Monday, July 20, 2015

The Viking Invasion

The Viking lander begins its descent, 20 July 1976
A few days ago NASA’s New Horizons probe performed its primary mission; after over nine years in transit it streaked past the dwarf planet Pluto, passing within 13,000km of this mysterious world’s surface.

Now comes the waiting.  It will take months for New Horizons to transmit all its images and data back to Earth; months before the real labor will begin, years or even decades before a real understanding of Pluto and its satellites may emerge.  And there is near certainty that the data recovered from our robotic reconnaissance of Pluto will also generate new questions, new puzzles about this tiny world and its moons. 

I’d like to take some time to remember another un-manned space mission, another nail-biting wait.  This one happened exactly thirty-nine years ago.  The Vietnam War was behind us (but only just), America’s Bicentennial celebrations were still in full swing, moviegoers were flocking to see “The Omen” in theaters across the country, and Billboard’s #1 song was Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight”. 

And on the morning of 20 July 1976 space exploration history was being made in a cold, rocky place called Chryse Planitia…
The Viking Spacecraft (with Lander)
Viking 1’s Lander separated from the orbiter while I slept; by the time I awoke its instruments were already beginning to taste the gases of the upper Martian atmosphere.  My head buzzing with the excitement of the day, I rushed through breakfast to settle in front of our little black & white television at about the same time a brilliant meteor might have been seen in the sky above Mars.

The Viking program was a dream given form; a pair of sophisticated spacecraft launched in 1975, traveling to Mars with a clear-cut, specific objective: to search for life on the Red Planet.* To facilitate this quest the Vikings each carried a Lander equipped with sampling arm and a chemical laboratory designed to analyze soil samples in an effort to detect evidence of biological processes.  While the orbiters would carry out the first comprehensive photographic survey of Mars, the Landers were on expedition—hunting very small game.

In other words, they were looking for Little Green Microbes.
The Viking Lander
I watched and listened as commentators and experts discussed the mission, the camera frequently scanning tense faces as the Viking Team awaited a radio transmission from the Lander confirming that it had survived atmospheric entry, parachute deployment, and the final powered descent to the surface.  I know that my expression mirrored theirs—the tension in my own living room must have equaled that at Mission Control.

Today I know that I was not alone in my vigil; while I waited nervously for the first signal from the surface of Mars in my living room in southern Louisiana another teenager, in faraway New York, also anxiously watched her family’s TV.  Her name was Lucy Marie Prochazka.  Yes, this is the story of a shared experience between me and my wife—ten years before we would ever become acquainted!

Finally, a signal!  The Lander had safely touched down at 0753 EDT, deployed its antenna and meteorological sensors, and almost immediately began imaging the Martian surface. I think I forgot to breathe for a few moments as the vertical scan of Viking’s cameras began to appear on the screen.  Slowly, so very slowly, line by line and working from left to right, that first image of the surface of Mars, harbinger of so many amazing views over the past four decades, began to appear. 

The first image from Mars
Traveling across the many millions of kilometers of space between two worlds came the first of the images that would reveal the face of that other world to us.  A planet of rugged, rock-strewn landscapes, towering volcanic calderas and vast canyons, pale skies and polar caps.  A world from which our own Earth appears only as a morning or evening “star”.
Viking 1's First Panoramic Scan
Viking 1 didn’t find conclusive evidence of life on Mars, and neither did Viking 2 which landed in September of the same year.  There is some debate even today over the results of the chemical analyses that the Landers completed, and of course the search for extant life on Mars has shifted to study of whether Mars might have had a biosphere in the distant past.

The Viking orbiters carried out their surveys, showing us the face of (and, according to some conspiracy theorists, on ) Mars, creating the maps that later mission planners would use during the preparation for further expeditions.  These spacecraft, and for me especially Viking 1, were the trail-blazers, the vanguard of an armada of un-manned probes.  They, their designers and engineers, imaging teams and investigators opened Mars to the exploration it is now undergoing.  They truly were the pioneers.

I think we can consider the Viking invasion a success; it was certainly one to a boy in Louisiana and a girl in New York!

*   To my knowledge this was the only NASA mission to publicly include the detection of life outside of Earth’s atmosphere as a stated objective.  I can only imagine that political reaction to the ambiguous results of the Viking chemical analyses has caused NASA to soft-pedal that particular aspect of Martian exploration in the decades since.

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