It is the morning of July 20, 1976. After years of endless work and unrelenting deadlines the last night has been a strangely peaceful interlude.
For a month now the Viking spacecraft has been circling Mars, 360 million kilometers from Earth. Yesterday the Lander was coupled to the Orbiter. The onboard computers were loaded with instructions for separation and landing. Now they are carrying out those instructions, insensitive to further advice from Earth.
At 1:51 a.m. the Lander separates from the Orbiter and begins its descent to the martian surface. Approximately at the same time I drive through the cool California night to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The windows of the tall buildings sparkle with lights. The parking lots are full. People hurry past in the darkness. I walk quickly to the building where the Lander Imaging Team is housed. Many of my colleagues, scientists and engineers, are there. For all of us there is only waiting, and I realize that I would rather wait alone, away from forced conversation. I walk to a nearby building and take my assigned position in the "Blue Room," a broadcasting area where the first pictures will be received and transmitted to the news media assembled in an auditorium.
5 a.m. The final descent begins. Conversation stops-an overwhelming silence. We listen to the mission controllers as they call out each event. After years of waiting, hoping, guessing, the end rushes toward us-too fast to reflect, too fast to understand.
It worked! Amazingly, it worked. Everywhere people are cheering, shaking hands, embracing. I decide not to join the celebration. It is too soon. Forty minutes more remain before the first picture from the surface of a far planet will assemble on the television screen.
5:54 a.m. I study the blankness of the television screen, waiting for the narrow strip of light that will signal the first few lines of the first picture. And it appears. A sliver of electronic magic. Areas of brightness and darkness. The picture begins to fill the screen. Rocks and sand are visible and-finally, at the far right-one of the spacecraft footpads, a symbolic artifact that stamps our accomplishment with the sign of reality.
I wait impatiently for the second picture, a 300° panorama looking out toward the horizon. On Mars the camera carried out its slow, arcing traverse minutes ago. Now rockstrewn ridges, drifts of sand, distant bluffs slowly pass before me.
All this time I critique, for the audience watching elsewhere, the landscape we are viewing. It is not a task I have been looking forward to. But now excitement washes over my inhibitions.
Time and time again I repeat, "It's incredible." And it truly is. Nothing before or after can compare. It is transparent, brilliant, boundless. An explorer would understand. We have stood on the surface of Mars.
6:52 a.m. The first two pictures end. The Orbiter, which has been relaying these first images to Earth, drops below the horizon, and the Lander prepares for its first night on the surface of Mars. On Earth, we plan for the days ahead.