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

[205] Setting up the science instrument working group and appointing a project scientist* were part of Langley's strategy to gain an early definition of the scientific aspects of the landed mission. Prospective industrial contractors would, in turn, have a reasonably good understanding of the problems in building the lander and incorporating the scientific instruments into it. During the second half of 1968, Jim Martin, Jerry Soffen, and A. Thomas Young began talking to scientists. Tom Young would have a very difficult assignment as science integration manager; he would often be surrounded by the conflicting demands of Martin, project engineers, contractor engineers, and oft-complaining scientists. Another 30-year-old, a mechanical engineer with a second degree in aeronautical engineering, Young was a native Virginian and a graduate of the University of Virginia. [206] He had joined Langley in 1961 and managed the mission-definition phase of the Lunar Orbiter project. 7
Together, Young, Martin, and Soffen went in search of science team members for a 1973 mission. At the outset, it appeared that NASA Headquarters preferred that Langley deal with "inside" scientists; that is, persons already receiving support from the Office of Space Science and Applications. But the managers at Langley wanted to cast their net as widely as possible. 8 Their philosophy was outlined in a document, "Selection Criteria for Team Membership," circulated by Jerry Soffen in early December 1968. It began, "Rarely are scientists assembled in loosely bound organization and asked to perform and make intelligent compromises." As a rule, they act as individuals with considerable control over their own research efforts. For the Mars lander project, a group of scientists would have to work "in concert" to select the best plans for developing instruments that might be used several years later. In addition to projecting the wisest technological approach, the science team would have to handle "engineering problems, financial problems, political pressure, not to speak of scientific unknowns. The quality of brilliance is likely to be in more abundance than wisdom and certainly more than experience." An "absolute prerequisite " for membership on the science team was "complementarity to other members of the team ." The guidelines also noted that usually scientists were identified with a specialty. For this team, however, persons with scientific breadth and an ability to cooperate with others would be more important assets. Strictly discipline-oriented persons would be a liability.
"The most difficult candidates to evaluate are likely to be the new or unknown faces." Some of the newcomers might be "well-meaning-but-not-too-useful" scientists who were attracted to the project because they believed that "the space program might be a nice lark for awhile." Others would not understand that participation in a spaceflight project required a minimum commitment of five years. The burden of ferreting out the good scientists rested with Soffen and his colleagues at Langley and NASA Headquarters. The guidelines cautioned, "An unknown name should not mean that the candidate is relegated to a second rate position." But the NASA managers could not afford to accept an only candidate for a position either, hoping he would "workout." Obviously, "the time for bringing up doubts is during selection not after the choice" was made, when dismissal would be difficult, awkward, and embarrassing.
While "scientists do not like to make decisions any more than other people," someone would have to be the "General" when science and democracy failed to resolve problems. It was, therefore, important for Soffen and his associates to consider which of the scientist candidates would make good leaders. Team leaders certainly had to be good communicators, with their teammates and with other members of the project. One last thing had to be kept in mind during the search: Teams "should not be too large. Five are a democracy, six an assembly, and more than eight lead ultimately to confusion and are often uncontrolled." 9
[210] The need for three basic lander science teams had been identified by December 1968-imaging, organic analysis, and life detection. The scientists on the imaging team would represent the most mixed set of disciplines, since the goals for that experiment were so broad. Each field of inquiry anticipated some useful information from lander photography. "The biologist has hope of finding something interesting. The geologist expects clues to the surface characteristics. The mineralogist could make some deductions about the surface composition." Cartographers, geographers, and engineers working on landing maneuvers and planning future spacecraft for Mars would all have an interest in the images from the landers' cameras. While most of the specialists who wanted to be included on the imaging team were more interested in the information the system would obtain than the development of the instrument itself, some would have definite suggestions about the technology. To translate these suggestions into specifications that the contractors could use in building hardware. a very talented instrument engineer would also have to be assigned to the team so that Langley's plans for a facsimile camera on the lander could be realized. The name for the camera was borrowed from the technique in telegraphy in which a picture is divided into a grid of small squares. The brightness of each square is converted into an electrical signal, and a sequence of such signals transmitted to a receiving station. The sequence is converted into an equivalent array of light and dark shades, and a "facsimile" of the original picture is produced on a photographic film. In 1968, the facsimile camera for aerospace applications was a relatively new tool, and the imaging science team would have to learn many new lessons in the development of that instrument for Viking. 10
It was generally agreed that the imaging team leader would need to be familiar with facsimile camera technology, experienced in photo interpretation, and well versed in other major aspects of the mission. He would need a geologist colleague who was a "field scientist familiar with a wide variety of terrain and experienced in interpreting photos." And that geologist would have to be acquainted with the major theories on the formation of Mars. A biologist for this team would be difficult to find according to Soffen. There just was not a large group of "first rate field biologists from which to choose," and of these only a small number were interested in exobiology. Interpreting the images from the standpoint of mineralogy and inorganic chemistry might be done by a geologist, biologist, or related specialist. Analyzing the effects of the braking rockets on the landing zone-called site alteration-might require additional expertise, depending on the mode of terminal descent chosen. Obviously there would be more to Martian imagery than just taking pictures. The photographs would provide many important clues to scientists, and the system would likely be the eyes of the landed spacecraft, relaying important messages to Earthbound engineers.
For the organic analysis team, five different specialties were required-organic chemistry, gas chromatography, mass spectroscopy, inorganic chemistry, and meteorology. The organic chemist in the group must be a [208] specialist in pyrolysis, since "the central theme of the experiment is the reconstruction of the organic [compounds] from the analysis of the end products of thermal degradation." For pure compounds, this analytical work can be very complex. For mixtures of compounds, the task is exceedingly difficult. "For mixtures in which soil inorganics have been added, the experiment is. . . . .!!" Since gas chromatography was a science in which the technology was "changing every day," the specialist for this experiment would have to be abreast of those changes. This expertise was especially important because the information provided by gas chromatography would help other specialists understand the makeup of compounds they encountered in other experiments.
The heart of the entire organic investigation was an unusual sensor called a mass spectrometer. This instrument would examine the vapors produced by Martian soil compounds when heated. The vapors would be drawn into the gas chromatograph, which would separate the vapors into their individual components. The components would then be drawn into the mass spectrometer to be ionized (given an electrical charge) and analyzed to identify the constituent components. Profiles for each compound would be converted into digital form and sent to Earth. Results of the organic chemistry analysis would give scientists insights into compounds that might have been produced by any life forms on Mars and identify any organic material that might be present or might be generated at the Martian surface by purely chemical means.11 The biological experiments were all predicated on the detection of active life processes, but the organic chemistry investigation would determine if any organisms had existed in the past or if the right organic compounds were present for the evolution of life in the future. As a cross-check on the life detectors, the organic chemistry experiment was all-important.
In addition to the analysis of organic compounds, there would also be a need to examine inorganic compounds found at the landing site. Because many of these inorganics are found in volatile form (ammonia, carbon dioxide. carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide) and appear only as gases in the atmosphere, a scientist would be included on the organic analysis team who was "familiar with such outgassing" and the composition of "juvenile" and secondary planetary atmospheres. A meteorologist could also add to the examination of these atmospheric elements as he studied the dynamics of Martian weather.
Finally, the major instrument planned for the lander was an integrated series of life-detection experiments. By 1968, after several frustrating years of experimenting with sample collectors for Voyager, exobiologists agreed that a Martian biology investigation instrument should have a common source for sample acquisition and analysis if evaluation of the results from the individual elements was to have scientific validity. Because the biology investigation was to be an integrated experiment. Soffen expected several kinds of specialists to be on the biology team. "But more important than the [209] specialties, there should be a good mixture of different attitudes and experiences," since this complex of experiments would undoubtedly be "the most controversial of the payload." For example, the variations on a growth-detection instrument were apparently limitless, so the biology team would have to select the best concepts and then "be willing to defend them as the most reasonable thing to be done." Four kinds of biology expertise were sought for the Viking lander biology team:
A microbiologist is the essential ingredient, one familiar with soil growth conditions and the problems of demonstrating viable organisms from natural soil.
A photosynthesis specialist . Since part of the experiment is likely to be done in the light, searching for the photosynthetic reaction, it is important that someone familiar with these conditions be included.
A cellular physiologist-biochemist . This is usually the same individual as the microbiologist, but in addition it is desirable to find a specialist familiar with intermediary metabolism and the internal biochemistry of organisms...
One versed strongly in biological theory , evolution, genesis, chemical de nova synthesis, genetics. This theoretical job is likely to give the very fabric to the biological goals of the mission. An appropriate person could become the [team leader].
Soffen and his colleagues believed that an engineer with a particularly strong background in developing miniaturized systems would also be an asset to the biology group in the design of the life-detection experiments.12
To expedite the development of the lander science instruments, the new Viking Project Office, in concert with the program scientist's staff at NASA Headquarters, organized the science activities into three phases- preparation, implementation, and data analysis. The preparation period would extend from October 1968 to December 1969, culminating in the selection of the Viking scientific investigators for the flight. Implementation would run from December 1969 through the final preparations for launch. The analysis phase would begin with the collection of the first data and end with the shutdown of each of the instruments. Only the lander investigations were identified as requiring a preparation phase, because the Viking managers expected that series of experiments to be more difficult to develop than the orbiter instruments. Orbiter investigators also would be chosen later than lander experimenters.
Associate Administrator for Space Science and Applications John Naugle officially began selecting investigators for the preparation phase 27 September 1968. Although the "solicitation for participation" did not name any specific mission or guarantee the participants in the early phase a place on the flight team, Naugle, program scientist Milton Mitz, and Soffen realized that those chosen in the fall of 1968 to help define the scientific payload for the lander would have an inside track toward selection as investigators for Viking. And everyone-managers and scientists-recognized [210] that the development of an atmospheric probe-lander and the scientific instruments for a Mars lander would "require a long lead time." Considering also the highly integrated payload, the interdisciplinary nature of some of the proposed instruments, and the basic complexity of the lander design. NASA had no choice but to bring scientists into the planning phase at the very earliest point, even if this later made objective selection of the flight team scientists more difficult.13
The flight team investigators would be responsible for developing the functional specifications for the instruments and for providing direct guidance in all aspects of instrument design and construction. Including scientists in all stages of experiment definition, design, development, fabrication, testing, and operation was an attempt to preclude a problem that had plagued many of NASA's programs: the conflict between the builders of scientific instruments and the users of the data collected from them. Outside the arena of spaceflight, scientists have traditionally built or at least closely monitored the construction of their own experimental apparatus. Indeed, scientists were often judged by their peers on how well they executed the design of their hardware. With the shift from experiments on the laboratory bench to instruments that had to be integrated into the multiplicity of spacecraft systems, a rift grew between the persons who conceived the experiments and analyzed the results and those who actually built the hardware. An exobiologist might conceptualize an investigation and even builds bench prototype, but any elements of an integrated biology instrument would likely be built by a contractor specializing in the design and fabrication of flight hardware. This new division of labor did not often please the scientists, especially when engineers took an "I know how to do it better than you" stance. To avoid this problem in Viking, Naugle and the other NASA managers wanted the scientists working with the project from the very beginning." 14
On 11 February 1969, after the headquarters' Space Science and Applications Steering Committee had evaluated the many proposals sent them by potential investigators, Jim Martin sent letters to 38 scientists, inviting them to participate in the preparation phase of project planning. While some familiar names were among the scientists, many were also newcomers to space science. Soffen's objective of incorporating new talent into the teams had been realized. All the invitees accepted, and their first meetings at the Langley Research Center were the inaugural sessions of the Viking science instrument team. 19-20 February, and the Science Steering Group, 21 February. 15 These meetings gave the scientists an overview of the entire project, introducing them to current activities, the project's methods of operation, and the schedule. Scientific objectives were discussed with respect to the existing knowledge of Mars and the investigations planned for Mariner 1969 and Mariner 1970 spacecraft. The scientists were also briefed on their responsibilities and the manner in which the teams and the [211] Science Steering Group would function. Mission design, engineering facts of life ("engineering constraints"), and hardware design (lander, orbiter, and scientific instruments) were summarized, as well. 16 On 25 February, NASA Headquarters officially announced the selected preliminary Viking science team members. 17 The list was along one, and the number of teams had grown to eight (see appendix D).
During the next six months, each science team planned instrument development. At the February Science Steering Group meeting, Jim Martin had told the team leaders that their science definitions should clearly state the scientific values of the instruments and the definitions "should be so complete that they may be used as a guide in preparing preliminary specifications for spacecraft design." The scientists were responsible for defining their potential hardware needs. 18 Viking planners had initially agreed to include a "science definition" in "Mission Definition No. 2," but that official statement of Viking science objectives promised to be too lengthy. 19 Only the essential data would appear in the mission definition, while the more detailed information would be included in a reference work, "Viking Lander Science Instrument Teams Report." Lander contractors would use both documents as sources of information about the proposed instruments and a guide to scientific rationale as they determined how to increase the scientific capabilities of the lander. 20
Potential scientific investigators received the "Announcement of Flight Opportunity for Viking 1973" in early August 1969. This package of materials, which included the instrument teams' reports and the mission definition, would guide scientists who wished to work on one of the suggested experiments or who wanted to propose alternative versions of existing experiment proposals or additional experiments. 21 (See appendix D for an excerpt from one of the science reports.) Concurrent with the final revisions of the science instrument reports, the Science Steering Group recommended at its July meeting that the weight of Viking lander science instrumentation be targeted at 41 kilograms rather than the original 32 kilograms. The extra weight would permit consideration of a number of important additional goals that had been identified as desirable if a larger payload was possible." 22
With the completion of three major documents-the "Viking Lander Science Instrument Teams Report," "Viking Mission Definition No. 2," and the "Science Management Plan"-the science instrument team's work was essentially completed. The next step was the reception and evaluation of the science proposals in response to the flight opportunity announcement. More than 300 persons had attended the two day pre-proposal briefing for Viking science. By the 20 October deadline, NASA had received 150 proposals. Since 5 of these were considered dual proposals and 10 presented additional instrument options that had to be studied, the total number of items to be evaluated reached 165. They were divided into nine groups.

Table 36

Viking Science Proposals




Number of



Number of






Molecular analysis


Proposals for experiments requiring additional instruments


Active biology


Radio science




Entry Science


Proposals for experiments requiring additional instruments


[212] As part of the evaluation process, Mike Mitz, program scientist at headquarters, made these proposals available to the four subcommittees of the Space-Science and Applications Steering Committee-Planetary Biology, Planetary Atmospheres, Planetology, and Particles and Fields. Each proposal was reviewed by at least one subcommittee. The steering committee recommended 12 experiments and 6l scientists to John Naugle, who concurred on 15 December (see appendix D and table 37). Of the 8 lander experiments, 6 had been proposed during the preparation phase of the lander work; 2 were new investigations suggested by outside scientists, and l of the major instruments proposed for the lander during the early planning phase, the ultraviolet photometer, would not be flown. 23
In the course of selecting the scientific experiments for Viking, Jim Martin expressed some reservations to Ed Cortright: "The proposed science payload represents an escalation in science objectives which is likely to lead to cost increases beyond those estimated in our assessment." His concern was especially strong for the experiments not previously examined by science instrument teams. Cost problems could be generated by the entry-science retarding-potential analyzer, the lander-science physical properties investigations, or the magnetic properties experiment. "These additions, when coupled with the problems of using the [gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer] to measure water and adding a gas exchange, investigation to the biology instrument, add up to a potential overrun.....Martin was also worried about some of the scientists chosen for the work. He told Cortright that lessons they should have learned over the course of the preceding year were not being implemented. "Specifically, the Biology Team has the same group of men who demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to work together, the [Molecular Analysis] Team has two members only interested....

Table 37 [213]

Key Dates in Assessment of Viking Science Proposals

11-12 Sept. 1969

Pre-proposal briefing for potential experimenters.

20 Oct. 1969

Proposals due at NASA Headquarters.

23 0ct. 1969

Copies of proposals due at Langley and JPL; meeting held at Langley to discuss proposals.

3-4 Nov. 1969

First Space Science and Applications Steering Committee (SSASC) subcommittee meetings to initiate evaluation process, Goddard Space Flight Center.

7-8 Nov. 1969

Review of science proposals at Langley.

12-14 Nov. 1969

Second subcommittee meetings, Goddard.

17 Nov. 1969

Viking Project Office assessments of proposals due at NASA Headquarters.

18-20 Nov. 1969

Definition of science payload by Headquarters Planetary Program Office.

21 Nov. 1969

Tentative payload presentation to D. P. Hearth, director, Planetary Program Office.

26 Nov 1969

Planetary Program Office recommendations made to SSASC.

3 Dec. 1969

Recommendations presented to SSASC in writing.

8 Dec. 1969

Oral presentation to SSASC.

15 Dec. 1969

Selection of Viking science payload by John E. Naugle, associate administrator for space science and applications, based on SSASC recommendations.

....in water detection who will interfere with achievement of the team's primary objective, and the Entry Team has the same two members who have demonstrated many times an inability to work together." 24
Martin had good reason to be worried about possible cost escalations. On 3 September, Don Hearth's Planetary Program Office held a Viking science review with Langley personnel, Office of Space Science and Applications program chiefs, and Dr. Henry J. Smith, deputy associate administrator for space science. The objective was to establish weight- and cost-limit goals for Viking science activities. Later decisions about overall Viking costs and flight instruments could be made using these guidelines. Some of the more significant decisions reached at the 3 September review were on reduction of the lander science instruments' total weight, development of backup instruments for the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer and the biology instrument, and specific dollar limits on science spending.
As result of the early fall meeting, the science planners reverted to the 32-kilogram limit on science instruments, dropping the 41-kilogram [214] proposal made by the Science Steering Group. The major difference between the two weight packages was the addition of a separate mass spectrometer for determining lower atmosphere constituents. Hearth's view was that the additional scientific information they could obtain with that instrument could not be justified when they considered its cost. He believed that the first gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer measurements after touchdown would be sufficient. Weights and costs of the 32-kilogram science payload for the lander were summarized in September 1969 (table 38).

Table 38

Estimates for Lander Payload, September 1969


Weight (kg)

Cost (millions)

Entry science









Gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer












Ultraviolet photometry



Total for instruments



Integration and test






Cost of the lander instruments was expected to be about $1.36 million per kilogram. The orbiter experiments were projected to cost about $0.56 million per kilogram. Overall costs were broken down as in table 39.

Table 39

Viking Science Cost Projections, September 1969


Cost (millions)

Lander science


Orbiter science


Support of science teams


JPL support of GCMS development


Ames support of biology instrument development





[215] With an additional 10 percent for contingencies, Hearth established a firm ceiling of $107.5 million for the total Viking science package. 25
Looking at Hearth's estimate in December, Martin believed that they were selecting too many members for the experiment teams. "The total number of team members and participating scientists has increased beyond our budgeted estimates and considerably beyond what the [project office] believes is required to achieve the mission objectives." The budget called for 55 scientists; 61 had been selected. Martin would have been happy with fewer than 40. (By flight time, the number of science team members would grow to 80.) Although Don Hearth's Planetary Science Office had told all the scientists that the payload selection was tentative pending negotiation of a contract for each instrument and an individual contract for each scientist, Martin personally believed that it would be extremely difficult for NASA to drop any scientist or investigation. The "pressure will be on to consider an increase of a few million [dollars] as acceptable; it will come out of our contingency allowance and avoids unpleasantness between [the Office of Space Science and Applications] and the science community."
Martin feared that in a few years when all these reasons for the increased expenditures had been forgotten, he and the Viking Project Office would be held responsible for not properly managing their funds. With only $102 million set aside for total project contingency costs (a small amount compared to other major NASA projects) and the "tight funding environment" that everyone expected to face for several years, it appeared to Martin that "a prudent manager must hold the line against escalation in all areas of the project today." Since he saw considerable cost uncertainty associated with the science instruments, Martin would be especially cautious in this area. 26 Many of his concerns did become problems in the future. There was friction among the members of the biology team, and the costs of the biology instrument and the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer rose sharply. Most of these difficulties emerged after the January 1970 schedule change from a 1973 to a 1975 launch.
Reservations aside, NASA appeared to be well on its way to organizing a Mars lander mission. In encouraging Joshua Lederberg to work with the biology team. Richard S. Young, chief of exobiology, Office of Space Science and Applications, had written that many details of the biology experiment still needed resolving. Young sought Lederberg's advice on NASA's "method of operation" as much as on "the science involved in these missions." Looking back over the long road since the early 1960s when exobiology was a very new field, Young noted, "The science hasn't changed much since the 'Westex' days [see chapter 3], but we are finally trying to organize in the best say as to achieve some of the 'old' objectives." Young and his colleagues wanted "to make this thing work....within the constraints imposed" on them by the administration and Congress. 27 They would need the help of many parties to reach their goal.

* At NASA Headquarters, Soffen's counterpart, was Milton A. Mitz, program scientist, On 28 December 1970, Mitz left Viking to join NASA's Grand Tour Project, and Richard S. Young became Viking program scientist.