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

[142] Since the winter of 1967, Administrator Webb and others at NASA Headquarters had been generating support for a post-Voyager planetary program from two groups-the Space Science Board of the Academy of Sciences; and the Lunar and Planetary Missions Board, an internal NASA advisory board. The Space Science Board provided high-level endorsement and advocacy for continued planetary exploration, and the Lunar and Planetary Missions Board gave the agency more detailed scrutiny of its planning, especially as it affected the selection of scientific experiments. [143] From both, NASA managers sought support that would help counter the budget-cutting proclivities of Congress.
Space Science Board, 1967-1968
Harry Hess, chairman of the Space Science Board, wrote Jim Webb in November 1967 after a briefing on the planetary program by John Naugle "... the Space Science Board met last week and . . . expressed its deep concern over the weakness of the whole NASA science program and the planetary program in particular." Reductions in the NASA budget had led to greater cuts in money for space science, which in turn meant "a loss of some 50 to 75 percent in terms of effective research results." Hess was writing Webb at this particular time because the Space Science Board wanted to have an influence on the agency's planning process. At a time when NASA was cutting back its planetary launches, it was "fairly evident that the Soviets [would] have flights to Mars and Venus at every opportunity as they have had for the last few years. And as the 1967 Venera 4 mission to Venus had demonstrated, "these are apt to be successes." * The Soviet Union had a "highly successful planetary lander" and, as Hess reminded Webb, "we don't even have one planned in the period to 1975." Unmanned planetary exploration was apparently going to be one of the major USSR space endeavors, and "great discoveries in this area can only be made once. Shall succeeding generations look back on the early 1970's as the great era of Soviet achievement while we did not accept the challenge?" 43
Hess and his colleagues did not wish to see the U.S. fall behind the Soviet Union. They recommended increased space science activities and a reduction of manned projects like the orbital workshop of the Apollo Applications Program. A planetary science program should take precedence over other NASA activities. These themes were repeated in December 1967, with emphasis on the newly created Mariner and Titan-class Mars spacecraft. While differing in details-the board favored more Venus research-the Space Science Board proposals were basically supportive of NASA's wishes to maintain a planetary exploration program. 44
The Space Science Board pursued its recommendations with a week-long summer study in June 1968 and published its findings under the title Planetary ExpIoration 1968-1975 (see appendix D). 45 While helpful in that they pushed for more planetary missions, the board's proposals were also [144] somewhat detrimental, since they did not coincide exactly with the agency's announced goals. In times of extreme congressional scrutiny, Webb and his colleagues at NASA would prefer more closely orchestrated advice. Another source of advice was the Lunar and Planetary Missions Board.
Lunar and Planetary Missions Board, 1968
To overcome the shortcomings of the President's Science Advisory Committee and the Space Science Board, the Lunar and Planetary Missions Board was established in 1967 to provide NASA with detailed critiques of its proposed missions from a scientist's point of view. But even quasi-internal criticism was sometimes difficult to accept. As the space agency was to learn, scientists tended to be of an independent mind, and their comments often cut more deeply than Webb and his associates would have liked. In fact, this particular group had grown out of a need to resolve conflicts between the space agency and outside scientists.
In January 1966, Webb had invited Norman F. Ramsey, professor of physics at Harvard, to form a panel to investigate NASA's relations with the larger scientific community. The administrator wanted advice on several quite specific issues: evaluation of the Space Science Board's 1965 summer study recommendations on an Automated Biological Laboratories Program, suggestions for a post-Apollo lunar exploration program, and comments on a National Space Astronomy Observatory. Webb was also interested in determining how he might increase scientific participation, confidence, and support for the American space program. As he expressed it to Ramsey, "We in NASA think it is essential that competent scientists at academic institutions participate fully in the next generation of space projects and we believe that we will need new policies and procedures and perhaps new organizational arrangements in order to enable them to participate." 46
Ramsey's panel responded in August with a series of proposals that would have profoundly altered the organizational structure of the space agency. The scientists were particularly critical of what they saw as NASA's emphasis on engineering at the expense of basic scientific research, citing the "overriding priority of engineering problems associated with launch schedules,'' which interfered with academic experimenters' control over their payload design. More attention needed to be given to purely scientific concerns: "The time is surely here when we must define maximum success in terms not only of 'getting there' but in terms of scientific accomplishment." Now that the space program had "matured," Ramsey's panel believed that major organizational changes were necessary. Reviving the idea of a general advisory council of scientists to help formulate NASA policy, the group also wanted to reorganize the field centers to give experimenters a greater voice and create a Planetary and Lunar Missions Board that would advise NASA on future Apollo flights and post-Apollo goals. 47
[145] Jim Webb did not take kindly to most of these recommendations. and at an oral presentation of their suggestions he asked the scientists if they understood the real world of Washington politics. Did they realize that NASA was just a part of a larger governmental. economic, social system and as such could not yield to their demands? NASA's official response, drafted by Homer Newell, was made public about a year later, in June 1967. In a point-by-point critique of the Ramsey report, the agency rejected nearly all of the proposals. A general advisory council was out of the question; certain functions "must clearly . . . remain the responsibility of the Administrator." A permanent advisory body would "blur the lines of authority within the agency." Only the missions board recommendation was accepted, and it was diluted considerably." 48
Tentatively approved by NASA before the publication of the Ramsey report, the missions board would, in Webb's mind, be a full-time working organization rather than a part-time group of advisers. Each member would be expected to fight for his ideas in a competitive arena instead of pontificating from the cathedral. The term of membership would be limited. By the spring of 1967, the Lunar and Planetary Missions Board, with carefully delineated powers, was in operation. Acting in only an advisory capacity, the board could make proposals to NASA, but the agency reserved the right to reject or accept the advice. The associate administrator for space science and applications, Newell and later Naugle, provided the funds for the board's operations and drew up the questions it was to address itself to. Quite clearly, the administration of NASA did not want the missions board to grow into a general advisory council.
Within this restricted framework, the board had reasonable freedom NASA granted its members access to internal agency documents, a privilege that the Space Science Board had been denied, and members were permitted to attend major NASA reviews and coordination meetings related to lunar and planetary exploration. Unlike earlier advisory bodies, the Lunar and Planetary Missions Board was asked to evaluate both general and specific objectives. Therefore, it would not only review the "general strategy for manned and unmanned" missions as the President's Advisory Committee and the Space Science Board had done, but also participate "in the formulation of guidelines and specific recommendations fur the design of missions and for the scientific payloads to be carried on these missions." 49
Of the 18 original members ** most were familiar faces to NASA's planetary specialists. Twelve were members of the National Academy of Sciences, five were on the Space Science Board, one served on the President's Science Advisory Committee, and four had been on the Ramsey panel. Of the academic scientists, all were full professors, and two were department [146] chairmen. Of the nonacademic, two were administrators of research institutes, and the third was vice president of an aerospace corporation. These established professionals were charged with widening NASA's contacts with the scientific community. 50
Although the missions board never proposed a single comprehensive plan for space exploration, its members did try to bring greater cohesion to NASA's efforts. They wished to avoid a series of disconnected projects; their goal was an orderly exploration of the solar system. They wanted to balance lunar and planetary projects so that one mission would not be pursued or funded at the expense of another. Achieving such goals was at best difficult. As scientists, they favored projects that emphasized science, flexibility in experiment planning, and year-to-year funding of research rather than mission-to-mission budgeting. They also wanted a continuing voice in experiment development, and they fought against one particular attitude prevalent in NASA centers: "Tell us what the experiment is to do, and we will build it, fly it, and deliver the data to the experimenter after it has been collected." As a committee headed by Wolf Vishniac reported in July 1967, "It must be recognized that a proposal of an experiment can no longer remain a one-way street....A continuing dialogue and profound involvement of the scientist with NASA centers is required." According to the scientists, engineers responsible for overseeing instrument development must recognize that they must obtain the scientist's approval at each stage of design, development, and fabrication and his consent for changes. 51 A major recurring theme in the mission board's reports and recommendations was the primacy of purely scientific considerations. The board, in insisting that its recommendations be followed without deviation, failed to acknowledge the realities of the political context in which NASA operated: scientists were but one of many constituents to whom the space agency had to answer.
When President Johnson and Congress dropped their support of the Voyager missions in 1967, the board was, of course, dismayed, but it supported NASA's attempts to pick up the pieces and create a new approach to planetary exploration. 52 Unfortunately, the debate over what would replace Voyager gave way to friction among the mission board members and ultimately between the board and NASA. At the heart of the dispute was Administrator Webb's rejection of the board's alternative planetary program. Dollar, manpower, and facility limitations would just not permit it. Several members of the board, Wolf Vishniac, Gordon J. F. MacDonald, and Lester Lees among them, believed that their leader, John W. Findlay, had yielded to pressure from NASA to water down their recommendations. When the board's ideal, balanced, coherent planetary program clashed with dollar realities, the dream was shattered and the cordial relationship with the space agency was bruised. Many scientists regarded this affair as additional evidence that NASA still maintained its old attitude toward advisory groups-accept only that advice that meets its needs. 53
Although additional conflicts would surely come up in the future turn, the Lunar and Planetary Missions Board decided to resume normal operations in early 1968. Five working groups were formed-the lunar, Mercury Venus, Mars, and Jupiter panels. George C. Pimentel professor of chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley directed the Mars group. *** A series of comments was elicited from that group during a familiarization briefing of Titan Mars 73 held at NASA Headquarters on 24 May 1968. All members of the Mars panel agreed that the lander was more important than the orbiter but that too much emphasis was being given to relaying television pictures from the landed craft. The main value of "lander imagery" was to define the landing site, geologically and topographically. Television could tell them what the terrain looked like and how the lander was situated, but it was a supportive activity rather than a prime experiment. The prime experiment, of course, was life detection, but thus far NASA had not included any biological or biochemical experiments in the science requirements for Titan Mars 73. Other lander experiments the panel suggested included mass spectrometry for determining atmospheric composition, x-ray fluorescent examination of soil composition, and determination of subsurface water vapor. The scientists agreed that meteorological experiments should also be examined, and Wolf Vishniac reported that lightweight (one-half-kilogram) life-detection instruments were already available but that they all had the common shortcoming of inadequate sample-gathering capabilities. Of additional concern to the Mars panel, the members considered the question of landing sites (preferably seasonally active ones), the evolution of suitable orbiters, lander lifetime, and the possibility that the Soviet Union would land a spacecraft on Mars in 1973 after sending an atmospheric probe in l969. 54
[147] After studying the topic for the entire summer, the Mars panel delivered its report on the scientific objectives for a 1973 Mars mission. 55 Building on the technical studies carried out at Langley and JPL, the panel reaffirmed the importance of a lander for the 1973 flight large enough to carry a meaningful complement of experiments. The group recommended using the Titan IIID-Centaur launch vehicle. Objectives of a lander-oriented mission should include investigation of the Martian atmosphere and surface, especially temperature and moisture variation and distribution patterns and diurnal and seasonal changes in temperature and moisture, since these factors would provide information that would affect the possibility of life on the planet.
Although the Mars panel favored including an orbiter in the 1973 mission, a survivable lander was the more important issue. A soft-lander was favored over a hard-lander if the problem of contaminating the landing site by retrorockets could be solved. A soft-lander would permit a wider range of experiments, not just the [148] choice of the most robust equipment. Foremost among experiments were life-detection devices. "The lander should include an ensemble of complementing experiments relevant to the possible existence of life on Mars, since no single experiment is either completely definitive or unambiguous.'' Coupled but dissimilar experiments would be one satisfactory approach, such as a mass spectrometer that could detect carbon-containing compounds and a life detector that could search for signs of grossing organisms with a carbon base.
In closing their report, the scientists noted that "the current plans of the Langley team are in general harmony with [our] recommendations and they have evolved in a manner evidently responsive to earlier suggestions" by the panel and the mission board. Jim Martin and his Langley team had worked closely with the scientific community and for the time being their effort had paid off with strong support for their plans for the 1973 mission. At the October 1968 meeting of the Lunar and Planetary Missions Board, the Mars panel report was officially approved with only minor alterations. The text big step was defining the mission mode-direct or out-of-orbit entry; hard-lander or soft-lander. 56

* Evaluations of Venera 4 were mixed. Entering the atmosphere of Venus early on the morning of 18 October 1967, the landing capsule touched in a purported soft landing about two hours later. According to Soviet scientists, the atmosphere as measured by the instruments was almost entirely CO2 with traces of oxygen, water vapor, and no nitrogen. The temperature range was from 40° to 280°C. Atmospheric pressure was 18 times that on Earth. Venera 4 stopped transmitting data shortly after landing. The Soviet information did not agree with evidence provided by Mariner 5 or East-based radio astronomical measurements. Venera 4 probably stopped transmitting at an altitude of about 26 kilometers, as the surface pressure is more on the order of 100 times that of Earth's and the temperature at the surface is about 400°C. After a short time, the Soviet stopped claiming that their spacecraft had actually landed on the Venusian surface.
** J.W. Findlay. Chairman, J.R. Arnold. A.F Donovan, V R. Eshleman, T Gold.C. Goodman, J. S. Hall. H Hess. F. S. Johnson. J. Lederberg. L. Lees. G.J. F. MacDonald. G.C. Pimentel, C.S. Pittendrigh, F. Press, E.M. Shoemaker, J.A. Van Allen, and W.V. Vishniac.
*** G.C. Pimentel, chairman, J.S. Hall W. Vishniac, M.B. McElroy, J.R. Arnold, and L. Lees made up the panel.