Home Table of Contents What's New Image Index Copyright ScienceViews Search

On Mars: Exploration of the Red Planet. 1958-1978





[1] Since the 16th century, learned men have recognized Mars for what it is-a relatively nearby planet not so unlike our own. The fourth planet from the sun and Earth's closest neighbor, Mars has been the subject of modern scientists' careful scrutiny with powerful telescopes, deep space probes, and orbiting spacecraft. In 1976, Earth-bound scientists were brought significantly closer to their subject of investigation when two Viking landers touched down on that red soil. The possibility of life on Mars, clues to the evolution of the solar system, fascination with the chemistry, geology, and meteorology of another planet-these were considerations that led the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to Mars. Project Viking's goal, after making a soft landing on Mars, was to execute a set of scientific investigations that would not only provide data on the physical nature of the planet but also make a first attempt at determining if detectable life forms were present.

Landing a payload of scientific instruments on the Red Planet had been a major NASA goal for more than 15 years. Two related projects-Mariner B and Voyager-preceded Viking's origin in 1968. Mariner B, aimed at placing a capsule on Mars in 1964, and Voyager, which would have landed a series of sophisticated spacecraft on the planet in the late 1960s, never got off the ground. But they did lead directly to Viking and influenced that successful project in many ways.

When the space agency was established in 1958, planetary exploration was but one of the many worthy projects called for by scientists, spacecraft designers, and politicians. Among the conflicting demands made on the NASA leadership during the early months were proposals for Earth-orbiting satellites and lunar and planetary spacecraft. But man in space, particularly under President John F. Kennedy's mandate to land an American on the moon before the end of the 1960s, took a more than generous share of NASA's money and enthusiasm. Ranger, Surveyor, and Lunar Orbiter-spacecraft headed for the moon-grew in immediate significance at NASA because they could contribute directly to the success of manned Apollo operations. Proponents of planetary investigation were forced to be content with relatively constrained budgets, limited personnel, and little [2] publicity. But by 1960 examining the closer planets with rocket-propelled probes was technologically feasible, and this possibility kept enthusiasts loyal to the cause of planetary exploration.

There is more to Viking's history than technological accomplishments and scientific goals, however. Viking was an adventure of the human mind, adventure shared at least in spirit by generations of star-gazers. While a voyage to Mars had been the subject of considerable discussion in the American aerospace community since the Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik into orbit in 1957, man has long expressed his desire to journey to new worlds. Technology, science, and the urge to explore were elements of the interplanetary quest.