “On the other hand, if Mars proves to be lifeless, a natural experiment has been performed for us: two planets, in many respects similar; but on one life has evolved, on the other it has not. By comparing the experimental with the control planet, much may be discovered about the origin of life.” Second, Sagan taught himself enough geology to be able to meet his opponents on their own ground, and he was successful enough that Cornell’s geology department eventually made him a member. Out of this tumult of debate, compromise, envy, hostility and a reedy continuo of mutual respect, Viking was built.

Sometimes a few of the sinews that drive a large undertaking are exposed to view, like the wires and pipes beneath a city street when the pavement is stripped away. That is what happened when it came time to decide where to set down the second Viking lander. Lander One rested safely on Chryse Planitia, the Plain of Gold, sending back data and pictures. Its site had been chosen using both photographs made by the orbiter (which took beautiful pictures but could see nothing smaller than a football field) and radar bounced off Mars by a large radio telescope on Earth. The radar reflections yielded no clear image of the site, but study of them indicated something of the characteristics of the region, whether, say, it seemed to be mostly sand dunes or fields of dangerous boulders. The mission plan called for setting Lander Two down at a more northerly latitude. The soil there, nearer the polar ice cap, promised to hold more water, which interested the biologists. But orbiter photos indicated the north regions generally were even more rugged than the harsh Lander One site and, for technical reasons having to do with the relative positions of Mars and Earth in their orbits at the time, Earth-based radar could not be employed to help select a site up north. So going north was appealing so far as the search for life was concerned, but dangerous to the spacecraft.

The issue caught Sagan at cross-purposes. The quest for life called for a risky landing up north, where there would be more water in the soil and, hopefully, more interesting vistas for the lander cameras. But as a public spokesman for the unmanned space program and a leading advocate of the search for life, he didn’t want Lander Two to crash. If the Viking mission were successful, as, except for a few minor problems, it had been so far, Congress might be persuaded to fund a more sophisticated Viking with wheels on it, capable of roving around Mars. Sagan worried that the landing site staff might take too big a chance and tarnish the mission’s recently acquired prestige. And, he may have felt, the geologists were all too willing to take such a chance. A few years earlier the geologists had tried to get at the Martian terrain, a move that might have resulted in crashing the craft into Mars and contaminating it with Earth organisms; Sagan and Lederberg had managed to block that move only after acrimonious debate.

The site staff met July 21st, the day after Lander One’s touchdown. Sagan took his seat at a long table with Martin, Soffen, Lederberg and 18 others, prepared to argue against risking a northern landing.

Happy over the success of the first landing, the staff members talked and joked loudly until shouted into silence. Hal Masursky, a geologist on the orbiter imaging team, a man whose staid appearance was abridged only by thick, wing-shaped glasses that greatly magnified his eyes, stood and presented the case for setting down Lander Two well to the north.

“The rules of the game,” Masursky said, “were if we were successful with the first one we’d be gutsy this time.”

Sagan took the dais and passed out copies of a study, derived from lunar geology, that predicted sites further north on Mars would be more boulder-strewn and so more dangerous than those in the tropics. And the Lander One photos, Sagan said, indicated that even there, 30% or more of the terrain harbored boulders big enough to have crashed the lander had it struck one.

“We were reasonably lucky,” Sagan said.

“It was hard work and perseverance,” Martin objected, sotto voce.

Sagan argued that ground-based radar had contributed to the success of finding a site for Lander One. Why go north, where ground-based radar couldn’t reach?

Gentry Lee, JPL’s young manager of the mission design section, accused Sagan of trying to have it both ways, first branding the Lander One site as dangerous, then claiming credit for the radar’s having helped select it.

“It’s not clear to me,” said Tom Young, the Viking mission director, “that radar was responsible for our success.”

Sagan took out a quarter and flipped it onto the tabletop. “Look,” he said, “I have this coin. It comes up heads once. May I then deduce I have an excellent chance that it will come up heads the second time?”

Even Lederberg, Sagan’s old teacher, felt Sagan was pushing the rhetorical side of things too hard now. “It’s your coin,” he called out, and Sagan’s point was washed away in laughter.

Lederberg said he’d been studying the Lander One photos: “Nothing in that scene offers the least encouragement for biology,” he said. “If I were an organism and found myself at those latitudes, I would head north.”

Having made the case for safety, Sagan staged a strategic retreat, pronounced himself “increasingly impressed” by the arguments presented against him, and voted with the majority to land in the cold northern regions of Mars. There were only three votes in opposition.

“I therefore decide,” Martin intoned, “that we’re going to target for the B latitudes, about 44° north.”

As it turned out, Martin had the last laugh. He had decided beforehand to go north, as he knew most of the scientists wanted, but he had also resolved, as had Sagan, that the benefits of such a move failed to warrant risking the spacecraft. This was his mission and he wasn’t about to endanger Lander Two by dropping it into the kind of craggy Shangri-La he knew many of the scientists had in mind. A pool-table top would be more like it, and he would work the orbiter teams until they found a flat, dull spot up north. That is what he did, and the second lander bumped to a stop September 3rd on a piece of Utopia Planitia that virtually all the scientists pronounced disappointingly like the first site. “If that’s Utopia . . .” Sagan said when the first photos came in – his voice trailed off.

Martin’s only disappointment was that the site hadn’t been duller still. A reporter asked him what he’d do if he had a third Viking to land. “I’d keep looking for more sand dunes,” he said happily.

But the bleak vistas of the two sites did little to discourage Sagan about the prospects for finding life on Mars. Life flourished on Earth for billions of years, he pointed out, before any of it evolved into something the Viking landers could have seen; until 400 million years ago the only signs of life on Earth’s surface were a few algae colonies by the seashore. Because Mars is bathed in ultraviolet light – its atmosphere lacks a layer such as Earth’s to shield it from ultraviolet – few biologists expected life would be found on the surface. More likely it would be underground. That was the reason for equipping the landers with digging hoes. Soil samples were dug and dropped into the hoppers of the biology instruments, and the scientists waited.

The design of the three biology experiments reflected differing guesses at what Martian microbes might be like. The Gas Exchange experiment, operating on the assumption that they would be much like Earth’s, introduced its soil sample into the presence of a nutrient broth of a sort most terrestrial organisms would thrive on, in the hope Martian creatures would find it to their liking too. At the opposite extreme, the Pyrolytic Release experiment assumed Mars creatures preferred conditions as they are; its soil sample was left pretty much alone, in a chamber with a little lamp to simulate sunlight but without the sterilizing ultraviolet rays. The third experiment, Labeled Release, took a middle position, coaxing the soil with a weak solution of organic compounds; it wasn’t as likely as the Gas Exchange to drown microbes in misguided kindness, but it didn’t force them to perform in the spartan regimen of the Pyrolytic Release box, either.

All three experiments checked for biological processes by monitoring gases from the headspace above each tiny soil sample, though each accomplished the monitoring in a different way. All three conducted a series of experiments under varying conditions, and all could sterilize samples to run a control against any positive results.

Should the biology experiments fail to come up with a clear verdict, a court of appeals was available in the form of the Gas Chromatograph/Mass Spectrometer (GCMS), a device for detecting organic molecules. All life on Earth is based upon organic molecules, and there are impressive theoretical reasons for believing life elsewhere probably is too, so a negative finding by the GCMS would be viewed as a vote against life.

The results of these experiments startled and confused the Viking teams. No one has yet been able to explain them.

Although the Gas Exchange, which had been considered the device most in danger of transmitting a spurious positive reading, came up negative, the other two experiments produced at least some weakly positive readings. And sterilized control runs on both came out negative, as would be expected if the positive readings had been produced by life.

“If we had run this experiment in the parking lot at JPL,” said biologist Gil Levin, designer of the Labeled Release, after one particularly provocative set of data had come in, “we would have concluded that life is present in that sample.” But that was because the JPL parking lot contained plenty of other evidence of life; I had just come from there myself and had noticed horses peering over the fence from an adjacent horse farm, scientists arriving for work and a kitchen worker smoking a joint in the shade of a big tree. The readings from Mars lacked such supporting evidence, and they were weak: they fell into a gray zone between what could only be life and what could be accounted for by purely chemical, nonbiological processes.

The GCMS results were damaging to the optimists. They indicated no organic molecules in the Martian soil down to the instrument’s limit of detection.

Since early fall, chemists in laboratories across the country have been trying to explain how nonliving chemistry could have triggered the Viking life detectors, while biologists tried to explain how there could be life in the absence of organic molecules. Neither group has yet been able to account for the data.

So we still don’t know if there is life on Mars.

Under pressure from the press, the public and colleagues to come up with an answer, some of the Viking scientists went through what one described as “marvelous oscillations of opinion.” One revised his estimate of the chances for life from a million-to-one to 50-50. Another started out neutral, then said privately that life was the only possible explanation, then did an about-face and said only nonbiological chemistry would do.

The man in the spotlight was Harold Klein, head of the biology team. He resorted to the measured language of a diplomat. “These are the facts we have,” he said. “They do not rigorously prove the existence of life on Mars. They do not rigorously exclude the presence of life on Mars.”

The press, gray scholars of the public’s short attention span, flogged away for a simple yes or no. Some of their impatience was genuine, some intended for the public or their employers. (ABC’s Jules Bergman, who understood better than many reporters the problems the scientists faced, was conciliatory in private but brashly unequivocal when the cameras were rolling.) A strategy was devised to deal with the reporters’ demands for clear-cut answers. Klaus Biemann, the brilliant chemist in charge of the GCMS, would pose as a prophet of gloom, deepening his pessimism about life on Mars as far as his conscience would allow. Sagan, on the other hand, would crank up his optimism to full wattage, and construe the evidence for life as favorably as his conscience would allow. On November 9th, when Mars had passed behind the sun, interrupting the mission for a couple of weeks, this little drama was acted out at a NASA press conference in Washington. Sagan told the reporters exactly what he and Biemann were doing, but many, as expected, went back to their offices and wrote stories saying Sagan “believes” there is life on Mars and Biemann “believes” otherwise, as if the question could be resolved, like an inquisitional torment, by determining who had the stronger faith.

With that exception, the project scientists avoided making public declarations on either side of the matter. The pessimists knew that even a clear negative finding would not entirely rule out the possibility of life, since organisms might exist in oases beyond the landing sites, or in forms not detectable by Viking‘s relatively simple experiments. And among even the most fervent optimists, none wanted to be remembered in history as the man who declared there was life on Mars and then was proved wrong.

Besides, there was still plenty of time. Barring mechanical failure, or damage from the notorious Martian sandstorms due to begin this spring, the landers will continue operating through September 1977. Biologists meeting in January decided to gamble on “cold incubation” experiments when the mission draws to a close. The earlier runs had been performed at temperatures as high as 166° Fahrenheit above that outside, to ensure that the plumbing and electronics of the biology package operated properly. Sagan had publicly criticized this as catering to what he called “the convenience of our electronics. It’s as if the Martians sent equipment to Earth that detected life only at 200° Fahrenheit,” he said. Now experiments would be run at temperatures as low as 5° Fahrenheit – still warm by Martian standards, but cold by Viking standards – to see if that encouraged the putative microbes. The equipment would be allowed to freeze solid if necessary.

By the end of the year the Viking mission had loosened up like an old car. Many of the scientists packed to go home. The orbiter and lander photos played to a shrinking audience; people can get used to anything, as Jerry Soffen had reflected back in July, just a couple of weeks after the first landing, when he wandered into the lander imaging team offices late one night and found a new photograph coming in from Mars and nobody there to look at it. The daily press conferences at JPL, which at landing time had been full-dress affairs with NASA brass in attendance and President Ford on the phone, were called off after evolving into sessions like this one October 1st:

PUBLIC ADDRESS: The Mission Broadcasting System is proud to present another in the continuing series of Viking news briefings, with your host, Public Affairs Officer Maurice Parker! And now, for your entertainment, enjoyment and education, heeers . . . Maurice! [Music: fanfare from ‘Jesus Christ Superstar‘]
MAURICE: Too much!
VOICE: Where do I get a refund?
MAURICE: We will now have a serious science report from Dr. Klaus Biemann. . . .
BIEMANN: How’s it called? Soap operas? One installment, and when the program is no good, the person responsible is fired? But here comes the second installment of Viking Two organic-analysis sample one. . . .

Jim Martin left NASA in December and took a job at Martin Marietta Aerospace as vice-president in charge of advanced programs. He said he hoped to apply his management techniques to earthbound problems and perhaps, later on, land a spacecraft on Titan, the giant satellite of Saturn.

Carl Sagan returned to his research and writing, his film scripts, television shows and teaching. “Quite apart from the ambiguities about biology, the scientific knowledge obtained from Viking has revolutionized our knowledge of Mars,” he said. “At the very least, we are seeing inorganic chemistry which to some degree duplicates organic chemistry. This is a discovery of great significance for our understanding of Mars. When you think about it, we find ourselves at a crucial moment in history: we have four working stations on or in orbit around Mars, making the first long-term observations of another planet. It’s a harbinger of future exploration of the solar system, and it’s of the greatest importance that we did it.” On the way home to Cornell, Sagan stopped over at a conference in Hawaii, where he booked a hotel room overlooking a dolphin pool. “You can sit on your balcony and talk to the dolphins,” he said.

Jerry Soffen took two weeks off and drove up the California coast through Oregon. I reached him by phone.

Viking has made Mars real to me,” he said. “Before, it had been something I read about, or discussed in all those scientific meetings, or looked at occasionally through a telescope, where I found it a disappointing sight, just a pink ball of fluff. Now I feel it’s a real place. The rocks in those photographs are real. If I could go there, I could pick one up and bring it back and show it to you. And I wish I could go. Mars is a place I’d love to visit.

“But you know, Earth also has come to seem very sweet. I spent so much time looking at red rocks on Mars that I forgot how lovely Earth is. I mean, I saw the coast of Oregon. There’s nothing like that on Mars. And in Vancouver I saw a white whale, touched it. Reached out my hand and touched it.

“I feel as though I’d come in from the desert.”

In This Article: Coverwall

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