A thesis submitted

To the Kent State University in partial

Fulfillment of the requirements for the

Degree of Master of Arts


Ian Varga

May 2016

© Copyright

All rights reserved

Except for previously published materials


Thesis written by

Ian Varga

B.A., Oberlin College, 2013

M.A., Kent State University, 2016

Approved by

Matthew J. Crawford, PhD , Advisor

Kenneth J. Bindas, PhD , Chair, Department of History

James L. Blank, PhD , Dean, College of Arts and Sciences






1. The Next Frontier: The Origins of in Modern Space Science…………………….32

Background: Space, Mars, and Aliens in the 1950s…………………………………….35

The Ultimate Debate: Is There on Mars? ………………………………………….40

The First Images: Shifting the Debate…………………………………………………..50


2. The Beginning of the End?: Viking’s Climactic Impact on Research…………60

Mars During the Years………………………………………………………………65

The Plan Viking………………………………………………………………………………72

Unsettling Discoveries………………………………………………………………………..80

Viking’s Legacy………………………………………………………………………………87


3. The Dead Earth: Mars as an Emblem of Recent American …………93


Space Science in Transition: From Viking through the …………………96

Back from the Dead: Mars’s Resurgence……………………………………………….99

Mars Observer: A Failed Start………………………………………………………….107

A and A Rover: A New Generation of Martian Missions………………………..110






This project would not have been possible without the support of a number of other scholars that contributed to my knowledge of the field and improved my writing. Foremost, I greatly appreciate the coordinated and extensive help from my advisor, Dr. Matthew Crawford, whose guidance was necessary for organizing this project and becoming familiar with the historiography. I would also like to thank other professors at Kent State University that contributed to the project or my writing, namely Dr. Mary Heiss, Dr. Kenneth Bindas, Dr.

Timothy Scarrnechia, Dr. Pereplyotchik, and Dr. Shane Strate. I would also like to express my gratitude to other students and colleagues that offered advice and suggestions throughout my tenure at Kent State.

I also want to thank astrophysicist Dr. Daniel Stinebring of Oberlin College and astronomer Clyde Simpson of the Museum of Natural History for educating me on

Mars and space science, as well as for inspiring me. Additionally, NASA historian Dr. Erik

Conway’s assistance in finding material was essential for initiating this project.



Few scientific research topics appear to draw as much publicity and discussion as Mars.

Nonetheless, despite how Americans perceive it today, Mars’s twenty-first century prominence was far from an inevitable development during particular episodes in the 1960s and 1970s.

Scientists at particular points in the late twentieth century were apprehensive that Mars, as well as the rest of science, would fade into obscurity because of the ’s apparently unpromising and uninspiring characteristics. For example, after the first National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Martian mission in 1965, dubbed Mariner IV, scientists uncovered a world of craters and deserts, hardly supportive of living organisms. It mirrored portrayals of the , lacking a particularly compelling trait for scientists to pursue further.

Caltech researcher Robert Leighton commented after the mission that “it would appear that the

Earth is perhaps more unique than we have thought,” expressing unease that no other world was as fruitful as our own.1 Without any signs of life, Mars was just another rocky world without a lure for human investigation, and, as a result, the newly formed Martian program in NASA might have come to a quick end. Shortly after the mission, the journal Science expressed concern that

NASA would lose its planetary missions, including to Mars, because of congressional budget cuts. The journal explained that “most congressmen clearly have only the most superficial interest in such missions. Moreover, a program of planetary exploration, lacking a simple, easily understood goal comparable to the landing of a man on the moon, is too diffuse and abstract to readily arouse the enthusiasm of the man on the street.”2 Neither Congress nor the American public would support such expensive programs to Mars without a compelling, tangible reason.

1 Richard Lewis, “The Message from ,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 21, November 1965, 39. 2 Luther Carter, “Planetary Exploration: How to Get by the Budget-cutters?,” Science 158, November 24 1967, 1026. 1

Fortunately for scientists invested in this research, they were able to devise a rationale that appealed to broad scientific and social interests in Martian life.

This thesis’s goal is to explain the development of scientific interest in Mars since the 1960s in order to understand why Mars’s importance to science has endured for over half a century despite these potential setbacks expeditions like Mariner IV caused. Since the 1960s, research related to Mars has undergone a number of developments that have contributed to its current distinction within space science. NASA initiated the in 1964 with the development of the first Martian probe, Mariner IV, and it had completed eight expeditions to Mars by 2000, each producing significant discoveries that spurred new discourse on Mars’s past, present, and its future. Some missions, like Mariner IV, simply flew by the planet and sent images back home while others landed on its surface.3 Sometimes these data affirmed what scientists expected to find on Mars, but in many cases these missions introduced discrepancies that conflicted with how some scientists perceived the planet. Regardless of the results, scientific investment in Mars has never entirely lost its momentum, and the planet has recently grown into the most prioritized objective for NASA.

Before delving into Mars’s history within scientific thought and its implications for the history of science, it is important to establish Mars’s basic scientific characteristics for context.

Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun in the and one of the closest to the

Earth.4 Although it takes significantly longer for Mars to revolve around the Sun than Earth, its

3 See NASA’s website for a list of all Martian missions, http://mars.nasa.gov/programmissions/missions/. 4 The exact distance between the Earth and Mars varies depending on its position relative to the Earth. At opposition, which is Mars’s closest approach to Earth, the planet is between 0.7 and 0.3 Astronomical Units (AU) from Earth, so on average half the distance between the Earth and the Sun. Mars was 93 million km from Earth during the last opposition in April 2014. See this table for more data, http://www.uapress.arizona.edu/onlinebks/MARS/APPENDS.HTM. 2 days are 24 hours and 40 minutes long, similar to the Earth.5 The planet, around two-thirds the size of Earth, is known for its strikingly red surface caused by oxidized , i.e. rust, found within its soil. Its is thin, containing mostly , and its surface temperature is, on average, -81 degrees Fahrenheit. It has two which are small captured in Mars’s gravity. Its surface is covered in large valleys, mountains, and craters with the exception of its north and poles which contain ice that recedes and expands as seasons on Mars change. Some of its valleys suggest that water once flowed through them.

Overall, Mars has notable physical differences to the Earth, namely its atmosphere and lack of , which have mired speculation about Mars’s habitability, but signs of water in its geography and suggest it was once more livable than now.6 Although Mars and the

Earth share similarities in their histories, today they have notable differences.

To understand how Mars has become a fixture in space science, this thesis will examine the ways scientists have researched Mars from the 1950s through the year 2000 and how perceptions of Mars among scientists have developed overtime based on observations from space probes. As mentioned above, Mars is a useful topic within space science because the scientific community has maintained interest in the planet for decades. This consistency is exceptional when compared to other major space science projects occurring from the 1950s to 2000. For example, the famous Moon landings sparked considerable attention from both scientists and the public for a few years from the late 1960s into the 1970s, but the spark fizzled for a variety of reasons, such as a lack of funding and interest among scientists and the public.7 Other

5 Martian days are sometimes called sols. 6 NASA has a comprehensive list of facts related to Mars on its website, http://mars.nasa.gov/allaboutmars/facts/. 7 Matthew Tribbe’s book, No Requiem for the Space Age: The Apollo Moon Landings and American Culture where the author explains that Americans lost interest in lunar missions after the initial landing. They believed the missions were wasteful in a time of war in Vietnam and demands for social and environmental reform. 3 planets comparable to Mars, such as , have not received the same prioritization from

NASA. The sent only half as many probes to Venus compared to Mars by 2000 despite the similar distances both planets have to Earth, and none were as ambitious as the

Martian landers such as Viking. The outer planets, such as and , were relatively unknown objects until the 1980s, yet Mars was the destination of six missions from NASA by that point.8 Mars was exceptional compared to other planetary bodies.

Of course, scientific interest in Mars did not begin in the mid-twentieth century. Likely the most significant catalyst for twentieth-century speculation was Percival ’s claim in the

1890s that various canals, possibly artificially created, exist on the planet’s surface.9 This assertion spurred the prevailing impression that Mars is habitable, and, perhaps, there exist organisms that currently thrive on its surface. Yet, it was during the latter half of the twentieth century that direct began and interest among scientists escalated to new levels. Until the 1960s, scientists had to rely on Earth-based instruments to study Mars, instruments that were limited because of the vast distance between the Earth and Mars. New scientific institutions that received direct funding from the government such as NASA created an for scientists to devise major, large-scale projects that could study Mars directly.

These projects would lead to major changes in the way scientists perceived Mars.

Scientific interest in Mars was not a natural, self-evident process, not simply a case of human or a desire to explore. This thesis argues that Mars’s consistency in space science is the result of scientists incorporating Mars within broader scientific and social contexts,

Matthew D Tribbe, No Requiem for the Space Age: The Apollo Moon Landings and American Culture, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). 8 NASA has conducted six missions to Venus compared to 18 for Mars. NASA has an online listing of missions to Venus, while also including some Soviet missions, http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/planets/venuspage.html 9 See Crowe, Michael J. The Debate 1750-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, 502-526 for further discussion of . 4 a process encouraged by scientists believing in and appealing to the significance of Mars’s connection to extraterrestrial life. The phrase social incorporation, used throughout this work, refers to the efforts of scientists to embed particular scientific topic or objects such as Mars to within broader concepts or principles in society and culture. In this case, extraterrestrial life and the discovery of habitable worlds, notions already established within American society, acted as the primary means of connecting Martian research with American culture. A contingent of exobiologists, a set of scientists that believed life existed on Mars, initiated Martian exploration in the 1960s and established a scientific association between Mars and extraterrestrial life. This establishment occurred during a of intense fascination with alien life in American society and popular culture and created a foundation for Martin research rooted within American social principles. Subsequently, scientists argued that the search for was crucial for understanding evolution, developments in planetary environments, and even human space exploration. This rationale was often vague and without a direct, tangible benefit like most other

Big Science projects offered, yet it drew much media attention and helped validate the beliefs these scientists held concerning extraterrestrial life and legitimized the costs involved in these missions. Interested scientists understood that they needed to substantiate Martian research with direct connections to society or lose public support. Combined with their belief in Martian life, their characterizations of Mars successfully enamored both scientists and the public, allowing

Mars to garner a central role in space science.

As mentioned above, Mars’s consistent prominence was not predestined, as interest in it could have possibly faded because of particularly uninspiring results such as with Mariner IV.

The fact that some scientists feared for the demise of program because of a dozen or so images from one probe shows that interest in Mars relied on specific characteristics, namely

5 life, perceived as important or exciting. When Mariner IV’s imagery appeared to portray a desolate planet, scientists responded pessimistically and debated amongst each other whether

Mars was a worthwhile investment. Similarly, when Viking in 1976 failed to discover any signs of life in its surface operation, some scientists argued that Mars was no longer a priority. When the presence of extraterrestrial life appeared impossible to prove, interest in Mars declined as scientists declared a need to invest in different subjects. As a result, Mars’s prominence in science has concentrated on this one notion that some scientists considered vital for their field.

Without it, there was no practical basis for studying Mars.

The most remarkable aspect of Mars’s consistency is its ability to overcome these apparent setbacks such as Mariner IV and Viking. Despite the backlash these missions induced, they did not entirely stop NASA from continuing to invest in Mars, and eventually the planet received nearly nonstop analysis from the 1990s onward. This continuous interest is counterintuitive when considering that scientists have yet to discover conclusive evidence that

Mars has or ever had life. This odd persistence raises the question of why scientists continue to pursue Martian research despite a lack of evidence for extraterrestrial life, the trait they emphasize the most in their discourse. If their experiments show Mars is probably lifeless, why do scientists maintain that the planet is so important because of its biological qualities? The answer varies depending on the particular scientific, social, and political context within which the research takes place. In the case of Mariner IV, scientists pointed out that the results were meager and inconclusive, and with Viking they argued that prior researchers had simply not analyzed enough of the mission’s data or applied the correct experimental methodology. In these examples, some scientists that believed in Martian life did not question their beliefs, instead suggesting the missions were limited in scope or the analysis incomplete. These individuals, such

6 as Norman , Gerald Soffen, Christopher McKay, and others described throughout these chapters, often held prominent positions in NASA and encouraged Mars to resurface as a priority. According to them, the belief that finding evidence of Martian life would revolutionize science or society continued to motivate their research.

Because of its implications for society, Mars was a source of legitimacy for the newly emerging of space science, exobiology, and other disciplines focused on interplanetary analysis that relied on NASA and large scale, Big Science projects. These scientists argued that

Mars was an inherently advantageous source of knowledge and worthy of serious investment.

This insistence on Mars’s pragmatism allowed Martian research to incorporate with the rest of society. In addition to scientific progression, according to scientists working within Martian research, the research had the potential to apply to other aspects of society both within and outside of science. Historian Peter Dear in his book The Intelligibility of : How Science

Makes Sense of the World uses the term “instrumentality” to make a similar argument, that science validates its role within society when its ideas have “practical efficacy.”10 This sense of pragmatism references the traditional division between basic or pure science and applied science in which the former consists of theoretical science and the latter technological science with direct, industrial implications.11 Pure science includes topics such as quantum that have little obvious impact on society and consist mostly of theorizing among scientists. Applied science is the process of applying these theories to a tangible project or technological innovation.

As historians such as Dear have noted, science is generally some mixture between these two divides of applied and pure science, and the way science influences its surrounding society is

10 Peter Dear, The Intelligibility of Nature: How Science Makes Sense of the World, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), 5. 11 See A. Hunter Dupree, Science in the Federal Government: A History of Politics and Activities to 1940, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1957), 2-3. 7 more complex than simply pure and applied science. Although science frequently contributes to new technology, its ideas also impact societal conventions or ways of thinking. For example, social theorists famously applied ’s theory of evolution and the survival of the fittest to nation-states and world societies as a justification for imperialism in the nineteenth century.

Social Darwinism is an example of a scientific theory having practical implications for the surrounding society.12 Mars is an instance of scientists attempting to incorporate with society and affect social perceptions of their fields.

The most significant factor to Mars’s consistent prioritization within American space science is a perception shared by scientists and society that Mars is a source of knowledge related to extraterrestrial life. 13 Unlike a computer or airplane, for example, Mars’s pragmatism is not technologically-based but rather socially and scientifically-based, similar to the Darwinism example. The most notable factor contributing to this practicality is the perception that life could have existed on Mars in the past or still there today. To scientists, Mars was a means of observing the history of life’s origins and evolution, as well as its frequency in the universe, attributes imperceptible on Earth. Scientific perspectives on Martian life shifted away from a belief that Mars is still habitable today to the assertion that the planet once had a warmer, wetter environment conducive to life. During the period considered in this thesis, few scientists argued that intelligent life exists on Mars; instead, they focused on searching for small, microbial life.14

The discovery of any type of life on another world could force serious revisions to biological

12 This example originates from Dear’s book. See, Dear, The Intelligibility of Nature, 91-114. 13 Historian Stephen Dick has written a couple of books on extraterrestrial life and its significance to twentieth century science. His books The Biological Universe: The Twentieth Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate and the Limits of Science and, coauthored with James Strick, The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of describe the way exobiology expanded science to new, larger scopes. He also argues that exobiology was an important cause of space science’s expansion during the twentieth century. 14 In the context of extraterrestrial life, i.e. life on other worlds besides Earth, scientists generally divide life into intelligent and non-intelligent varieties. Intelligent life refers to complex organisms such as humans as well as other mammals, where as non-intelligent life consists of bacteria and simple plant life. 8 axioms on life’s origins and its evolution. If life exists in conditions quite different than those on

Earth, then perhaps life is common in the universe, and therefore life’s evolution is an even more complicated process than previously thought. Additionally, such a discovery would potentially cause disruptions to current philosophical and religious trends by revealing that Earth and its organisms are not unique, a philosophy that Carl espoused.15 As a result, scientists claimed that Mars’s biological potential was important for both scientific knowledge and human society to understand its place in the universe.

Some scientists perceive this theorizing as pragmatic for surrounding society, even though the Martian missions do not offer a direct benefit to American society. One such practical application for Martian research is the prospect of manned missions to the planet. Although only a reality in , some scientists readily described Mars as the first, inevitable destination for humans traveling to other worlds. Even if ambitious, this objective offered many practical advantages for both scientists and others such as politicians to obtain. Scientists could analyze Mars far better when standing on the planet directly rather than using a probe with limited operations. Governments could perhaps benefit from resources or prestige that such an endeavor would reward. The period from the mid-twentieth century through 2000 was one of staunch interest among Americans in space and, in particular, space travel and extraterrestrials, and this cultural context played an important role in the rhetoric scientists used that foresaw

Mars as an important destination for humanity. Scientists appealed to these romanticized portrayals of space and Mars, noting that their research brought to reality a planet previously only attributable to fiction.

15 In addition to books by Stephen Dick such as The Biological Universe, Howard McCurdy’s book, Space and the American Imagination discusses in more detail the significance of extraterrestrial life to science, philosophy, and society, such as how it challenges the exceptionalism of terrestrial life. 9


The connection between science and society during the Cold War makes Mars such a unique topic for historians of science. Space science is a field with clear connections to the Cold

War, and political implications resonated throughout any projects NASA undertook. The United

States created NASA in the late 1950s as a response to Soviet incursions in space through such as Sputnik, a response that initiated space science as an inherently Cold War discipline. The most famous example of Cold War politics influencing space science is the

Apollo missions, characterized by a between the United States and to land a person on the Moon that received support from American presidents such as Kennedy. 16

The Cold War influenced the particular projects NASA pursued and the way NASA framed these projects, such as describing Apollo as a competition with the Soviets.

Martian research experienced a different type of influence from the Cold War during this period. In this case, competition between the Americans and Soviets was not as significant of a factor for NASA to pursue Martian expeditions as with Apollo. Although the Soviets attempted to explore Mars with their own set of missions, there was no major rivalry between American and Soviet astronomers. Nonetheless, Martian research relied on Cold War politics for its survival. Martian exploration was impossible without government support through NASA because of the costs required for interplanetary missions, meaning it had to rely on this Cold War

16Audra Wolfe, Competing with the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America, (Baltimore: Press, 2012), 89-104. Audra Wolfe offers a concise and comprehensive summary of changes science underwent during the Cold War. She emphasizes how central science was to Cold War policy and concerns about science’s expansion in American society. 10 institution for support. As a result, scientists had to offer compelling reasons for Congress to fund Martian projects, as noted above.

This thesis analyzes a period extending from the Cold War’s peak in the 1960s through the conflict’s end in the early 1990s to demonstrate the way Mars was able to continue garnering federal and scientific support despite a changing political climate. Through its focus on Mars, this exposition will assert a couple points related to the historical understanding of science during the Cold War and its relevant historiography. First, the Cold War was not a seamless and consistent political conflict, meaning its effect on science changed as time progressed. An unusually consistent topic such as Mars allows historians to perceive these differences over this period. For example, the political pressure to compete with the Soviet Union was far less pronounced during the 1980s, and the government was more critical of frivolous expenditures on science than in the 1960s. These changes in political climate affected Martian research, particularly how much support the mission received from federal funding. Second, the Cold War influences science through more than just political context. Mars and its relevant space programs are an example of a large-scale project - known as “Big Science” - that received direct funding from the government but did not readily appeal to dominant political priorities such as national security. The section on Big Science below provides more detail. Instead, fascination with Mars bubbled as a result of social and institutional circumstances related to the Cold War. After World

War II, political interests such as security encouraged a strong financial relationship between the

American government and science, forming new institutions such as NASA which made space science feasible. Instead, Martian research used Cold War institutions to advance interests that scientists in particular perceived as important. Although politics played a role in science’s pursuit

11 of Martian research, social and scientific contexts were also important and crucial to Mars’s longevity within scientific discourse.

The following sections describe the specific literature this thesis engages with, in particular the historiography of science’s relationship with politics during the Cold War, the development of Big Science, and the connection between science and society.

Science and Politics

The primary historiographical trend that this thesis addresses is the relationship between science and politics, and this section provides a chronological account of important works that highlight this relationship. One early but important example of the discussion of science’s affiliation with government is A. Hunter Dupree’s classic text, Science in the Federal

Government: A History of Politics and Activities to 1940, which established a foundation for analyzing how science and politics have interacted throughout American history. Written in the

1950s, his book was a response to growing concerns at the time over the government’s increasingly intimate connection with science after World War II. He attempts to diffuse these fears by arguing that “the relation of the government to science has been a meeting point of

American political practice and the nation’s intellectual life. This conjunction has been continuous from 1787 onward and has interacted with both contributors.”17 Dupree asserts that science has constantly shaped American politics and vice versa such that the postwar rise of a government-science relationship is not unusual in American society. Additionally, he was concerned that the politicization of science could affect the field’s autonomy.

17 A. Hunter Dupree, Science in the Federal Government: A History of Politics and Activities to 1940, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1957), 2. 12

Dupree’s book is particularly useful for analyzing Mars’s practicality toward science and society. Because of a lack of federally supported scientific academies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, scientists often had to persuade Congress for funding support for expensive projects such as extensive geological surveys. Dupree notes that the government has generally supported only applied science that offered direct, technological advantages while avoiding funding pure, theoretical science.18 This assessment is in contrast to Martian research, a form of pure science without direct technological or economic benefit. Although his book is not a Cold

War analysis, it is important for establishing that scientists have appealed to the government for funding throughout American history.19

Since the 1980s, historians have increasingly contextualized scientific developments within their surrounding political circumstances, and this process has included an increased emphasis on the Cold War’s influence over postwar science.20 Walter McDougall was one such historian contextualizing science in his 1982 article, “Technocracy and Statecraft in the Space

Age – Toward the History of a Saltation,” in which he explains that “Sputnik triggered an abrupt discontinuity, a saltation that transformed governments into self-conscious promoters, not just of technological change but of perpetual technological revolution. This change above all defines the

Space Age as a historical period.”21 To him, historians should define the Space Age based on

Sputnik triggering a political reaction. This suggestion implies that political context is crucial in

18 Ibid, 373-375. 19 One more recent example of applied science’s importance to American society comes from Michael Robinson’s book listed here in which he describes how Arctic explorers referred to science to substantiate their expeditions. The explorers offered pragmatic rationale to garner support from scientific institutions in an era of intense exploration and surveying. Michael Robinson. The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). 20 Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s famous book, Leviathan and the Air-pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, highlighted the contextualization of science during the 1980s, and other works by McDougall and Forman reflect this theme. 21 Walter McDougall, "Technocracy and Statecraft in the Space Age--Toward the History of a Saltation," The American Historical Review (1982), 1011. 13 understanding the rise of American space science. Although he notes that the relationship between government and technology developed gradually, the Space Age and specifically

Sputnik mark a particularly important period in which the government abruptly shifted its priorities toward science and technology. During the Space Age, the government sought technological innovation in order to remain superior to the Soviets. McDougall describes that

“the Space Age introduced science and technology to the political arena,” even if the scientists did not garner any individual power.22 The Cold War and Space Age connected science and politics in drastic ways, with the government taking on an influential role over science. This connection between the Space Age and politics leaves out important social and scientific developments that also occurred during this period, as this thesis highlights.

One of the most famous and foundational accounts of Cold War science is Paul Forman’s

“Behind Quantum Electronics: National Security as Basis for Physical Research in the United

States, 1940-1960” published in 1987. Forman insisted that political context, particularly during the postwar period, is crucial for understanding science’s historical development. His article argues that “American physics… underwent a qualitative change in its purpose and character, an enlistment and integration of the bulk of its practitioners and its practice in the nation’s pursuit of security through ever more advanced military technology.”23 After World War II, American physics changed its relationship with the military, fundamentally shifting the discipline’s scope and priorities. Physics, generally considered a neutral scientific discipline without external biases, in fact became a component of national security and military interests. As Forman notes, this argument is disconcerting for those that see physics as “a praiseworthy diversion” that acts

22 Ibid 1028. 23 Paul Forman, “Behind Quantum Electronics: National Security as Basis for Physical Research in the United States, 1940-1960,” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 18 (1987), 150. 14 only for its own scientific ends.24 In this case, physics was useful for national security because of practical projects such as the creation of quantum clocks or laser technology for the military. In contrast to McDougall, Forman believes Sputnik was not important in creating this new relationship, instead pointing to World War II as the beginning of militarized science. The war spurred scientific laboratories and institutions, such as universities, to focus on military priorities, creating a dependence on federal funding for scientific research. Forman suggests that physicists not longer have control over their field, and that Cold War politics dictates their research priorities.25

Historians such as Ronald Doel and Naomi Oreskes have reinforced Forman’s notion of politicization of science by expanding its approach to other fields of science besides physics. In

“Constituting the Postwar Earth Sciences: The Military’s Influence on the Environmental

Sciences in the USA after 1945”, Doel extends Forman’s ideas to the earth sciences such as geology and environmental science. Once again challenging the political neutrality of science, his article argues that “knowledge of Earth’s environment itself was shaped by the Cold War.”26

To Doel, the Cold War influenced not just the way science operated institutionally but the actual knowledge it produced. The military invested significant resources into the earth sciences to benefit radar systems, survey floors, and better understand atmospheric science, causing a spike in the number of earth scientists and relevant journals and organizations. In this case, military patronage created both the infrastructure for modern and the priorities which scientists considered important. The earth sciences played a role in the development of international treaties during the Cold War such as weapon negotiations between the United

24 Ibid, 150. 25 Ibid, 228-229. 26 Ronald Doel, “Constituting the Postwar Earth Sciences: The Military’s Influence on the Environmental Sciences in the USA after 1945,” Social Studies of Science 33 (October 2003), 637. 15

States and Soviets through research such as on the effects of radiation on ecosystems. As a result of the Cold War, these scientific fields now had an intimate connection with American politics.

Doel’s emphasis on the military influencing the production of knowledge is in contrast with this thesis’s focus on Mars, which does not share a similar military connection. Although Mars is not a politically neutral topic, the military or government did not impose interest in it upon scientists.

Similarly, Oreskes’s influential article, “A Context of Motivation: US Navy

Oceanography Research and the Discovery of Sea-Floor Hydrothermal Vents,” reinforces that postwar science is motivated by military or other national security priorities. She examines the

Deep Submergence Research Vehicle, a Big Science submarine that benefitted from military support and eventually became a tool for the military, to explain the connection between politics and science. Although scientists originally intended to use the submarine for deep sea research on creatures such as the giant squid and geological formations such as hydrothermal vents, the solicitation of military patronage caused priorities such as monitoring Soviet submarines to win out over scientific ones. Oreskes emphasizes the importance of motivations as influential to scientific priorities. She explains her arguments as follows:

The political context of the Cold War provided justification for major financial

investments in exploration of the deep sea. But, perhaps equally important, it provided

motivation for scientists to work on issues of military and political concern, a context that

helps to explain scientists’ own sense of satisfaction with their achievements.27

Scientists actively sought military support to provide a sense of importance to national security.

This thesis relates with Oreskes’s case study as a similar example of Big Science in a Cold War

27 Naomi Oreskes, “A Context of Motivation: US Navy Oceanography Research and the Discovery of Sea-Floor Hydrothermal Vents,” Social Studies of Science 33 (October 2003), 700. 16 context, but, in contrast to the submarine, Martian researchers did not seek military support for their projects. Mars demonstrates that social factors and scientific interests still motivated some

Cold War projects with political interests playing less of a role than in the case of the submarine.

Mars contrasts with Oreskes’s example because political motivation is not the primary driver for scientific interest.

In a recent, 2013 book entitled Life Atomic: A History of Radioisotopes in Science and

Medicine, Angela Creager highlights some of the institutional and political context that affected science throughout the Cold War. She examines the formation and evolution of the Atomic

Energy Commission (AEC) and its regulation of radioactive materials such as radioisotopes.

This case study reveals the ways government and science interact on an institutional, political, and bureaucratic basis, as the government was the overseer of distributing radioisotopes to scientific laboratories. Creager argues that the connection between government and science is not as clear as described by previous historians such as Forman, explaining that “radioisotopes, as part of a classic “dual-use” technology, exemplify the blurriness of the civilian-military divide” while adding that “the civilian-military boundary, although porous, was nonetheless important politically and culturally.”28 To her, the relationship between government and science is complex and not necessarily antagonistic because both sides influence each other. In this case, the government acted as a distributor of radioisotopes with the objective of devising peaceful applications to nuclear science. This distribution gave scientists access to materials previously difficult to obtain, allowing them to conduct research that generally aligned with their personal scientific interests. In this case, the government did not militarize science, but it promoted research for its own political gain while scientists benefited from AEC regulation.

28 Creager, Angela N. H. Life Atomic: A History of Radioisotopes in Science and Medicine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013, 19. 17

Creager’s argument on the civilian-military boundary is applicable to an analysis of

Martian research. There was no apparent militarization of Martian science and related projects within NASA, but there still existed a clear connection between these projects and the government. Just as the AEC acted as distributor of resources for scientists, the federal government, through NASA, provided scientists interested in Mars with the funding and infrastructure necessary for missions such as the Mariner series and Viking. When the Martian program began in the 1960s, the US government had an interest in promoting space science to challenge Soviet science, and this interest gave enthusiastic scientists the opportunity to organize

Martian missions. As mentioned earlier, government priorities changed as the Cold War continued, and on occasion, such as with the space shuttle, military related projects forced

NASA to postpone Martian ones, but there already existed a foundation for Martian research to continue. Overall, the Cold War’s institutional effects on science did not initiate interest in Mars but helped spur its growth within NASA.

Mars and Big Science

Forman cemented a relationship between science and the Cold War that other scholars have continued to characterize, including by addressing the rise of Big Science. The term Big

Science arose during the 1950s and 1960s as a label for the new, institutionalized means of conducting science in the Cold War.29 Martian exploration is an example of Big Science because it requires external funding, in this case government funding, as well as the support of a coalition of scientists across multiple fields. Historians have debated the characterization of Big Science and its relationship with its surrounding political context. For example, James Capshew and

Karen Rider explain in their article, “Big Science: Price to the Present,” that Big Science is a

29 Derek De Solla Price, Little Science, Big Science-- and beyond. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 2- 4. 18 complex subject with many different associated characterizations depending on the scientist’s role within Big Science. They describe Big Science “as a label for projects that required large- scale organization, massive commitments of funds, and complex technological systems.”30

Money and scale appear to characterize Big Science more than anything else. Yet, to Capshew and Rader, the term Big Science obscures many other important developments in science’s expansion during the Cold War. For example, scientists criticized this new form of science for its ethical concerns in which scientists are now part of larger groups with less capacity to speak as individuals. This change was one of many science underwent as a result of Big Science and the

Cold War.

Peter Galison argues for a similar approach to Big Science that incorporates its complex and diverse impacts on science as a discipline. To Galison, the most important aspect of Big

Science is the way “change in the scale of science has required scientists to align their activities with broader elements of the society.”31 Scientists had to incorporate their research within society in order to garner social and political support for their practices. It was not enough to conduct Big Science for the sake of science; instead, the projects had to offer a connection with society. This characterization coincides with this thesis’s argument that scientists justified

Martian missions by arguing for its practical benefits to society, such as helping answer whether human life is unique or whether Mars could serve as a destination for manned travel, and appealed to cultural fascination with Mars. Yet, in contrast to Galison’s statement, scientists interested in Mars also emphasized its importance to science as a whole, insisting that the knowledge attainable from Mars was significant enough to warrant missions. These scientists did

30 James Capshew and Karen Rader, “Big Science: Price to the Present,” Osiris 7 (1992), 4. 31 Peter Galison, “The Many Faces of Big Science,” in Big Science: The Growth of Large-Scale Research, ed. Peter Galison and Bruce Hevly, (Stanford: Press, 1992), 2. 19 not suggest a tangible, technological product for society to clearly benefit from, instead romanticizing Mars as an ideal destination for space-based research.

Mars was a unique type of Big Science similar to the Hubble Space Telescope as Robert

Smith describes in his chapter, “The Biggest Kind of Big Science: Astronomers and the Space

Telescope.” He argues that the telescope’s development was possible because of a process of coalition building in which different types of astronomers had to reach a consensus on their funding priorities. To , it is crucial for historians to understand the “assemblage” of various scientific institutions such as universities or laboratories.32 Projects related to Mars required similar coalition building between scientists, and the ability of Mars to attract a wide variety of scientists was an important factor in its success as a topic of research.

The connection between the government and Big Science was an important subject for historians at the end of the Cold War as they assessed science’s new, institutional role within society. One example that is particularly applicable to this thesis is Daniel Kevles’s 1997 article entitled “Big Science and Big Politics in the United States: Reflections on the Death of the SSC and the life of the Human Genome Project.” He examines two particular examples of Big

Science that arose during the late 1980s and early 1990s as the Cold War subsided: the

Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) and the Human Genome Project. Although both were expensive projects that required federal funding, the SSC failed to garner support while the

Human Genome Project succeeded. The reason for these different trajectories, according to

Kevles, was the broad appeal of the Genome Project to both science and society that the SSC could not offer. The former’s goals were clear, intelligible, and beneficial to the medicine and

32 Robert W. Smith, “The Biggest Kind of Big Science: Astronomers and the Space Telescope,” in Big Science: The Growth of Large-Scale Research, ed. Peter Galison and Bruce Hevly, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), 209. 20 biology, whereas the SSC appealed only to physicists and not tangible advantages. Scientists argued that the Genome Project would produce a “compendium of comparably fundamental knowledge that will serve as the basis for medicine of future decades.”33 Kevles’s emphasis on practicality supports the main argument of this thesis that interest in Mars persisted because of a belief scientists perpetuated that studying Mars is inherently useful to society. In contrast to

Kevles, Martian research occurred over a lengthy period of time in which Big Science projects predominantly associated with national security, as described in the previous section. Mars is a unique topic because scientists relied on Big Science projects to research it but they did not connect it to military priorities or medical benefits such as the Human Genome Project.

Science and Society

Mars also highlights the expanding relationship between science and society in the postwar period. Some social implications related to Martian research include the increased institutionalization of science that affected the way scientists operated their research. Historians such as Michael Aaron Dennis and David as mentioned below explain how new social structures created in this period changed the processes involved in conducting science. Science became a more collective enterprise that expanded considerably in personnel and institutions, and this collective approach, as noted above in relation to Big Science, was important for

Martian research. Social context was an essential component of Mars’s consistent presence within space science, and these circumstances further the point that interest in Mars is not scientifically or naturally based but socially crafted.

33 Daniel Kevles, “Big Science and Big Politics in the United States: Reflections on the Death of the SSC and the life of the Human Genome Project,” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 27 (1997), 295. 21

Michael Aaron Dennis has written on the militarization of university laboratories in an article entitled “Our First Line of Defense: Two University Laboratories in the Postwar

American State.” Through two examples of university laboratories, namely at MIT and John

Hopkins University, he elaborates on how scientists attempted to retain their institutions by incorporating them into a demilitarized society. Instead of shifting away from military priorities, these laboratories attempted to appease new national security priorities at the cost of increased classification of their research and influence by the government over research agendas. Dennis calls this process an active one in which scientists, the military, and the government encouraged this new relationship.34 This argument adds to Forman’s suggestion on government influence over science by pointing out that scientists actively sought these developments, perhaps without foreseeing the consequences, instead of just the government forcing changes on them.35 Dennis’s article is useful to this thesis, which focuses on scientists specifically, because it demonstrates that scientists had some agency in the changes their disciplines underwent. Scientists devised their priorities amongst themselves, convincing each other, and then the rest of society, that their expenses are worthwhile.

David Kaiser offers a thorough examination of social changes within science in his article, “The Postwar Suburbanization of American Physics.” After noting that historians generally only examine physics in terms of its political context during the Cold War, he explains that “just as there is more to American history than political history, however, so too did the history of physics in America depend upon, reflect, and contribute to broader features of

34 Michael Aaron Dennis, “Our First Line of Defense: Two University Laboratories in the Postwar American State,” Isis 85 (September 1994), 428. 35 One example of Forman’s argument applied to space science is Joseph Tatarerwicz’s book Space Technology & Planetary Astronomy. He argues that ’s rise during the Cold War was a result of political context in which the US supported space research through NASA to counter the Soviet Union. See the conclusion of this text for more details. 22

American life than the overtly political.”36 Instead of focusing on politics, Kaiser highlights how physics underwent social changes that produced an entirely different profession than existed before World War II. With a surge of new students, university programs, and employment opportunities, physics became a mainstream, suburban profession in which physicists complained about a lack of individualism. As a result, physics as a profession was a reflection of a changing American society in the 1950s. Similar to this thesis, Kaiser emphasizes social factors over political ones as useful for situating science within American society. Mars is another topic that demonstrates how science can reflect institutional and societal influences on the discipline.

Likewise, historian Paul Erickson has argued that Cold War politics is not the only influential factor for postwar science. His article, “Mathematical Models, Rational Choice, and the Search for Cold War Culture,” suggests that historians can only learn so much by focusing on

Cold War militarization of science. By analyzing the proliferation of mathematical models in social sciences, he asserts that “focus on the influence of Cold War national security imperatives can explain the origins of some prominent mathematical techniques for analyzing rational choice, they do not explain these techniques’ subsequent appropriation, often long after the development of the mathematics in question… They also fail to account for the exceptional persistence of rational choice approaches in these fields, often in the absence of any detectable military influence.”37 Erickson’s analysis is comparable to Martian exploration, as both are fields that inherit ideas or organization from Cold War political interests, but they apply these structures in ways absent of military incursion. As he writes, social scientists used rational choice models because they perceived them as practical for their fields, not because they offered a

36 David Kaiser, “The Postwar Suburbanization of American Physics,” American Quarterly 56 (December 2004), 853. 37 Paul Erickson, “Mathematical Models, Rational Choice, and the Search for Cold War Culture,” Isis 101 (June 2010), 388. 23 connection to national politics. Likewise, many scientists perceived Mars as inherently useful for their field, as a unique source of knowledge that could produce new theories and understandings of the universe. They did not decide to invest so heavily in Mars to appease political priorities but because they believed it was of utmost interest to science, a belief American society listened to and incorporated.

Of course, there is no denying the importance of Cold War foreign policy and its influence over postwar science, and, most recently, historians have combined politics with social and disciplinary interests to create a more nuanced interpretation of Forman’s theory. For example, William Dejong- and Nikolai Krementsov describe the connection between politic ideology and science in the 2012 article “On Labels and Issues: The Lysenko Controversy and the Cold War.” In this particular controversy, Trofim Lysenko, a Soviet academy president, exclaimed that genetics is divided into two trends. One is Western dominated and based on

Mendelism while the other has a Soviet origin, named after Ivan Michurin. Soviet scientists supported the latter methodology, insisting on its veracity, while Western scientists argued fervently against it. As the authors suggest in the article, “the Cold War… gave science an unprecedented symbolic value as a propaganda tool in the competition between the two opposing blocs. In this context, any discipline, regardless of its military value could and did become a

Cold War battlefield…”38 Even a field as apparently politically neutral as genetics was a realm for Cold War ideologies to clash between Americans and Soviets. According to the authors, the

Cold War is an important context for not just the objectives scientists focus on but also the way they debate differing theories across national boundaries. This thesis examines Mars in a

38 William Dejong-Lambert and Nikolai Kremenstov, “On Labels and Issues: The Lysenko Controversy and the Cold War,” Journal of the History of Biology (2012), 385. 24 different lens than that suggested by Dejong-Lambert and Krementsov. Although the Cold War politically encouraged Martian research, scientists did not characterize it as a battleground.


Since this thesis focuses on scientists and their individual and collective perceptions of

Mars, it is important to first explain who these scientists were and their connection to the field of space science. Although political context allowed large scale Martian research to develop, as stated above, the scientists, not politicians or Congress, receive the most attention within this thesis because its objective is to analyze the continuity of scientific interest in Mars. Politics is certainly involved, such as when major missions to Mars such as Viking had to receive

Congressional approval, and this thesis occasionally highlights the rhetoric NASA officials used to convince Congress of the projects’ legitimacy which was generally similar to rationale used by scientists interested in Mars in public magazines and journals.

Space science is a broad term that encompasses any scientific research related to topics that one can study from and in space, such as stars, planets, or galaxies. This field is similar to but broader than other disciplines like astronomy or astrophysics, which are both examples of space science. The field differs from prior disciplines focusing on celestial objects because of its ability to gather data remotely with probes or satellites. In space science, the experiments are conducted outside of Earth. Throughout this thesis, especially in relation to speculation on extraterrestrial life, many scientists involved in Martian research were biologists with backgrounds in genetics or other life science fields. Some scientists involved were geologists with an interest in analyzing Martian rocks and its surface for comparison with the Earth. Others

25 were chemists focusing on the chemical contents of Mars’s soil. When referred to collectively, this thesis often uses the term space scientists or, more specifically, Mars-interested scientists.

Largely, this thesis does not intend to generalize to all scientists, and this analysis considers just those scientists that engage in research related to Mars or add input to ongoing debates.39

The thesis uses mostly published sources in standard scientific journals or in media publications such as magazines and newspapers, and, as a result, does not provide in depth biographies of the scientists. Instead, it focuses on the way scientists perceived Mars and explained their interest to other scientists and to the public. Nonetheless, there are some scientists that reoccur throughout these chapters because of their dedication to Martian research. Carl

Sagan (1934-1996) was a famous figure throughout this period because of his reputation as a public face of science, and his rhetoric often advocated for large scale missions to Mars.40 Less famous but still notable was Gerald Soffen (1926-2000) who was the primary project manager for the Viking missions and a major proponent of the existence of life on Mars throughout these chapters. Another such figure was (1915-2005) who conducted research in

Antarctica that appeared to demonstrate that life could exist in harsh, Mars-like conditions. He also designed one of the life-detecting experiments Viking conducted on Mars. These individual scientists show that, although these missions were certainly Big Science and involved large teams, particular personalities often stood out and represented these sizeable project. As a result, this thesis does not claim to provide a true consensus on how many scientists believed Mars was important or perceived it as an Earth-like planet. Instead, it relies on these individuals because they were often voices for NASA or the teams involved in creating these missions.

39 Joseph Taterwicz’s book Space Technology & Planetary Astronomy offers a history of modern planetary astronomy, which is a space science field focused on planets such as Mars. 40 See his biography, Poundstone, William. : A Life in the Cosmos. New York: Holt, 1999.


It is also important to define what this thesis means by terms like the American public or the American media that arise throughout the chapters. The public refers to Americans that are not a part of a scientific institution related to Martian research and the audience for news articles published by major newspapers and magazines. This audience is generally educated Americans with an interest in scientific developments. The American media includes large, national publications such as The New York Times or Discover magazine that had and have national circulation. These publications provide representations of how scientists perceive Mars while also showing which attributes of Mars receive the most attention from the media. Although this thesis focuses on Mars from the perspective of scientists, Mars undoubtedly also fascinates the

American public and media. Countless movies have depicted humans embarking on voyages to

Mars or meeting often unfriendly Martian neighbors in romanticized stories. This thesis, particularly in the first chapter, attempts to illustrate a parallel between the rise of scientific interest in Mars with public speculation on UFOs and aliens. This fantasized perception of Mars as a mysterious, lively world appears even in scientific publications in this thesis. This social characterization of Mars likely plays a role in Mars’s consistent popularity within science throughout this period.41

In terms of organization, this exposition chronologically maps the development of

Martian research from its inception within NASA in the 1960s up through the year 2000. Each chapter focuses on a particular period defined by the specific missions to Mars that NASA undertook during those years. Space scientists generally use these missions to demarcate new eras in research because of the major discoveries these missions produce. Large missions such as the Mariner series or Viking were the only means for scientists to uncover new information

41 Historian Howard McCurdy addresses the broad connection between space science and culture in his book, Space and the American Imagination. He explains how NASA and space scientists used rhetoric that appealed to public sentiments on space exploration and extraterrestrial life to advocate for their projects. 27 because of Mars’s distance from Earth. Although supplementary research did occur between missions, this thesis uses the missions as turning points in Mars’s history within space science.

Each chapter highlights the way scientific perceptions of Mars both remained consistent in some ways across these eras and changed as a result of these missions.

The first chapter considers the initiation of large scale Martian research in the late 1950s and early 1960s and the first American , Mariner IV. The purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate what perceptions dominated scientific discussions related to Mars when direct, institutionalized research began and what interests motivated the formation of large scale, interplanetary missions within NASA. Essentially, this chapter sketches the origins and foundations of scientific interest in Mars with which later projects built upon. Although astronomers and other space scientists had theorized on Mars’s characteristics since the nineteenth-century, during this particular period scientists were finally able to conduct direct research on Mars through robotic probes. This new capability spurred renewed debate over

Mars’s physical qualities, most notably whether it possesses some form of organic material.

Before Mariner IV, some biologists and space scientists speculated that simple forms of plants grew on Mars as evidenced by dark patches that streak along the planet’s surface and adjust in size as Mars’s seasons change. The social context of this period is also important because, during the 1950s and 1960s, there was increasing interest among Americans in the existence of extraterrestrial life. UFO sightings spiked, and there was a debate among scientists as to whether

UFOs were an area worthy of scientific research. As a result, the application of extraterrestrial life as an explanation for particular observations on Mars was reasonable even among scientists.

Initially, NASA’s Martian program was relatively small compared to its twenty-first century structure, and Mariner IV was a modest first step into Martian exploration. The mission’s limited

28 results contained only a few dozen images with no major data collection, but these images surprised exobiologists and other Mars enthusiasts. The pictures revealed a desolate, cratered world more comparable to the Moon than Earth with no sign of the speculated vegetation.

Although disappointing, this discrepancy between what scientists observed on Earth and Mariner

IV’s findings meant further research was necessary to clarify what kind of world Mars actually was. Even though it did not discover life, Mariner IV showed how instrumental Martian exploration was to the scientific understanding of the universe by conflicting with predominant theories.

The second chapter is more narrowly constrained than the other two as it focuses just on one particular mission, namely the . Often described as the most significant of all

Martian missions, Viking revolutionized scientific perceptions of Mars and had a profound effect on the way NASA conducted future missions to the planet. This chapter describes the early characterization of Viking by scientists involved in its development to gauge the mission’s scientific and rhetorical purpose, and then it examines the mission’s immediate implications for scientific perceptions of Mars. From its beginnings, Viking was an ambitious mission that would land on Mars’s surface and conduct analysis of its soil, atmosphere, geology, and more. Its primary objective, as NASA and Viking project members made clear, was to search for life on

Mars. This goal highlighted the belief that Mars was a crucible for knowledge on life and its evolution within the solar system, an instrumental planet to science and society. By attempting to uncover life on Mars, NASA scientists argued that they were seeking to understand the place of

Earth and its life within the universe. As a result of this objective, Viking, more than any other

Mars mission, catapulted Mars’s significance in the eyes of scientists. Viking included instruments designed for a number of different scientific fields, more than just biology,

29 demonstrating an increased collective effort to study Mars among scientists. Yet, like Mariner

IV, Viking’s discoveries were unsettling for some scientists, particularly exobiologists. The two

Viking landers did not uncover any sign of organic material in Mars’s soil. The planet was cold, lacked a thick atmosphere, and appeared geologically dead. Suddenly, Viking was no longer the beginning of a new era in Martian exploration but rather the end of the Martian program. The most inspiring quality of Mars was no longer viable, and that meant, as some scientists believed, further research would struggle to find support. Viking changed the fundamental way scientists perceived Mars, forcing a shift away from the belief that the planet was a habitable world.

Finally, the third chapter considers the period roughly from 1980 through 2000 to explain the formation of the most recent wave of Martian research. This period is particularly interesting because it reveals how interest in Mars was able to resurface despite the concerns mentioned above that the planet was no longer useful to science because of Viking’s discoveries. This worry among space scientists grew as Congress hamstrung NASA’s funding with most of NASA’s budget focused on projects considered more pertinent such as the space shuttle. Yet, as NASA scientists continued to peruse Viking’s extensive datasets, a renew belief that Mars was a scientific priority grew in the mid and late 1980s. Although Mars did not currently possess life,

Viking data suggested that Mars once had a warmer, wetter environment than observed by various Martian missions. Particular geologists and biologists, such as Christopher McKay and

Michael Carr, depicted Mars as a sibling world to the Earth, believing that both worlds once shared a wet, warmer history. Such conditions would promote the development of life, and this history raised questions as to why Mars lost this habitable setting whereas Earth’s environment has remained intact. As this new conception of Mars spread in scientific and popular publications, interested scientists believed Mars was once again important because it could

30 reveal information on the evolution of planets, the solar system, and life. This new perception encouraged the revival of NASA’s Martian program which launched three new missions from

1992 to 1996. Although the first mission failed, the other two, Global Surveyor and Pathfinder, began a long search by NASA for water and other signs of Mars’s more habitable past. There was now considerable momentum within NASA to pursue Martian research as a long term project. Additionally, other discoveries such as the suggestion by David McKay and others that they found organic material in a propelled Mars to the forefront of space science. This period establishes the foundation of a new era of Martian exploration that has continued throughout the twenty-first century.

The narrative in this thesis is one of stark growth and consistency unusual among space science topics such as the Moon or Venus during this postwar period. Beginning as a modest enterprise oriented mostly toward exobiologists, Martian research has expanded into a field encompassing many different disciplines that now receives consistent support from NASA. As momentum continues to build for even more ambitious missions, particularly manned operations to Mars, this thesis hopes to enlighten both historians and other scholars on how Mars has become such a ubiquitous emblem of science in space.


Chapter 1:

The Next Frontier: The Origins of Mars in Modern Space Science

1965 was a year of both jubilation and heartbreak for scientists involved in developing the first Martian probe. The Martian program had begun within NASA, but, because of this probe, the program’s future was already in doubt. Dubbed Mariner IV, this first mission initiated

NASA’s investment in Mars when it visited the planet from orbit and provided the first direct images of its surface. The mission was especially exciting for some scientists, particularly exobiologists, who believed that life inhabited Mars. To their dismay, craters and a landscape reminiscent of the Moon littered Mariner IV’s images, showing no signs of living organisms on the planet. Mars’s most important feature to science appeared nonexistent, and this lack of life presented a setback to both future Mars missions and other interplanetary projects. Physicist John

Simpson of the University of Chicago feared that “Mariner 4 transformed a wide band of speculation into a narrow band of fact.” This transformation could was a problem because “the narrow band of fact is by no means as attractive as the speculation was.”1 The prior conjecture that Mars was habitable was far more practical and exciting to science than a world of merely rocks and dust. Yet, despite this apparent setback, no such cessation of the Martian program occurred, and interest in Mars continued to proliferate among American scientists. This contradictory situation is this chapter’s central theme.

This chapter’s goal is to explain the foundation established for Martian exploration within space science during the 1960s and the impact of the first Martian mission. It will consider the period from the 1950s through the mid-1960s, when Mars first received serious investment from

1 Richard Lewis, “The Message from Mariner 4,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 21, November 1965, 40. 32 scientific institutions, to analyze why the planet became such a ubiquitous topic in space science.

Of course, some scientists, such as Percival Lowell, studied Mars even before this period, but, as the Space Age began, interest in Mars expanded and culminated in NASA sponsored missions to

Mars. This chapter argues, as with the rest of them, that extensive scientific interest in Mars is a result of a socially influenced and incorporated belief among scientists that extraterrestrial life inhabits Mars, a belief they sought to affirm because of its scientific and social implications. This influence derives from particular social context within which Martian research in space science began. During the 1960s, when NASA began launching Martian missions, various films and constant interest in UFOs and aliens exposed Americans to the concept of extraterrestrial life.

This social context fostered the growth of a contingent of scientists advocating for researching

Martian life.

It is possible that these scientists were merely taking advantage of this situation to gain funding or advocate for other research, but extraterrestrial life dominated discourse within scientific publications, conferences, and NASA characterizations of Mariner IV. A large of scientists seemed to agree to the importance of extraterrestrial life. In this particular period, exobiologists, a new scientific discipline focused particularly on extraterrestrial life, emphasized the importance of studying Mars to better understand the evolution of life in the universe. They believed that such a discovery would revolutionize not only biology but humanity’s views of science and the universe. As a result, there was much fame and influence to gain from investing in Martian research. To exobiologists in the early 1960s, Mars was a likely candidate for uncovering life, or it at least had an environment comparable to the Earth’s. Therefore, they believed scientists should prioritize Martian research by sending probes to analyze the planet directly.


The most fascinating aspect of this period is the response to Mariner IV’s discoveries in which scientists appeared reluctant to accept the probe’s findings. Mariner IV arrived at Mars in

1965, but its discoveries did not affirm the belief of a lively Mars and instead returned images of a desolate, lifeless planet to the disappointment of exobiologsts. With no signs of vegetation on its surface, some scientists worried that NASA’s and possibly its interplanetary program would lose their relevance. Without a biological lure that appealed to broad interest in alien life, Mars was another rocky body with no apparent practical utility for science or society.

Yet, exobiologists argued that Mariner IV was inconclusive, that its imagery was deceptive and did not provide a complete portrait of Mars’s environment. To them, the possibility of uncovering life on Mars, even if small, was too compelling to give up on future Mars missions.

This episode in Mars’s history in space science demonstrates both the particular reasons for

Mars’s consistent appeal to the scientific community as well as the way scientists rationalized setbacks. It is noteworthy that at no point during the period covered in this chapter did scientists ever offer evidence that life exists on Mars, and Mariner IV’s images appeared to disprove such beliefs, but many scientists argued against the data and continued believing in Martian life. This rationalization is contrary to the scientific notion of empirically determined knowledge and shows that other influences, namely social context, played a role in Mars’s elevation within space science.2

2 David Bloor is the primary scholar to advocate for social influence over science through his strong progamme. As he points out, scientists cannot create knowledge from logic or reason alone. Outside factors change the way scientists create theories and interpret data. David Bloor, Knowledge and Social Imagery, (: Routledge & K. Paul, 1976), 8-13. 34

Background: Space, Mars, and Aliens in the 1950s

Before analyzing Mars’s role within the US space program, first it is important to establish how scientists and American society perceived Mars before the advent of interplanetary missions. Astronomer Dean B. McLaughlin, professor at the , in 1956 acknowledged the sheer significance of Mars in the public eye, noting that “probably no other celestial object ranks with Mars in popular interest” and that “on purely scientific grounds…

Mars should have a wide appeal.”3 As McLaughlin noted, Mars had many interesting features to both the public and scholars, such as the meteorology of Mars’s atmosphere and the geology of its surface, but the most important characteristic was the possible existence of extraterrestrial life. Before the initiation of interplanetary missions, scientists relied upon Earth-based instruments to conduct research on Mars. The large distance between the Earth and Mars, as well as the of the Earth’s atmosphere, limited the effectiveness of telescopes and other instruments scientists used. Nonetheless, scientists made concerted efforts to analyze Mars’s physical features, coming to uncertain conclusions about the structure of its surface.

The most interesting physical features of Mars to scientists before Mariner IV were its atmosphere’s composition and surface geology, both related to the survival of life in its environment. Without the ability to sample its atmosphere directly, astronomers relied on , or the process of analyzing the characteristics of light reflected from Mars, to identify its composition. McLaughlin commented in his summary of Mars’s features that

“concerning the composition of the atmosphere, we have only a little direct information… concerning the main constituent of the atmosphere, we have no direct evidence.”4 He speculated

3 Dean B. McLaughlin, “New Interpretation of the Surface of Mars,” The Scientific Monthly 83 (1956): 176. 4 Ibid, 178. 35 on an atmosphere of mostly with some argon while noting that spectroscopy cannot detect nitrogen. winning chemist also suggested a composition of mostly nitrous compounds in a 1962 paper, but French astronomer Gerald De Vaucouleurs at the

University of Texas at Austin pointed out that, even in the early 1960s, the atmosphere’s

“composition and structure remain poorly determined.”5 A Science News Letter article in 1963 characterized the atmosphere as 93.8% nitrogen, 4% argon, and 2.2% carbon dioxide.6 In comparison, as of 2016, NASA cites Mars’s atmosphere as 96% carbon dioxide, 1.93% argon, and only 1.89% nitrogen.7 This discrepancy demonstrates that understanding of the Martian atmosphere before Mariner IV was mostly based on educated estimates, and would change considerably with future research.

The other primary point of interest among scientists about Mars was its geology.

Technological limitations severely impeded attempts to characterize Mars’s surface, particularly the development origins of various geological features. De Vaucouleurs explained that “even with our largest telescopes we cannot observe Mars in more detail than we can observe the Moon through low-power binoculars.”8 With no space-based telescopes, astronomers relied on hazy photographs from large observatory telescopes to map Mars’s surface, only able to discern the biggest features. Among the most notable geological mysteries were the striking polar caps, which stand out as bright white patches on Mars’s red surface. These polar caps presented a possible source of .9 The other most significant features were Mars’s so

5 Melvin Calvin, “From to Mars,” AIDS Bulletin 12 (1962): 41. Gerald De Vaucouveurs, “The Planet Mars: Our Mysterious Neighbor,” The American Scholar 31 (1961-62): 43. 6 “Mars Less Hazardous,” Science News Letter 83 (1963): 102. 7 “Mars Facts,” NASA, http://mars.nasa.gov/allaboutmars/facts/#?c=theplanet&s=composition. 8 De Vaucouveurs, “The Planet Mars,” 42. 9 Scientists considered liquid water a necessary component for life. Water acts as a solvent for organic materials, such as proteins and DNA, to operate in. Life on Earth relies on water more than anything else, meaning scientists believed extraterrestrial life would also require water. 36 called canals which are large valleys crossing its surface, and its odd, dark striations, or bands of dark material that obscure some of its usual red hue. By the late 1950s, scientists had dismissed notions that the canals were artificial irrigation systems, but the canals did suggest that liquid water at some point flowed along Mars’s surface. Some astronomers such as McLaughlin explained these as possibly a result of volcanic activity, as Mars’s large volcanoes are noticeable on its surface. The dark striations remained contentious amongst astronomers until Mariner IV, with most scientists attributing them to vegetation growing seasonally on the planet. The subsequent section will discuss this debate in more detail. These characteristics of Mars demonstrated to some scientists that they required further research than the analysis possible on

Earth to properly understand the planet.

Of course, the single most alluring quality that Mars had in the eyes of the American public and some scientists was speculation that extraterrestrial life thrives upon its surface. Other historians have well explained the immense interest in space, science fiction, and alien life in the

1950s and 1960s imbedded in American culture. Mars was one of the most romanticized aspects of space science because of the belief that it harbored the closest extraterrestrials to Earth.

Howard E. McCurdy characterizes this allure of alien life well in his book, Space and the

American Imagination¸ insisting that “no explanation has had more influence on support for space exploration than the belief that humans are not alone… exploration advocates advanced the view that life, either primitive or advanced, could be found within the solar system, most probably on Venus or Mars.”10 The possible existence of life outside Earth was the most appealing reason for the American public to support exploration. Scientists too were caught up in this social fascination with extraterrestrial life, and this social context fostered suggestions that

10 Howard E. McCurdy, Space and the American Imagination (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1997), 121. 37

Mars currently possess life appear reasonable. NASA historian Stephen Dick also displayed the true enormity of American interest in alien life in his book, The Biological Universe: The

Twentieth Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate and the Limits of Science. He establishes in the book that “the idea of extraterrestrial life has been a major theme of twentieth century science and popular culture,” arguing that this notion pervaded throughout American society.11 Space exploration and extraterrestrials were a familiar concept to Americans by 1960 thanks to these cultural themes.

Aliens were a popular point of debate within science and garnered notable media attention. It is difficult to quantify how widespread the belief in aliens was, but one 1973 Gallup poll stated that 46% of Americans believed in the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life.12

Intelligent life includes beings with civilizations similar to human ones, and scientists often distinguish between intelligent and unintelligent life, the latter including less socially organized organisms such as plants or bacteria. UFOs were a continuous source of controversy within the

United States with many Americans believing them to have extraterrestrial causes. Multiple government agencies invested time into investigating UFOs.13 Stephen Dick collected data on the number of UFO reports per month in the 1950s and 1960s, with some years such as 1958 and

1966 having over 1000 reported sightings nationwide.14 The 1950s and 1960s also produced a number of films and television shows related to extraterrestrials, including The Thing (1951),

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1953), (1966), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The existence of life on other worlds was a prevalent theme in American culture, whether Americans

11 Steven J. Dick, The Biological Universe: The Twentieth Century Extraterrestrial Debate and the Limits of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 3. 12 Darren K. Carlson, “Life On Mars?” Gallup, http://www.gallup.com/poll/1957/Life- Mars.aspx?utm_source=extraterrestrial&utm_medium=search&utm_campaign=tiles. 13 Dick, 4. 14 Ibid, 270. 38 believed them to actually exist or simply saw them in their local theater. This cultural context offered a conducive backdrop for scientists to debate the existence of extraterrestrial life on


A new field of scientists, deemed exobiologists, similarly expressed a strong interest in discovering habitable worlds, believing it would reveal important new knowledge that would produce practical benefits to science and impact its surrounding society. Astronomr Gerald

Soffen of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), an engineering division of NASA, bluntly stated in 1963 that “for biology, and perhaps for all of the scientific space program, one question stands out: ‘Is there life on Mars?’”15 For astronomers and biologists, such a discovery would carry important significance that could overhaul existing axioms of life, its origins, and its evolution.

A group of biologists let by Levin, an engineer at John Hopkins University under contract with NASA, in 1962 described their interest in extraterrestrial life succinctly, that

“biologists suddenly find themselves on the brink of one of man’s most tantalizing experiments – the search for life beyond his planet.”16 They labeled the search as an experiment, a scientific endeavor that could either affirm or disprove existing paradigms on biological understanding of life. They explained that, despite possible differences between terrestrial, i.e. life on Earth, and

Martian life, “new knowledge would be gained concerning the evolution of life on both planets” if scientists conducted experiments and exploration to find Martian life.17 Similarly, Nobel Prize winning chemist Melvin Calvin shared this sentiment in 1964, stating that uncovering organic material on other worlds “will add immeasurably not only to our intellectual horizon but directly

15 Gerald A. Soffen, “Implications of Morphology in the Investigation of Extraterrestrial Life,” The American Biology Teacher 25 (1963): 536. 16 Gilbert V. Levin et al., “’Gulliver’ – A Quest for Life on Mars,” Science 138 (1962): 114. 17 Ibid, 121. 39 to the knowledge of the nature of terrestrial organisms as well.”18 Many scientists believed that any life found outside of Earth would provide crucial new information on terrestrial life. What information they would unveil depended on how similar Martian life was to life here on Earth.

Explanations such as those by Calvin and Levin were often vague such that it is not clear exactly what benefits Mars offered to humanity, but they nonetheless emphasized its significance.

Both some scientists and the American public expressed vivid desires to discover whether life existed on Mars or not, but, as Earth-based instruments failed to provide an answer, only one alternative remained. “Space flight is here,” insisted Kent State University professor Charles

Wilber in 1963, “space travel is for the future.”19 Only a space mission to Mars could find such a startling discovery; however, as the following section will demonstrate, many scientists already felt that they knew answer or that, regardless of what type of life they discovered, Martian life held tremendous importance to scientific knowledge. As a result, organizing a Martian expedition became a firm priority.

The Ultimate Debate: Is there Life on Mars?

The question of whether life existed on Mars lingered among scientists throughout the

1950s and 1960s. It was the primary point of contention leading up to the first probe, Mariner IV, and it heavily influenced the scientific approach to Martian exploration. The debate consisted of largely two positions, namely those who strongly believed life existed on Mars and those who were skeptical that Mars could sustain any form of life. Both sides agreed that the only way to resolve the dispute was to send a probe and analyze the planet directly. These missions required

18 Calvin, “From Molecules to Mars”, 29. 19 Charles G. Wilber, “Exploration in Space,” BioScience 14 (1964): 30. 40 heavy funding, meaning there must exist broad support for their objectives, both among scientists and the American public or at least among politicians.

Although most scientists by the late 1950s rejected the existence of any intelligent, civilized life on Mars, they often referred to such civilized life to frame the importance of their search, as if the science fiction of discovering could become a reality. For example,

Melvin Calvin, the renowned chemist, suggested that “we are even beginning to discuss seriously and make a few small attempts at communications with extraterrestrial organisms who might have not only our minimal power of understanding but perhaps even powers far beyond those of which we know.”20 According to Calvin, the possibility of encountering intelligent beings was something some scientists believed they had to take seriously, even when simply examining Martian like Calvin was. Similarly, plant biologist Frank Salisbury of

Colorado State University, known as a staunch exobiologist, encouraged flexibility when considering intelligent life. He suggested that “it is but one more step (granted, a big one) to intelligent beings” from modest life forms such as lichens, and that “we should at least try to keep our minds open so that we could survive the initial shock of encountering them.”21 These scientists suggest an approach to aliens similar to the modern Search for Extraterrestrial

Intelligence (SETI) program in which astronomers have sent radio signals to distant worlds, as well as searched for habitable planets in other solar systems. Although actual belief in intelligent

Martians was limited within science, the use of rhetoric referencing aliens demonstrates the social nature of exobiology. Because there was no scientific reason to argue for the existence of intelligent life on Mars, the mere suggestion of its possibility shows that these scientists were

20 Calvin, “From Molecules to Mars,” 29. 21 Frank B. Salisbury, “Martian Biology,” Science 136 (1962): 26. 41 drawing from popular fascination with aliens in hopes of incorporating their science with

American society.

Instead, scientists studying exobiology focused on simpler life forms that explained observed phenomenon on Mars’s surface, namely plant-like organisms such as moss or lichen that might withstand Mars’s harsh conditions. As described above, astronomers understood that

Mars did not have in its atmosphere, and even the highest estimated surface temperatures were well below the Earth’s average temperature; however, one particular, physical aspect of

Mars suggested the existence of these simple organisms, namely the dark patches that appeared to cross its surface in telescopic observations. One scientist described this feature as “the seasonal variation of the darkness of bluish- areas on the otherwise orange-rusty planet”, an oddity frustrated astronomers with its inconsistency.22 The dark regions appeared to fade and reappear as Mars’s seasons changed, suggesting that these patterns were plants undergoing a cycle similar to flora on Earth in which they fade in density during the winter and blossom in the spring. Dr. William H. observed further variation, noting that “areas that were never dark have become dark, and a few dark areas have become light and have blended into the desert regions”, as if these plants could spread at random, much like a species might spread on Earth, depending on where its seeds land.23 Astronomers like Sinton suggested that these plants obtained water through Mars’s various canals in the summer, when the polar caps melted and released liquid water into the canals. These plants were not advanced civilizations as science fiction envisioned, but they represented a first step for scientists in discovering extraterrestrial life.

22 Roman Smoluchowski, “Is There Vegetation on Mars?,” Science 148 (1965): 946. 23 William M. Sinton, “Further Evidence of Vegetation on Mars,” Science 130 (1959): 1234. 42

For the most part, the theory that these dark areas on Mars were vegetation held was a dominant explanation up through Mariner IV’s launch in 1965. Generally, exobiologists did not expect to find a forest on Mars. A 1955 New York Times article suggested that astronomers generally agreed on Mars’s overall state as “a world in a sad state of decrepitude still able to support a struggling form of vegetation but nearing the end of its planetary life,” a description attributed to observations of Dr. Earl C. , a famous head of the Lowell Observatory in

Flagstaff, Arizona.24 This characterization suggested that visiting Mars was a priority before the life died off. Slipher had famously followed up on renowned observations that Percival Lowell conducted in the late nineteenth century which speculated that Mars has canals, and he advocated for the vegetation theory while describing Mars as decaying. The New York Times description was bleak in a way, since it displayed that astronomers understood that Martian life could not exist with the same diversity as Earth-based organisms, but at least some vegetation could still survive, and many scientists believed in the theory. De Vaucouleurs, for example, stated in 1961 that, based on the evidence collected by Slipher, Sinton, and other astronomers, “it therefore seems difficult to reject the hypothesis that some kind of living matter is concentrated in dark regions of Mars.”25 The observations appeared to convince some astronomers that the dark patches were plants, and science writer Willy Ley affirms in his post-mission synopsis of

Mariner IV that astronomers generally accepted the theory before the mission.26 Institutionally, a

1965 National Academy of Science (NAS) panel determined that it was “entirely reasonable” to think life exists on Mars.27 Although acceptance was not universal, as this section will show later, the belief in Martian vegetation fueled scientific interest of Mars, and it developed into the

24 W.K., “New Vegetation Found on Mars”, New York Times, September 25, 1955, E11. 25 De Vaucouleurs, “The Planet Mars”, 48. 26 Willy Ley, Mariner IV to Mars, (New York and Toronto: Signet, 1966), 110. 27 Walter Sullivan, “Panel Urges Landing on Mars to Seek Signs of Life,” New York Times April 27, 1965, 1. 43 planet’s defining characteristic. Once again, it appears as if these exobiologists were devising hasty conclusions, basing their theories entirely on low resolution telescopic imagery, yet the theory spread even to major organizations such as the National Academy of Science (NAS).

To twenty-first century scientists and Americans, the presumption that plants grow on

Mars may sound illogical, as current scientific data depicts Mars as inhospitable, possessing a cold, oxygen-less environment, but, to exobiologists in the 1950s and 1960s the evidence appeared to corroborate with the vegetation theory through various experiments. Some scientists such as Sinton understood that visual observation of Mars’s dark patches was not enough evidence to assume a connection with vegetation. Until Mariner IV’s first direct images of Mars, one common, Earth-based experiment used to search for Martian plants was spectroscopy. Some researchers attempted to uncover organic material, such as carbon compounds, on Mars’s surface by searching for wavelengths of light that correspond to the compounds. By analyzing Mars during its opposition, or its closest approach to Earth, scientists believed they could collect relatively accurate spectra that represented Mars’s soil composition. William Sinton, for example, used spectroscopy to search for and and believed he had discovered matching spectra on Mars. The data suggested both biological and inorganic explanations for Mars’s dark regions. “These bands are most probably produced by organic molecules,” he concluded, “but carbonates also possess bands in this region [of wavelengths]”.28

Carbonates are carbon-based minerals often found in meteors, and today scientists know these exist on Mars, but Sinton favored the theory the these spectra indicated life, stating that the

“growth of vegetation certainly seems to be the most logical explanation for the appearance of

28 Sinton, “Further Evidence”, 1237. 44 organic materials.”29 Sinton’s research was crucial in convincing De Vaucouleurs that Mars’s dark regions were vegetation, as he cited Sinton’s work as “the most decisive observations to date,”30 and Salisbury similarly referenced Sinton as compelling, inspiring him to provide further spectroscopic evidence to validate Sinton.31 By conducting experiments specifically designed for finding life on Mars, these scientists demonstrated their inherent interest in extraterrestrial life, and their interpretations appeared to favor organic theories as opposed to inorganic ones suggested by McLaughlin and others.

As some scientists pointed out, without a direct means of studying Mars, the best way they could observer Mars’s environment was to simulate it on Earth. Famous space exploration advocate Carl Sagan and Nobel Prize winner , another believer in Martian life’s existence, agreed that “there are obvious difficulties in detecting extraterrestrial life over interplanetary distances and none of these observations,” including spectral data, “can, by itself, be convincing.”32 Only a of some kind could definitively resolve the debate, but, until Mariner IV, scientists attempted to model Mars’s environment to determine whether life could feasibly exist there. Exobiologists often noted that terrestrial organisms can survive in harsh conditions on Earth, and they pointed to experiments conducted by Illinois Institute of

Technology biologist Ervin Hawrylewicz in 1962 that put bacteria into simulated, Martian environments, in which he concluded that they could survive the conditions.33 Given proof that life could survive on Mars, compounded with visual evidence of Mars’s dark regions and spectral data, scientific experiments appeared to support the theory of vegetation on Mars.

29 Ibid, 1237. 30 De Vaucouveurs, “The Planet Mars”, 48. 31 Salisbury, “Martian Biology,” 21. 32 Joshua Lederberg and Carl Sagan, “Microenvironments for Life on Mars,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 48 (1962): 1473. 33 Levin et al., “Gulliver”, 121. 45

This conclusion appeared to interpret the data with bias toward organic theories, giving preference to the existence of extraterrestrial life rather than its nonexistence. Dean McLaughlin was actually one of the primary opponents of the Martian vegetation hypothesis, and he cited a lack of evidence to make such a conjecture, stating blatantly that “there is no proof of the presence of such plants. I consider the widespread belief that vegetation on Mars is ‘highly probable’ or ‘all but conclusive’ as quite unjustified by available evidence.”34 According to

McLaughlin, alternate theories could explain the dark regions, including that these regions are simply darker dust. He famously suggested that volcanic activity created the canals, and the dark dust was ash from these volcanoes. Although he lacked direct evidence to support his idea, the vegetation theory had a similar dearth of evidence, yet received more support from scientists.

Some critics were not as overt in their skepticism as McLaughlin, unwilling to entirely dismiss the possibility of Martian life, but realized evidence was lacking. Physicist of Princeton

University Roman Smoluchowski pointed out in a 1965 paper, just before Mariner IV arrived at

Mars, that much of the data supporting Martian vegetation, including spectral data, had alternate, inorganic explanations; however, he did not entirely rule out the possibility of vegetation. In a brief concluding statement, the physicist added that “it is not my intention to imply that there is no vegetation on Mars but rather to point out that some of the ‘organic’ observations may have

‘inorganic’ explanations.”35 Smoluchowski was not willing to discard the vegetation theory despite offering alternative theories, especially with Mariner IV likely to add further input the following year. Scientists such as McLaughlin and Smoluchowski offered different, inorganic explanations for Mars’s dark regions, but exobiologists remained convinced that their theories were true.

34 McLaughlin, “New Interpretation…”, 181. 35 Smoluchowski, “Is there Vegetation…,” 947. 46

Although some scientists presumed life existed Mars, a space mission was still necessary to resolve the dispute once and for all, and the expectation of uncovering the first extraterrestrial species was reason enough to create the first American interplanetary space probe. There was no doubt amongst scientists, regardless of their belief in the vegetation theory, that this was the top priority for such a probe, to affirm or disprove whether life exists on Mars. A NAS committee emphasized this objective in a 1964 meeting, noting that Mars was by far the most interesting planet in the solar system for scientific research purposes. The primary reason they gave was the

“excitement to mankind it affords” as “the most likely prospect of bearing life [in the solar system].”36 The board insisted that the most important instrument on board a Mars-bound , including those after Mariner IV, was a “life detector”. Sagan and other scientists, including biologists, had suggested such a devise on a Martian probe as well, although it would not end up on Mariner IV, which was only to the planet. In April 1965, months before

Mariner IV would transmit its images, another NAS panel, requested by the federal government to assess scientific interest in Martian exploration, concluded that “we believe it entirely reasonable that Mars is inhabited with living organisms.”37 They recommended further space missions after Mariner IV, although the panel warned against accidentally contaminating Martian life with terrestrial microbes. They suggested scientists should take precautions to avoid harming any life that does exist on Mars. The American Association for the Advancement of Science

(AAAS) also expressed that the search for life on Mars was a reasonable endeavor.38 In general, scientific priorities were clear, as expressed by the NAS and other institutions, further demonstrating the entrenchment of extraterrestrial theories in science.

36 Richard S. Lewis, “The Masterminds of Mars,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 21 (1965): 39. 37 Sullivan, “Panel Urges”, 1. 38 Lewis, “The Masterminds…” 40. 47

Some scientists were quick to point out how inconclusive evidence for Martian life was, questioning its sustainability as a research priority. Barry Commoner, a biologist at George

Washington University, insisted, in response to the AAAS meeting, that scientists lacked evidence to support this theory, and reminded his colleagues that Mars has a harsh environment.

To Commoner, it seemed that scientists “were using the prospect of life as a lure to sell Congress on a program of exploring Mars.”39 He contended that scientists had failed “to balance the Mars picture” by not providing equal voice to those objecting to the vegetation theory. Similarly, biologist Charles Wilber, now at the University of Delaware, called the 1965 panel’s conclusions

“disturbing.” Wilber criticized scientists for not funding more important priorities and concluded that “the committee’s report is not characterized by appropriate caution…. It contains all too little science and entirely too much enthusiasm.”40 To him, the NAS panel did not represent the majority opinion of biologists. Instead, these scientists were too overcome by popular, cultural sentiments about extraterrestrial life rather than relying on empirical evidence. However, such criticisms did not deter the launch of Mariner IV.

Scientists supporting the vegetation theory used one final defense to deflect criticism.

Critics assumed that any Martian life was similar to terrestrial life and therefore unviable on

Mars, but, as a handful of scientists pointed out, Martian life could possess entirely different characteristics. Sagan was a notable proponent of this localized theory that scientists must distinguish between life on Earth and life elsewhere. In his article with Lederberg, he conceded that terrestrial life might not survive on Mars, but “how well Martian organisms have learned to cope with the same constraints remains to be seen.”41 Scientists must therefore consider the exact

39 Ibid, 40. 40 Charles G. Wilber, “Biologists’ View of Mars,” Science 149 (1965), 135. 41 Lederberg and Sagan, “Microenvironments…”, 1473. 48 circumstances such organisms would endure at a particular spot on Mars, with some regions appearing more habitable than others. The AAAS responded to Commoner’s criticism with a similar proposition, “that forms of life radically different than our own may be discovered, different in their chemistry… cell structure… and their metabolism.”42 The board even suggested that Martian fossils were a distinct alternate possibility.

In anticipation of possibly discovering new, previously unknown forms of life, some scientists warned of possible contamination, both to Martian and terrestrial life. Princeton biologist Colin S. Pittendrigh cautioned his colleagues on the possibility of harming Martian life with Earth-based microbes attached to a spacecraft. He suggested that “some form of quarantine would be necessary” if Martian microbes transmitted back to Earth via a return mission, even if an epidemic was unlikely.43 Some scientists were taking serious measures to prepare for the possibility that spacecrafts would discover life on Mars, and all that was left was to finally begin close range analysis of the planet.

As this section has demonstrated, by the summer of 1965, when Mariner IV would possibly answer the question of Martian life, some scientists had already established a firm belief in the existence of extraterrestrial life. The question remains as to why the vegetation or life- based theory superseded all inorganic alternatives. Both the organic and inorganic explanations for Mars’s dark regions possessed the same, inconclusive amounts of evidence, yet the organic theories won far broader support, indicating that other influences must have affected what scientists believed in. As noted earlier, a large number of Americans presumed extraterrestrial life existed, and some scientists appeared to make the same presumptions. As Commoner

42 Lewis, “The Masterminds...,” 40. 43 Ann Ewing, “Keep Mars ‘Clean’,” The Science News-Letter 83 (1963): 293. 49 suggested, it is possible that the scientists used extraterrestrial life as a lure, a means of garnering political and social support, but the extensive experimentation exobiologists conducted suggests they legitimately believed in Martian life despite inconclusive data.

The First Images: Shifting the Debate

Mariner IV was only a flyby mission with no landing capabilities, meaning there was a chance that it would not resolve the dispute entirely. Scientists were of this shortcoming in the mission. Developed by the JPL, the spacecraft was, according to a NASA publication, “a complex organism, a major new device of this age, called a system, which combines men and machines.”44 NASA designed the probe to analyze a handful of particular aspects of Mars in its brief flyby, namely its atmosphere’s contents and whether the planet has a magnetic field.45 It would also take images of the world that could uncover details of its geology and perhaps life on its surface, but, as mentioned, it possessed no “life detector” like future missions would attempt to use. Nonetheless, its findings contributed to the ongoing debate over Martian life, and the way some scientists interpreted its findings would further demonstrate the dynamics involved in the debate. The following section will discuss Mariner IV’s findings and the way scientists responded to these discoveries. As the section will show, the results failed to live up to the expectation of discovering Martian life, and some scientists had to adjust their presumptions concerning Mars.

Launched in November 1964, Mariner IV arrived on July 15, 1965 and transmitted images directly to Earth. The mission’s objectives were modest in comparison to later ones, as the probe only flew by Mars for a few days, and certainly it would not provide a comprehensive

44 Report from Mars: Mariner IV 1964-1965, (Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Pasadena, CA), 1965, 1. 45 Ley, “Mariner IV”, 121-122. 50 survey in this short time. Regardless, it would produce the first direct images of the planet as well as important data sets, and Americans, including scientists, were awaiting the answer to the question of whether life exists on Mars. A New York Times article on July 16 reporting on these first transmissions was quick to discuss Mars’s famous canals, but noted that these early images were simply too poor in quality to see them. Nonetheless, scientists learned much of Mars just days after the data transmitted, including information on its atmosphere and magnetic sphere.

Unfortunately for supporters of the theory that life exists on Mars, Mariner IV confirmed the atmosphere was thin, and it failed to detect any , leading scientists to conclude there was “essentially no [magnetic] field at all.”46 Without such a field, solar radiation would irradiate

Mars’s surface, seriously hampering the chances of finding life; however, this did not dissuade scientists yet. The renowned physicist James Van Allen, discoverer of the Van Allen radiation belts, insisted that the stark radiation bombarding Mars was “not a frightening value.” JPL director William Pickering said he “was not discouraged” by the news and continued to believe

“we will find some form of life on Mars.” 47 Apparently, more evidence was necessary to reach a conclusion.

Supporting evidence did not arrive. The next day, on July 17, the New York Times printed a far bleaker headline. “Mariner Depicts A Desolate Mars,201D the article began and added that the “planet is more inhospitable than had been thought.”48 New data showed Mars’s air pressure compares poorly to Earth’s, meaning Mars’s atmosphere is very thin, far smaller than the estimates scientists devised before the mission. This article also reiterated the point that Mars is exposed to solar radiation with no atmosphere to absorb the energy. The article did not rule out

46 Walter Sullivan, “First Mars Photo is Transmitted; Mariner Signals Indicate Planet Lacks a Liquid Core Like Earth’s,” New York Times, July 16, 1965, 10. 47 Ibid, 10. 48 Walter Sullivan, “Mariner Depicts a Desolate Mars,” New York Times, July 16, 1965, 1. 51 the existence of life, noting that radiation levels were apparently not lethal, and not all images had arrived, but the possibility of life had decreased. New images that appeared over the next week showed no signs of vegetation, and, by July 25, President Lyndon Johnson resignedly expressed in response to these images that “life was we know it with its humanity is more unique than many have thought.”49 Already, in a mere couple of weeks, the dominant belief that life existed on Mars was beginning to unravel. In the coming months, the American media and scientists appeared exasperated, as if the dream had come to an end. A famous U.S. News &

World Report article declared that “Mars is dead”, totally devoid of any life despite the expectations Americans held for decades.50 The images transmitted by Mariner IV were relatively modest in quality compared to modern standards, but there were clearly no signs of life, whether civilized or not. There were no indications of even liquid water. Mars appeared lifeless, and the exobiologists were distraught.

Some scientists shared this disappointed sentiment, with some quick to escalate criticism of the theory of Martian life. Ley characterized the scientific response as “the first reaction was… intense surprise. The reaction that followed the surprise was a kind of gloom.”51 The results were disturbing for scientists as it raised a new concern that “if that is Mars, why bother with it?”52 Without the prospect of finding life, Mars appeared far less interesting to research, and no other planet in the solar system was a suitable alternative for harboring life. Critics such as physicist Philip Abelson added salt to the wounds with a striking rebuttal of Martian life’s existence in December. His criticism used evidence from Mariner IV to detail the hostility of

Mars’s environment to life, stating that his goal is to prove that it is “unlikely that organic

49 Lyndon B. Johnson, “Remarks upon Viewing New Mariner 4 Pictures From Mars,” July 29, 1965, in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, 1965 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1966) 806. 50 “An End to the Myths about Men on Mars,” U.S. News & World Report, August 9, 1965, 4. 51 Ley, Mariner IV to Mars, 139. 52 Ibid, 140. 52 chemicals are being formed on Mars or have been synthesized there in the past.”53 He insisted that Mars’s atmosphere is simply incapable of harboring life because of its thin density and composition consisting of mostly carbon dioxide. One of Mariner IV’s most significant findings was the lack of tectonic activity on Mars, a process that allows such as nitrogen on Earth to cycle out from under the surface. To physicists such as Abelson, this presented the depressing possibility that Mars has never possessed a suitable atmosphere, and, therefore, life never existed on the planet.

Nonetheless, criticism did not induce a backlash against Martian life, and hopes rebounded quickly after Mariner IV’s transmissions. In August 1965, as researchers continued to scour the new data and images, a group of scientists led by Robert Leighton was quick to dispel concerns of a dead Mars. In fact, these discoveries were almost expected, and they did not heavily sway the debate over Martian life. They explained that “as we had anticipated, Mariner photos neither demonstrate nor preclude the possible existence of life on Mars.”54 The lack of tectonic activity was actually a possible advantage for finding life, as it meant that future missions could discover fossils easier because there were no processes to bury them far underground. As a result, there were disagreements to resolve, and the debate over Martian life would have to continue. In subsequent months, disappoint dissipated, replaced by increased confidence that Martian life existed. Likely the most famous defense in favor of vegetation was

Sagan’s argument at a January 1966 AAAS meeting. According to Sagan, “had the Mariner 4 vehicle passed the same distance from the Earth that it did from Mars… no sign of life on our

53 Philip H. Abelson, “Abiogenic Synthesis in the Martian Environment,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 54 (1965): 1491. 54 Robert B. Leighton et al., “Mariner IV Photography of Mars: Initial Analysis,” Science 149 (1965): 630. 53 planet would have been uncovered.”55 Comparable images to those taken by Mariner IV of Earth apparently would offer similar results, inferring Earth is a dead planet. To Sagan, Mariner IV had not obtained adequate images, and scientists could not discern a definitive answer to the question of life on Mars. This particular response undermines the mission’s significance to sustain the vegetation theory, but other astronomers actually thought Mariner IV increased hope for finding life. Clyde , famous for discovering in 1930, insisted that the images appeared to depict the predicted canals, and newly mapped craters could have “oases” of moisture for plants to grow.56 Regardless of their position, these scientists responded to Mariner IV using the same theories they believed in before the mission. They acted as if these results were not surprising or fit in with their theories. They did not question their own beliefs and instead suggested the data is inconclusive.

Sentiments continued to rebound, and researchers began setting sights on new missions with expanded objectives. California Institute of Technology biologist Norman Horowitz was willing to acknowledge that Mariner IV’s photographs were “depressing”, but, he added, “if I have learned anything during 6 years of association with the space program, it is that people with manic-depressive tendencies should stay out of it.”57 To him, there was no reason to think any less of the possibility of Martian life, and he reiterated arguments used before Mariner IV.

Conditions on Mars were not harsh enough to preclude life’s existence because of the presence of life in Earth’s harshest environments. The mission’s images were simply not enough to prove that “life never evolved on Mars”, as fossils could exist even if no life survives now.58 Critics were left with the necessity of proving a negative, that life did not exist, and there was no means

55 “Is there Life on Mars – or Earth?” Time, January 7, 1966, 44. 56 Ibid. 57 N.H Horowitz, “The Search for Extraterrestrial Life,” Science 151 (1966): 789. 58 Ibid, 790. 54 of surveying the entire planet at the time. Biologist Charles Weston also expressed confidence in discovering Martian life. He challenged critics directly by asserting that “the burden of proof rests upon those who maintain that [the Martian environment] is, therefore, unsuitable for life” to display that life could not survive there.59 Similar to Horowitz, he cites the impressive capacity of life to survive under the harshest terrestrial conditions. It was therefore safe to assume that life could endure on Mars, and critics would need to prove that Mars was somehow not suitable.

Weston called on scientists to conduct further missions, insisting that “the brutal fact is that we cannot wait” because of the limited oppositions, or closest encounters, Mars has with the Earth.60

Even if a new mission did not discover life, there would no definitive way to tell whether such negative results were merely a failure of the mission’s instruments or whether “sceptics will find their scepticism confirmed.”61 With disproving the existence of life on Mars difficult to accomplish, the belief in Martian organisms continued to fester within the scientific community.

The debate would persist on through the late 1960s and into the 1970s as scientists considered Mariner IV’s findings inconclusive. Ley described this interpretation in his book, stating that “the voyage of Mariner IV has not changed our concepts of general climatic conditions and the probability of vegetation on Mars as much as thought at first.”62 For example, a biology article by Cyril Ponnamperuma and future Viking project manager Harold Klein published in 1970 titled “The Coming Search for Life on Mars” acted as if the search had not yet begun, despite missions such as Mariner IV and the subsequent Mariner VI and VII missions in the late 1960s. Researchers now had more detailed, colorful images of Mars that better depicted its surface, but answering the ultimate question, whether life exists there or not, had not even

59 Charles Richard Weston, “A Strategy for Mars,” American Scientist 53 (1965): 498. 60 Ibid, 504. 61 Ibid, 504. 62 Ley, Mariner IV, 147. 55 begun. Even in 1970, the discourse had not changed significantly. Despite new information verifying Mars’s harsh environment, biologists insisted that “it is not unreasonable to suppose that” organisms had evolved on Mars to adapt to these conditions.63 By this point, scientists had moved away from the vegetation theory to explain the dark regions, recognizing the lack of evidence to support it, but the possible existence life continued to instill curiosity. As the article noted, “many biologists are profoundly interested in this venture”, and scientists in general were already looking forward to the famous Viking missions of the mid-1970s that would drive the first rovers on Mars.64 For some scientists such as Ponnamperuma, the quest to discover life on

Mars was just beginning, and no amount of dissuading evidence could stop its momentum.

As this section has shown, Mariner IV, despite its barren photographs, did not significantly deter some scientists in their pursuit to find life on Mars. Exobiologists still believed there was value in investing in Mars, that Mariner IV’s discoveries were inconclusive.

The significance of discovering extraterrestrial life was too compelling to science to give up on

Mars already. Other scientists instead insisted that Mariner IV made important discoveries that justified further missions. Supporters devised new arguments to continue proposing that Martian life exists, and these arguments would fuel further research of the planet. The chance of uncovering life still existed, and, even if that chance proved fruitless, science would learn more on the rarity of humans and the Earth in the universe. Exobiologists openly argued against

Mariner IV’s data to support their belief in Martian life.

63 Cyril Ponnamperuma and Harold P. Klein, “The Coming Search for Life on Mars,” The Quarterly Review of Biology 45 (1970): 247. 64 Ibid, 252. 56


The narrative of Mars’s rise to prominence within space science began with humble origins. Initially, the planet was a striking curiosity because of speculation that it could harbor life, but, as a new wave of exobiologists grew within the scientific community, scientists increasingly believed that studying extraterrestrial life through Mars was a worthwhile endeavor.

Such research could produce knowledge on the origins of life in the universe and its subsequent evolution, leading to new interpretations on the exceptionality of life on Earth. Mars was the most obvious extraterrestrial body to study because of its proximity to Earth as well as observations that suggested a habitable environment, such as the belief that dark patches on Mars were growing vegetation. By better understanding a planet with similar qualities to Earth, scientists could produce practically useful information for biology, geology, and other fields on

Earth. Such information would elevate space science and exobiology to new levels of significance in a society increasingly fascinated with space and extraterrestrials. As a result, it was the social context that facilitated a belief in Martian life and fostered the scientific commitment for Martian research. The rising social interest in extraterrestrials among scientists and the American public combined with new opportunities for space research in NASA encouraged scientists to look toward Mars for answers to resounding questions on life on other worlds or perhaps the possibility of humans surviving on another world.

This situation set the foundation for Mars’s legacy as a long-term, major investment by scientists throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Although Mariner IV did not find any sign of life, it was not conclusive enough to deter some space scientists from arguing for and ultimately conducting further missions to Mars. Scientists continued to argue that Mars harbored life despite the evidence the probe presented. Unwilling to concede their theories, these scientists

57 instead rationalized them or questioned the probe’s effectiveness. Future Mariner missions would continue to slowly reveal Mars’s characteristics, but the most significant Martian mission would come in 1975 as the Viking expedition. By bringing together even more kinds of scientists for an ambitious landing on Mars, Viking would catapult Mars into mainstream science with no doubt as to its usefulness to science. As NASA expressed in 1965, “Mariner IV has opened Mars as we might open a book at random, to glance at once page. We have the whole book – and the rest of the library – yet to read.”65 Interest in Mars was humble in the 1950s and 1960s compared to now, but this period established a foundation that future missions would build upon because it established the discrepancies between terrestrial observations and those from space probes.

Mariner IV showed that these missions have some utility in producing new data, even if scientists contest it.

Mariner IV could have ended scientific interest in Mars if some scientists had conformed their views based on the mission’s observational results. Because of images depicting a barren landscape and data indicating a minute atmosphere, there were no apparent signs of life on Mars.

Nonetheless, exobiologists argued against these observations, insisting that they were inconclusive or incomplete. They insisted that Mariner IV was not going to solve the debate on its own, and that further expeditions were necessary to truly assess Mars’s habitability. These results did not force scientists to change their perspective, and they pointed out flaws in the methodology instead. This episode demonstrates the reluctance of scientists who held firm beliefs in Martian life in rescinding this view. Their ideas were not firmly established within empirical data but instead based on a conviction that Mars must have some signs of life. As explained above, this unwillingness to change views originates from the perceived significance

65 Report from Mars, 44. 58 of extraterrestrial life to American society as well as legitimizing investment in Martian research.

By 1965, exobiologists had already incorporated Mars and Martian life within an American culture fascinated by these concepts, and these theorists would not shift their beliefs without more substantial experiments, particularly on Mars’s surface.


Chapter 2:

The Beginning of the End?: Viking’s Climactic Impact on Martian Research

No mission was as impactful to Martian research as Viking. A set of orbiters and landers launched in the mid-1970s, Viking holds the distinction as the first set of American spacecrafts to land on another planet’s surface. This was a major advancement over prior Martian missions, namely the Mariner missions, which merely observed Mars from space. As this chapter will explain in more detail, Viking would resolve many ambiguities still persistent after the Mariner series and revolutionize the way scientists understood Mars as a world. As mentioned in the prior chapter, Mariner IV depicted a cratered world not unlike the Moon that appeared to have no sign of life; however, as described in later sections, this depiction would change rapidly as more information from subsequent Mariner missions and then Viking complicated the picture. With

Viking, scientists could obtain images and data directly from the surface, a development that would resolve any remaining disputes related to the planet. At the time of the mission, scientists understood Viking’s significance. Carl Sagan stated his view prior to Viking’s arrival at Mars that “if Viking works even moderately well, planetary astronomy will never be the same again.”1

Many scientists praised Viking as a resounding success for its numerous discoveries that solidified factual knowledge of Mars. Even today, Viking’s legacy continues to reverberate in space science, and its vast collections of data still spark debate among scientists. The mission established the foundation for every subsequent expedition to Mars as well as other planets.

1 Sagan, Carl. “Viking to Mars: The Mission Strategy.” Sky and Telescope, July 1975, 23.


Viking refers to a set of two missions, both launched within a few weeks and arriving at

Mars within days of each other. Each mission, referred to as Viking I and Viking II, was identical in its components and its objectives. Each possessed both an that would observe

Mars from space and a lander that would touchdown on the surface. NASA launched Viking I on

August 20, 1975, and it arrived at Mars nearly a year later on June 19, 1976 whereas its lander reached the surface on July 20. Viking II, launched on September 9, 1975, arrived on August 7,

1976, and the lander touched on September 3. Unlike the Mariner missions, which only flew by Mars on brief passes, the Viking missions lasted for six years, with the final transmission occurring in November 1982. This far exceeded NASA’s expectations, as NASA originally planned for each lander’s mission to only last 90 days.2 As a result, the mission was a technological accomplishment that impressed NASA engineers and scientists, and it was an inspiration for further probes that would soon target other objects in the solar system.

However, as remarkable as Viking’s journey was, the data the landers collected are what make Viking famous. Its primary objective, unique among NASA space missions, was to search for life on Mars. Some landers, such as Curiosity, have searched for water and other materials related to life, but none had the same capacity as Viking to analyze soil for organic material. As a result, Viking was set up from the beginning to earn an important place in the history of space science by answering the long debated question of whether life exists on Mars. Regardless of what it found, it would influence the way scientist’s discussed life on the planet because of how comprehensive and ambitious the mission was. NASA adorned the landers with specific instruments, called the Viking Biological Instruments (VBI), that would scoop samples of the

2 See NASA’s official synopsis of Viking online for an overview of dates and landing sites, http://mars.nasa.gov/programmissions/missions/past/viking/ 61

Martian soil and examine them for signs of organic material.3 It would also conduct other important research on Mars’s atmosphere, geology, chemistry, and transmit numerous images back to Earth. This mission was climactic for space scientists because it not only answered significant questions related to Mars but also set the standard for future missions.

The results Viking transmitted back to Earth were surprising for many scientists.

Viking’s results were strikingly negative, with the VBI not even detecting a minute amount of organic material in the soil. This result was startling for some scientists because of the fact that even the remotest places on Earth had traces of organic compounds, and many, such as Norman

Horowitz as discussed in the next section, had argued that Mars could possess similar, simple forms of microbial life. It was shocking that Mars could have no signs of life at all, especially after prior Mariner missions, also discussed below, had discovered dried waterbeds that implied

Mars once possessed liquid water, the key ingredient for life to thrive. These results had a resounding effect on scientific discourse related to Mars by forcing many major scientists interested in extraterrestrial life, namely exobiologists, to rethink whether life could exist on

Mars in any form. Some scientists contested the data, insisting that it was not conclusive.

Perhaps they needed to analyze more than just two particular spots on the planet, or perhaps

Viking had not conducted a thorough assessment. Some scientists continued to question Viking’s results well into the 1990s, as later sections in this chapter will describe, but many scientists appeared willing to accept that Mars was lifeless.

In continuing with this thesis’s argument, this chapter points out how a socially influenced interest in extraterrestrial life affected scientific research of Mars, and how, without

3 The Cleveland Museum of Natural History has an official model of a VBI that helped assess the mission’s importance described here. The museum considers the VBI rare and an important step in interplanetary science. 62 the premise of Martian life, scientific interest dwindled rapidly. Viking was a concerted effort to validate scientific presumptions about alien life and the expenses of conducting a large scale mission. Similar to Mariner IV, Viking’s primary goal was to search for life, a priority scientists believed was crucial. Exobiologists and other scientists interested in Mars expressed that Viking, whether it discovered life or not, would clarify how life evolves in the universe. Just as other planets can reveal historical processes in the universe, such as how planets formed, they might also show different stages of biological evolution. Additionally, Viking would provide context for the frequency of life in the universe, namely whether terrestrial life is exceptional or commonplace. Scientists believed they were conducting a mission that would establish new foundations for how humanity perceives life, including itself, and its extent in the universe. In many ways, these scientists sought to extend their scope into realms previously considered unobtainable, understanding that such an extension would validate the usefulness of NASA’s projects to the public.

Additionally, the way scientists responded to Viking, positively or negatively, appeared unscientific in nature, demonstrating that they believed there was much at stake in Viking’s results. Those who continued to insist on the existence of Martian life had no empirical basis for their beliefs, as no Martian mission before and including Viking had discovered any life.

Likewise, those who argued Viking proved Mars was lifeless based their belief on only the two datasets Viking had collected. Scientists appeared to respond in a reactionary manner to Viking’s results, whether they believed it had found Martian life or not. They extrapolated Viking’s analysis, which consisted of only two locations on Mars, as indicative of the planet’s characteristics. With only two data points available, scientists could have insisted that Viking was not comprehensive, but they instead thought it had answered the question of life’s existence

63 on Mars. Despite the fact that, as the chapter’s body will show, some scientists pointed out that even the absence of life would have broad scientific consequences, no such large changes occurred, and instead scientists feared an end to Martian research because of a dissatisfied public.

Viking has received more attention by historians than any other Martian mission. Stephen

Dick wrote of Viking in his book, The Living Universe, in which he contextualizes Viking within the rise of exobiology. He states that Viking caused a “redefinition” of exobiology, inducing a shift in exobiology’s scope and its beliefs of life in the universe. Exobiologists such as Sagan turned their attention to other possible sources of life, such as comets and the Search for

Extraterrestrial Intelligence program (SETI). After Viking, exobiologists began to refer to themselves as astrobiologists, demonstrating that their scope extends to other star systems rather than just other planets in the solar system. Erik Conway briefly discusses Viking in his book,

Exploration and Engineering: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Quest for Mars, stating that Viking almost caused an end to Martian exploration because its failure to discover life caused Mars to fall as a priority for space scientists. His book focuses on post-Viking deliberations within NASA for Martian missions, using Viking as a significant turning point that affected subsequent operations within NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). This chapter shares some similarities with the two historians mentioned above, but it also offers a new perspective on Viking. Although there was indeed a drought in NASA missions to Mars after

Viking, the controversy Viking caused was actually important in keeping Mars in the forefront for scientists. Although scientists reacted rashly to the results, they underestimated the compulsion to search for extraterrestrial life that many NASA scientists held.


The following chapter will examine in more detail the Viking mission and its implications for Mars exploration, space science, and science in general. It begins with an overview of the remaining Mariner missions and their importance relative to Viking, and then it details the development of Viking, its results, and its perceived significance among scientists.

Mars during the Mariner Years4

Viking was the first American lander for Mars, but it was preceded by a series of Mariner missions that observed Mars from orbit. As described in the prior chapter, Mariner IV was the first Martian mission NASA launched, and it produced the first direct images of the planet.

These images revealed a desolate world that, as science writer Patrick Moore described, induced

“an obvious temptation to compare the with that of the Moon.”5 To the untrained eye, Mariner IV’s images would look like any telescopic image of the Moon, riddled with craters and with no signs of major, unique geological features. These images were not particularly inspiring, as they appeared to undermine the belief many scientists held that they would uncover a world similar to Earth, a habitable planet. At least, Mariner IV showed that there were no major bodies of water on Mars. A lack of water combined with a sparse, thin atmosphere meant that the chances of uncovering life on Mars were slim; however, this image of Mars as a desolate, dead planet would change rapidly as additional Mariner orbiters visited the planet. Further probes would visit the planet in the coming years to follow up on Mariner IV’s expedition. The other significant Mariner missions were numbers VI and VII, both launched in 1969, and Mariner IX, launched in 1971.6 The last one would arrive at Mars only three years before NASA launched

4 For a full list of missions to Mars and overview of each mission, including the Mariner series, see NASA’s Mars website, http://mars.nasa.gov/programmissions/missions/. 5 Patrick Moore, Guide to Mars (New York: W W Norton & Company, 1978), 110. 6 All other Mariner missions, such as Mariner II, V, and X, were sent to Venus and or failed to launch successfully. 65

Viking, showing the rather short timetable in place between missions. Before analyzing Viking, this section will describe these other missions as they are necessary background for understanding Viking’s significance.

Mariners VI, VII, and IX were similar to Mariner IV in that each of them relied solely on orbital imagery and experiments to analyze Mars, lacking a component that would land on its surface. As a result, they all perceived Mars from the same perspective, yet their results differed and uncovered new details that would amend the way scientists characterized Mars. The first of these missions, namely Mariners VI and VII, were twin spacecraft with identical structures and objectives. They were launched within a month of each other, with the first leaving Earth on

February 25, 1969, and the second on 27.7 These missions were, in many ways, similar to

Mariner IV, particularly because each was to only flyby the planet on a brief visit with no attempt made to orbit Mars for an extended period. This strategy meant that each mission would last only around 40 hours, which was the length of time the probes could image and analyze

Mars before they flew too far beyond the planet. Together, the probes imaged a significant portion of Mars’s surface, with Mariner VII producing 120 pictures compared to around 90 from

Mariner VI. In total, they mapped around 19% of the planet’s surface.8

The results nearly replicated Mariner IV’s discoveries a few years earlier. These images did not significantly shift scientific perceptions of Mars, as they still showed that, according to one NASA publication, “Mars was dead and cold, inactive since its birth 4.6 billion years ago.”9

Initial reports after these missions noted that they had identified new, distinct features on Mars’s surface, such as its flat deserts, but they added that “the near-encounter pictures seem to show a

7 Both probes arrived at Mars at nearly the same time because Mariner VII took a significantly shorter route to Mars. Mariner VI arrived on July 29th while VII arrived on August 2nd. 8 Mark Washburn, Mars at Last! (New York; G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977), 133. 9 Viking: The Exploration of Mars, (Pasadena: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1984), 5. 66

Moon-like terrain.”10 Although the pictures showed Mars did have a more diverse geography than the Moon, there was still no sign of any water, and the planet appeared entirely barren.

Scientists such as Caltech physicist Robert Leighton reaffirmed that “the results thus reinforce the conclusion, drawn from Mariner 4 and ground-based observations, that scarcity of water is the most serious limiting factor for life on Mars.”11 As with Mariner IV, there were no positive signs that life could exist on Mars’s dry, desolate surface, yet scientists continued to believe discovering life was possible.

This comparison between the Mars and the Moon would cease with the arrival of the final Mariner mission to Mars. Unlike Mariners VI and VII, Mariner IX provided a more thorough examination of Mars that sparked renewed interest in the planet’s capacity to harbor life. NASA originally planned to include a twin mission, dubbed Mariner VIII, similar to the prior missions, but VIII failed to launch. Instead, Mariner IX left for Mars on its own on May 20,

1971 and arrived on November 13. Of all the Mariner missions, IX was certainly the most prolific at collecting information, and this success was mostly because it, unlike the earlier missions, spent a significant amount of time orbiting Mars. Mariner IX had over a year to orbit

Mars and collect plenty of images and data as opposed to the couple of days the prior probes had.

Additionally, unlike prior missions that used only black and white photography, Mariner IX provided colored images of Mars that could reveal previously unnoticed details. Scientists could now see large volcanoes, canyons, icecaps, and other geographic features that distinguish Mars from other planets and the Moon. The mission exceeded expectations when it ended up imaging the entire planet, producing the first complete map of Mars’s surface. A National Geographic science writer, Kenneth Weaver, noted that “thanks to… , I can write about the red

10 R. B. Leighton et al., “ Television Pictures: Preliminary Analysis,” Science 166, (1969): 53. 11 Ibid, 65. 67 planet’s cold and tortured face almost as confidently as if its landscape lived in my memory.”12

This mission was comprehensive, earning a reputation as the most significant of the Mariner missions.

Mariner IX was crucial in a number of ways for scientists interested in Mars, particularly because of its role as a primer for Viking. From the beginning, one of Mariner IX’s primary goals was to finalize information related to Viking’s upcoming launch in a few years. The maps of Mars Mariner IX produced proved crucial for Viking’s engineers and scientists, as they gave the staff a topographical representation of Mars for finding adequate landing spots. Additionally,

Mariner IX rejuvenated hopes among some scientists in finding life on Mars because the images revealed a much different planet than that depicted in earlier Mariner missions. To some scientists, the most uplifting features that Mariner IX highlighted were Mars’s channels and other areas, such as dried riverbeds, that signified that water was once present on Mars. Although there were clearly no remaining large bodies of water on the surface, these channels were a major indicator that Mars at least had water in its history and, therefore, at some point Mars had a denser atmosphere that could sustain liquid water. Any amount of water would greatly increase the chances of finding life on Mars, and it at least left open the possibility of uncovering fossils of extinct life in these waterbeds. Mars was no longer a mere replica of the Moon, and one

NASA scientist described Mars now as “an ‘in-between’ world, partly like the Earth, partly like the Moon, yet unique in many ways.”13 This shift rejuvenated Mars’s biological appeal to scientists after the prior Mariner missions had dashed hopes of a habitable Mars. Science writer

Mark Washburn summarized the impact of Mariner IX in his book, stating that “the observations

12 Kenneth Weaver, “Journey to Mars,” National Geographic, March 1973, 231. 13 Bevan French, Mars: The Viking Discoveries (Washington DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1977), 6. 68 of Mariner 9 catapulted the study of Mars forward a significant distance… Mariner 9 had merely scouted the War God from a safe distance; the next mission was to be an invasion.”14 Mariner IX created momentum that increased anticipation for Viking’s aspiring mission to occur a few years later. Scientists and other writers were quick to reconnect Mars with a belief in extraterrestrial life.

During these three Mariner missions, from VI through IX, scientists generally recognized that the chances life existed on Mars were slim, but there was still notable interest in investigating Mars more closely for organic material. The most significant obstacle to the existence of Martian life was the lack of water on the planet, an obstacle slightly alleviated by

Mariner IX’s images of Martian channels. If Mars had any remnants of liquid water in its soil, that was a compelling enough reason to fund further research of the planet. One of the most outspoken and famous scientists that argued the affirmative, that life could likely exist on Mars, during this period in the late 1960s and early 1970s was the influential biologist Norman

Horowitz. The Pittsburgh-native and professor at Caltech conducted impressive amounts of research related to Martian life and, before Viking, wrote numerous papers in defense of the idea that life could exist on other worlds, namely Mars. As mentioned in the previous chapter,

Mariner IV did not sway his perspective with regard to the possible existence of Martian life, and he similarly considered Mariner VI and VII inconclusive.15 He did not question his belief in

Martian life, only the missions’ thoroughness. In the late 1960s, Horowitz collaborated with a group of scientists to research the dry, arid landscapes of as a terrestrial representation of the Martian environment. He concluded that simple, bacterial organisms could barely survive in these harsh conditions, and these experiments left the possibility open that life could survive

14 Washburn, Mars at Last!, 154. 15 Leighton et al., “Mariner 6 and 7,” 67. 69 on Mars with the caveat that the planet could have an even harsher environment. He noted that

“the Antarctic has provided us with a as much like Mars as any we are likely to find on Earth,” but that microbes still struggled to adapt to the brutal conditions.16

Yet, to Horowitz, this did not negate the possible existence of life on Mars, and he called such a negative conclusion to Martian life unjustified. Instead, he felt he had shown what characteristics life would need, such as the ability to adapt to dry conditions, to exist on Mars.

Similarly, Horowitz also conducted experiments simulating Martian surface reactions on Earth, namely with radiation, and he stated that these conditions could produce organic compounds. He added that these results raised the chance of finding life on Mars from “very unlikely to unlikely,” but, despite this modest interpretation, he continued to research the survivability of Mars’s environment.17 Throughout the 1970s, Horowitz was involved with the

Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and, as later sections will show, he played a major role in the creation of Viking by developing the experiments it used to detect life in .

After Mariner IX, there was a renewed curiosity like that of Horowitz in Mars and its potential for life among scientists. One NASA publication focused on Viking expressed this interest as background to the mission, emphasizing that “since water is essential for life, scientists hopes rose for Viking’s prospects of finding living things or some proof of life in the past.”18 Perhaps they would only find some leftover organic compounds, such as carbon chains that are characteristics of life. Nonetheless, even finding a minute amount of organic material carried substantial weight within the scientific community according to these scientists. Horowitz emphasized the importance of even a modest discovery of Martian life, stating that “if life exists

16 Norman Horowitz et al., “Microbiology of the Dry Valleys of Antarctica,” Science 176 (1972): 245. 17 “Organic Production on Mars,” Science News 99 (1971): 210. 18 Viking: The Exploration of Mars, 5. 70 on Mars, its discovery would be a dazzling engineering achievement and a momentous event for science.”19 Such a discovery would enhance biological understanding of the evolution of life, both on Earth and in the universe. The most famous scientist to argue for the importance of finding extraterrestrial life was, of course, Carl Sagan. Despite some inconclusive results from the Mariner missions, Sagan felt that searching for extraterrestrial life was an important priority.

“I cannot say I believe that there is life out there,” Sagan commented in 1971, “All I can say is that there are a number of reasons to think it is possible and that we have at our command the means of finding out. Those two things being the case, I would be very ashamed of my civilization if we did not try to find out.”20 To him, it obviously deserved a place on the agenda of NASA and other space science researchers.

Sagan was not alone in his interest in extraterrestrial life. Other scientists recognized that searching for extraterrestrial life could produce valuable information for biologists. Even if they did not find life nearby, such an absence would have implications for terrestrial biology. Dr.

Wolf of the University of Rochester noted that “biologists could be happy if they find life on Mars and they could be happy if they do not find life on Mars.”21 Dr. Tobias Owen, a

State University of New York professor involved with Viking, resounded this sentiment by explaining that “if there really has been no life on Mars and never has been… then we will have to re-examine the probabilities that life might have occurred elsewhere in the universe.”22

Regardless of the outcome, there was a trove of knowledge for scientists to uncover on Mars that could tell us, as humans, the frequency of life in the universe and how it evolves. Another prominent exobiologist was Richard S. Young, a chief scientist for NASA that would also work

19 Norman Horowitz, “The Search for Life on Mars: Where We Stand Today,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 27 (1971): 17. 20 “Is There Life on Mars?” Time, December 13, 1971, 76. 21 Dietrick Thomsen, “Toward a Universal Biology: The Search for Life on Mars,” Science News 100 (1971): 64. 22 The Viking Mission to Mars (Denver: Martin Marietta Corporation, 1975), II-5. 71 with the Viking crew. He believed that search for life on Mars was invaluable, and that it could produce Earthy benefits, such as an improved understanding of cellular biology that could advance human medicine.23 To exobiologists, there field depended on fixating extraterrestrial life with a social benefit such that they could make further research of Mars a top priority, yet they often times gave only vague explanations of why extraterrestrial life was so important. Young’s suggestion of advancements in medicine was the most concrete advantage offered, but the belief was not widely held and NASA never used such rationale.

It is difficult to say exactly how widespread this interest in extraterrestrials was in the scientific community. One New York Times article stated without qualification just before

Viking’s arrival at Mars that “most scientists firmly believe that life exists elsewhere in the universe.”24 Of course, there is no way to know exactly how many scientists believed life existed there, but it was at least a compelling enough priority to NASA, considering the primary goal of

Viking was to search for life on Mars. This search would establish Viking’s importance in the history of space science.

The Plan for Viking

Viking was destined for greatness in the minds of NASA’s administrators and the scientists that worked closely with the mission. Many scientists anticipated that Viking would at least substantially augment their understanding of Mars regardless of whether or not it found life.

There was simply no other probe to compare Viking to, as it was the first to land directly on another planet. As a result, excitement and anxiety among scientists was widespread well before the mission was launched. Edgar Cortright, director of the , a NASA

23 Ibid, II-9. 24 “Space Cut is Feared if Viking Doesn’t Discover Life on Mars,” The New York Times July 6, 1976, 15. 72 division involved with Viking, stated in 1974 that “Americans have taken many giant steps for all mankind since 1776, but few as potentially momentous as the search for life on the surface of

Mars that the Vikings are scheduled to begin in 1976.”25 As the United States bicentennial approached, Viking ranked highly among some scientists as a truly American achievement.

Gerald Soffen, a lead scientist in coordinating the Viking missions, predicted a glorious outcome in 1975, the year of Viking’s launch:

If we succeed, it will be hard to find an activity or an event as rich

as the addition to our knowledge of Mars, which will grow by

many orders of magnitude if Viking is successful… It would not

be a surprise a hundred years from now to find a scientist stating

that this 20th century experiment most influenced his life. I predict,

in the first week or two after a successful Viking landing, we will

learn more about Mars than in any other single period of man’s


To Soffen, this was a historic achievement, and in many ways he predicted the result accurately.

Viking would indeed broaden scientific knowledge of Mars more than any of the many other missions to the planet, making it a climactic mission in the history of Martian exploration.

Viking’s origins are directly related to the financial issues that NASA faced during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Viking originally was a part of the Voyager space program, a set of probes that NASA hoped would visit multiple planets in flyby missions instead of visiting just

25The Langley Research Center, located in Hampton, Virginia, is one of NASA’s major research field centers. It mostly focuses on aeronautics research and developing spacecrafts. William Corliss, The Viking Mission to Mars, (Washington DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1974), v. 26 The Viking Mission to Mars, II-4. 73

Mars like Mariner. These probes would orbit the planets for a period of time before moving on to another, and, while in orbit, would launch a lander that could analyze the planet’s surface.

Although Voyager would eventually come to fruition in the 1980s to explore the outer solar system, this was not feasible in the 1970s due to serious budget constraints.27 In the late 1960s, particularly after the Apollo 11 moon landing, Congress began a trend of constraining NASA’s budget, forcing the institution to limit its ambitious projects. The government had denied NASA funding for Voyager multiple times in the late 1960s, and, as late as 1967, “beyond 1969, NASA had no approved planetary flights and few scientific flights of any kind.”28 NASA scientists anticipated reductions in personnel that would hamper the connections between NASA and university scientists. This budget constraint appeared like a helpless scenario to some scientists, as they realized that “the fate of a new round of proposals for planetary exploration may turn more on events in Vietnam than on anything the space agency and its friends in Congress and the scientific community can do to refurbish NASA’s image and explain its goals.”29 Space initiatives simply were not as high of a priority as ongoing struggles within American foreign policy. Instead of Voyager, NASA decided to focus on a single Martian expedition that would land on its surface which would cost half as much as the planned Voyager mission.30 NASA authorized the mission as the next major project in 1969 and requested funding from Congress for Viking for the 1970 budget that Congress did approve.

Throughout the Mariner missions, some scientists noted that the next, logical step after was a lander, and information collected by the Mariner missions, particularly Mariner IX, were

27 Voyagers 1 and 2 would flyby outer solar system planets such as Jupiter, Saturn, and more in the 1980s, providing important early examinations of these worlds. 28 Luther Carter, “Planetary Exploration: How to Get by the Budget-cutters?” Science 158 (1967), 1025. 29 Ibid, 1028. 30 “Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications of the Committee on Science and Astronautics,” U.S. Government Printing Office, November 21-22 1974, 14.

74 important prerequisites for Viking’s arrival. As early as 1967, after the Mariner VI and VII expeditions concluded, astrophysicists and biologists were already looking forward to the Viking program, and, to them, the Mariner missions were a “preface and prologue to Viking,” which would resolve any remaining disputes related to Mars.31 In 1969, some scientists were extrapolating the results of Mariners VI and VII to the planned Viking mission, and they anticipated that these results would heavily influence Viking’s logistics. They suggested that

Mariners VI and VII would “make Viking even more dependent on the success of Mariner ’71 than has been supposed.”32 As mentioned earlier, the substantial imaging of Mars by the Mariner series provided analysts with topographical outlooks that assisted with determining landing sites for Viking. This was an important consideration, as landing on rough terrain or in a crater could damage the lander, which would have only an eight-inch separation from its body to the ground, or impair its capacity to carry out its tasks. One NASA publication dedicated to Mariner IX wrote that “Mariner 9 data are crucial in determining the design of [Viking’s] experiments, planning the conduct of the nominal 90-day Viking missions, and in selecting the Viking landing sites.”33 Even during these earlier missions, NASA scientists anticipated Viking’s importance.

The individual scientists involved with managing the Viking project included men with distinctive interests in Mars, biology, and extraterrestrial life. Within NASA, the JPL was responsible for the development of the orbiters, but the landers were contracted to Martin

Mariette Corporation in Denver. Nonetheless, many NASA personnel and university scientists participated in the design of the landers, and they ultimately were the analysts for Viking’s data that it transmitted back to Earth. Considering both NASA and its private contractors, there were

31 Viking: The Exploration of Mars, 5. 32 Leighton et al., “Mariner 6 and 7,” 67. 33 William Hartmann., and Odell Raper. The New Mars: The Discoveries of Mariner 9, (Washington, DC: Scientific and Technical Information Office, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1974), 167. 75 an estimated 10,000 people involved in creating Viking.34 The backgrounds of some of the more influential scientists help in understanding why they responded in particular wars after the mission. Although Viking was a large project with many different groups of people, specific men stood out as team leaders and actively engaged with the rest of the scientific community.

Likely the most important scientist involved with Viking was Dr. Gerald A. Soffen, a biologist from Cleveland, Ohio. After serving in the military in World War II, he eventually earned a PhD in biophysics from Princeton University in the late 1950s and joined JPL in the early 1960s where he spent much of his time studying Mars and the prospects of finding Martian life. He was a constant advocate of dedicating JPL funding toward extraterrestrial research, and, as mentioned in the last chapter, he was an active researcher during the Mariner missions. Under

Viking, he earned the title of Viking Project Scientist. This position was the main science advisor to the Project Manager, James S. Martin, the top administrator overseeing the project. Soffen was responsible for grouping the 70 NASA scientists involved with Viking into teams and providing coordination between the teams. A staunch believer in the existence of extraterrestrial life,

Soffen “viewed the discovery of life on another planet as the critical scientific question of the space program, if not the entire space age, and dedicated himself to furthering that investigation.”35 A major influence to Soffen was Dr. Harold F. Blum, a physiologist that Soffen studied under at Princeton, who wrote a book entitled Time’s Arrow and Evolution.36 Blum argued that life evolves into gradually more sophisticated and intricate forms as time progresses as opposed to evolving randomly. To him, evolution is driven by a need for organisms to develop increasingly complex methods of harvesting energy, especially as such energy becomes scarcer.

34 Viking-Mars: Anatomy of Success, (Hampton: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1978), 6. 35 Roger D. Launius, “Soffen, Gerald Alan,” in Complete Dictionary of Science Biography (Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2008), 485-486. 36 Blum, Harold F. Time's Arrow and Evolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1951. 76

The notion that life develops complicated means of survival contributed to Soffen’s interest in extraterrestrial life because it implied that life could exist in many different forms and survive in many environments. Soffen was therefore a natural fit with the Viking team that sought to finally resolve the Martian life dispute.

The head of the biology team, the team overseeing the most important aspect of Viking, was New York City-born biologist Harold P. Klein. Klein developed an interest in exobiology during his PhD studies at Berkeley, and he focused on researching extraterrestrial life when he taught at Brandeis University where he was chair of the biology department. He joined the Ames

Research Center, a subdivision of NASA, in 1963 when NASA invited him to oversee new exobiology laboratories. Shortly after, he earned the lead position in Ames’s Life Scientist division, and then NASA appointed him to lead the biology division of Viking. He was joined on the biology team by other scientists with common interests in exobiology, namely Richard

Young, Joshua Lederberg, Gerald Levin, , and Norman Horowitz. Collectively, these scientists designed the particular experiments that the VBI would conduct on Mars to detect organic compounds.

Viking’s primary objective was to search Mars for any signs of life, whether alive or simply organic compounds. This goal superseded all others, and NASA and scientists working with Viking emphasized it continuously to leave no doubt that Viking was meant to hunt for life.

In one of the first briefings on the mission, Soffen stated that “the objective of this pair of missions is to obtain scientific data which will significantly increase our knowledge of Mars, with particular emphasis on providing information relevant to life on the planet.”37 Similarly, a

1975 NASA education pamphlet wrote that the main goal is to “seek evidence of whether life

37 The Viking Mission to Mars, 1. 77 exists now or has existed in the past on Mars” as the first priority.38 Other goals, some related to evidence for life, included imaging the surface, determining the atmosphere’s composition, analyzing seismology, searching for signs of magnetic fields, and enhancing understanding of

Martian geology, but none of these received as much attention as the biological objective.

Although prior Mariner missions had provided data relevant to the existence of life on Mars, none had a direct goal to search for life like Viking. To search for life, the Viking landers would include a special arm with a scoop that could collect samples of Martian soil and conduct analysis.

Overall, the two Viking orbiters and landers presented a significant cost to NASA, a cost that would have implications for NASA’s future. In total, including both orbiters and landers, the mission cost around $1 billion, more than twice as much as the $428 million NASA first requested in 1968.39 This was also twice the cost of all the Mariner missions combined with the landers requiring the majority of the funding. Some scientists and analysts pointed out that the results of the mission could affect subsequent funding for further projects. Klein in a New York

Times article shortly before Viking I arrived at Mars stated that if Viking did not find any signs of life it could affect future opportunities to explore Mars because of the emphasis NASA put on the search for life. Although he added that this investment was well worth it for its importance to science, there was at least an understanding of Viking’s long term impact to the way NASA could conduct space science in a future.40

Regardless of the public response toward Viking, many scientists involved with the mission had high aspirations, expecting a revolutionary result. In a hearing before Congress in

38 The Viking Mission: Mission to Land on Mars (Washington DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1976), 1. 39 “Hearing Before the Subcommittee…,” 109. 40 “Space Cut is Feared,” The New York Times July 6, 1976, 15. 78

1974, NASA administrator Rocco Petrone stated his view that “the Viking program is widely regarded as a program of scientific value and one of the greatest milestones in the exploration of the solar system.”41 Some scientists similarly labeled Viking as a major achievement either for the United States or the human race because of the engineering feat of landing a probe on another planet. Coincidentally, Viking’s arrival at Mars coincided with the American bicentennial in 1976, and NASA personnel sometimes referred to it as a bicentennial mission.42

Nonetheless, NASA and some scientists predicted that Viking would change the way people, both scientists and the public, think of Mars and space science. One NASA publication ambitiously believed that “Viking will be the beginning of a new of man’s exploration of the unknown” because of Viking’s distinction as the first interplanetary lander.43 Although

Viking was a culmination for Mars exploration after Mariner, Richard Young called it just the beginning of interplanetary missions.44 A New York Times article similarly called Viking I’s upcoming landing “the most remarkable landfall thus far in the history of human exploration.”45

There was countless praise for Viking’s engineering and aerospace achievements.

In summary, Viking’s development was a major endeavor for NASA that can help historians of science learn the ways in which so called Big Science operates. At the time, this was the largest interplanetary mission conducted by NASA, and it contained many different aspects that created a complex web of personnel, administration, and scientific ideas. Despite this complexity, there were still overarching themes that acted as a foundation for Viking. Although

Viking was expensive, funding remained a limitation, and this forced NASA to truncate its priorities. Viking was a clearly case of administrative funding forcing scientists to create a

41 Ibid, 14. 42 List sources that say this such as the educational pamphlet. 43 Corliss, The Viking Mission to Mars, 75. 44 The Viking Mission to Mars, II-6. 45 “Viking I Prepares for Landing on Mars Tomorrow,” The New York Times, July 19th, 1976, 1. 79 project that they considered the most useful or most exciting for their interests. Collectively, those working with Viking agreed that the mission’s primary objective was to search for life on

Mars, and, through their constant association of Viking with Martian life, they devised a characterization that would lead to disappoint when it found no life. Even though previous missions had not found any evidence of organic material on Mars, scientists had created much anticipation for this life-searching mission that had little reason to actually discover life. The way scientists framed Mars and claimed it was revolutionary contributed to the post-mission response detailed below.

From here, the next section will examine the actual results of the missions and the way these results changed space science as a whole. Viking is known among scientists today for its jarring results that changed the trajectory of space science, and this section will consider whether

Viking truly caused such a major shift.

Unsettling Discoveries

Scientists had expected great things from Viking, but the mission proved even more fruitful than they imagined. Viking lasted far longer than NASA had anticipated, with Soffen originally suggesting a duration of ninety days for each of the two missions. Instead, the landers and orbiters remained alive as long as six years after their arrival at Mars. This unexpected length allowed the probes to gather an unprecedented amount of information and a large number of images. Despite this surprising length, the most significant results, those relating to the existence of life on Mars, were well documented shortly after Viking I arrived in June 1976.

These were the most celebrated, controversial, and debated results from Viking, and they receive the most attention in this section.


Both Viking I and Viking II followed identical procedures upon arriving at Mars, and the timeline proceeded without any notable hiccups. Each orbiter spent a month orbiting Mars after arriving to search for a suitable spot to touchdown its lander, affirming Mariner IX’s mapping.

NASA scientists then selected the landing locations, and the landers descended down to the surface. These selections were particularly important, as mentioned earlier, for the integrity of the crafts as well as to find suitable research locations. Neither lander had wheels or a method of moving around, meaning they were fixed to the spot they landed. Each lander weighed approximately 1,270lbs (576 kg), and each was 10 feet long and 7 feet tall. They stood on three legs with one lengthy appendage that would sample the soil, capable of extending to 10 feet in length and could rotate as much as 120 degrees. Imaging of the surface began within minutes of touchdown, beginning countless months of transmitting pictures back to Earth with a transmission time of around one hour.46

Viking collected its first soil sample by late August for scientists to analyze, and the results induced a major reverberation within the scientific community. During the few months after the first experiments took place to search for organic material, some scientists found the results ambiguous. The immediate results were apparently inconclusive as scientists stated that they could not come to a consensus on whether Viking had discovered organic material. Sagan stated that “there are clues up to the eyebrows, but no conclusive explanations of what we’re seeing.”47 In October 1976, Klein stated there was no clear answer as to whether the experiments had found any biological processes on Mars.48 Similarly, in December, Soffen emphasized that

46 For a full synopsis of Viking’s attributes as well as a list of its discoveries, see NASA’s Fact Sheet for Viking, http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/fact_sheets/viking.pdf. 47 John Noble Wilford, “Scientists are Still of Two Minds About Life on Mars,” The New York Times, November 10, 1976, 16. 48 Harold Klein et al., “The Viking Biological Investigation: Preliminary Results,” Science 194 (1976): 104. 81

“no conclusions were reached concerning the existence of life on Mars.”49 These scientists were reluctant to jump to a conclusion because of the contradictory data, though their opinions would shift as the experiments continued.

Within the next year, most scientists would come to an agreement on Viking, and the consensus they created induced a major shift in scientific perceptions of Mars, namely within biology. Although many scientists realized that the likelihood of discovering living organisms on

Mars was slim, they at least expected to find dead, fossilized organisms or perhaps just some organic compounds, the so called building blocks of life. As a result, Viking’s failure to discover even a minute amount of organic material shocked many scientists. Richard Young, a member of the Viking team, acknowledged this situation as early as November 1976, noting that “the absence of organic molecules is somewhat puzzling,” and the discussion of this absence spread in 1977.50 One group of scientists led by Ichtiaque Rasool explained the results in more detail, stating that Viking found that “the surface of Mars (at least at the two locations so far studied), does not contain organic molecules at the detectable limit of about 1 part per billion.”51 The article also noted that this was a disappointment for exobiologists, both because of the negative results and because of the discrepancies they induced with prior data. Viking’s findings seemed to clash with the knowledge that even Antarctic soil and had some traces of organic material. Another article by the influential scientist came to the same conclusion and said that “ultimately, there may be a consensus among scientists that Mars… is dead.”52 In general, it was clear that Viking had failed to find life on Mars, and now scientists began to interpret the results.

49 Gerald Soffen, “Scientific Results of the Viking Mission,” Science 194, (1976): 1276. 50 Richard Young, “Viking on Mars: A Preliminary Survey,” American Scientist 64 (1976): 627. 51 Ichtiaque S. Rasool et al., “What the Exploration of Mars Tells Us about Earth,” Physics Today 30 (1977): 28. 52 Lynn Margulis and J. E. Lovelock, “The View from Mars and Venus,” Sciences 17 (1977): 13. 82

Responses to this startling revelation varied from scientist to scientist with some expressing that life could still exist on Mars or at least elsewhere in the universe. Sagan, for example, called Viking’s data “mixed, enigmatic, puzzling, and exciting, but certainly not definite,” meaning that the search was not yet over.53 Richard Young, a long time exobiologist, was one such scientist that insisted that “the absence of evidence… of life should not necessarily be construed as evidence of the absence of life.”54 He suggested that the next step is to obtain direct samples of Martian soil and somehow return them to Earth where scientists could analyze them in laboratories. To Young, there was an obvious need to continue studying Mars despite

Viking’s thorough investigation. Another duo of scientists interested in exobiology, Gerald

Feinberg of Columbia University and Robert Shapiro of New York University, also believed that

Viking had not settled the issue of life on Mars. They expressed firmly that “we have not yet obtained enough information to answer most of the questions we have about Martian life, including the essential ones: Has life existed on Mars in the past? Does life exist now on Mars?

If so, where does if exist and what kind is it?”55 They explained some scenarios in which microorganisms could avoid detection from Viking’s instruments, meaning that the possibility of life existing there remained open. Like Young, they suggested further Martian missions, preferably a return mission that would bring back a soil sample.

Another prominent scientist that disagreed with the consensus, that Mars was without life, was Gilbert Levin, a member of Klein’s biology team. He interpreted Viking’s data as having positive results, rather than negative, by arguing that chemical reactions occurring in the

Martian soil were from organic sources, not inorganic ones. To Levin, “despite all hypotheses to

53 Carl Sagan et al., “Continuing Puzzles about Mars,” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 30 (1977): 28. 54 Richard Young, “Post-Viking Exobiology,” BioScience 28 (1978): 502. 55 Gerald Feinberg and Robert Shapiro, “Mars Today: Is there Life after Viking?,” Sciences 20 (1980): 13. 83 the contrary, the distinct possibility remains that biological activity has been observed on

Mars.”56 He was the most notable proponent of this positive interpretation, but it was not a widely held belief.

On the other hand, many scientists were quick to change their positions on whether life exists on Mars and in the universe, and some interpreted Viking’s findings as indicative of the broader existence of life in the universe. It is impossible to quantify exactly how many scientists were influenced by Viking’s discoveries, but there was a clear reversal among a number of notable scientists. One scientist who conceded that Mars was likely lifeless was Klein, the man that organized the Viking biology team. Previously a firm believer in Martian life, he relented to the data and said that “it is fair to say that if life exists on Mars, it must be constrained within narrow geographical or metabolic limits.”57 This concession was modest because it still allowed for the possible existence of life on Mars, but it also seriously questioned probability of finding it. Klein would further shift his opinion going into the 1980s and 1990s, as the next section will discuss in more detail. Soffen was another Viking team member to undergo a change in opinion.

In response to Viking’s discoveries of Mars’s soil chemical composition, he coined the term self- sterilizing to describe the processes that hamper the existence of life. The oxidizing nature of the soil, combined with a lack of water, prevented the formation of organic compounds. According to a biography of Soffen, he was devastated by the negative results, and he often questioned his own decision making with regards to instruments and tools that went on Viking.58 Based solely on the two data points Viking collected, Klein and Soffen relinquished their beliefs in extraterrestrial life.

56 Gilbert Levin and Patricia Straat, “Viking Labeled Release Biology Experiment: Interim Results,” Science 194 (1976): 1328. 57 Harold Klein, “The Viking Biological Experiments on Mars,” Icarus 34 (1977): 674. 58 Roger D. Launius, “Soffen…,” 487. 84

Other scientists had more drastic responses that completely eliminated the possibility of life existing on Mars or anywhere in the universe. One such scientist was the prominent exobiologist Horowitz who appeared to reverse his previously optimistic stance on Martian life.

In a 1984 NASA publication that summarized the Viking missions, Horowitz wrote a bold and heartfelt conclusion that connected Viking’s discoveries to a broader understanding of life in the universe. He praised humanity for achieving such an extraordinary mission, but concludes that:

We discovered that almost everything that had been learned about Mars as a

possible biological habitat in the previous 300 years was wrong. There are many

lessons here, as much about people as about Mars. Finally, since Mars offered by

far the most prominent extraterrestrial environment for life, it is now virtually

certain that Earth is the only life-bearing planet in the solar system. We have

come to the end of the dream. We are alone.59

It was like a shattered dream for Horowitz, and there was no contending that humanity was on its own, at least in the solar system.

Another scientist that responded pessimistically to Viking was Lynn Margulis, Carl

Sagan’s well known wife. In 1980, she criticized the optimistic article discussed above published by Gerald Feinberg and Robert Shapiro that insisted that further research was necessary, including a probe that returns to Earth. In her response, she stated that “only in popular literature… does anyone continue to hold open possibilities for present life on Mars” implying that scientists did not take views seriously.60 To her, any suggestions for further Martian

59 Viking: The Exploration of Mars, 56. Horowitz also published a book entitled To Utopia and Back: The Search for Life in the Solar System in 1986 that came to the same conclusion, that we, as humans, are alone within our solar system. 60 Lynn Margulis, “After Viking: Life on Earth,” Sciences 20 (1980): 24. 85 missions “represent the height of scientific and fiscal irresponsibility.”61 In her view, there was nothing more to discover, and instead scientists should focus on studying their own planet, Earth, which still has many mysteries that are more relevant to human civilization. To these two scientists, Viking answered all biological questions related to Mars, and no further evidence was necessary.

Although there is no way to understand exactly how many scientists shifted views because of Viking, there was at least a notable variety in perspectives, with some still clinging to hope and others considering Martian life a lost cause. Regardless, even exobiologists such as

Young realized that scientists “are agreed that the likelihood of present-day life forms is very remote” on Mars.62 For some scientists, Viking followed through on the predictions made by

Soffen and others by revolutionizing their understanding of Mars, but in an unexpected and, to some individuals, disappointing way. There was no life on Mars, or at least its chances of existence were, as Young said, rather remote. In general, these responses appeared shortsighted or exaggerated the implications. Viking was not a comprehensive endeavor, not enough to declare Mars lifeless. Likewise, exobiologists had no further basis to believe in Martian life, yet some like Young continued to advocate for it. In both cases, the reactionary conclusions were premature, and this tendency to overreact shows how truly important scientists thought Viking and extraterrestrial life was to them.

Viking was a major turning point for Martian research because it forced a reconsideration of Mars as a habitable world. As the following section will detail, Viking left a lasting legacy on space science that has it earned it a prominent in the history of Martian exploration, and,

61 Ibid, 25. 62 Young, “Post-Viking Exobiology,” 503. 86 according to some scientists, it was a cause of the twenty-year drought until the next NASA,

Martian mission.

Viking’s Legacy

Regardless of the negative outcome of its biological tests, Viking was by far the most comprehensive Martian mission to that point because of its vast collections of data, including for non-biological fields. Some important information Viking clarified included the composition of

Mars’s atmosphere and its soil, the dynamics and characteristics of its weather patterns, and its geological activity. Although it found no life, Viking did provide many images of Mars’s surface that showed new details of various topographical features, such as dry riverbeds, which suggested that Mars once had water flowing on its surface.63 As described earlier, Mariner IX originally discovered these channels and other waterbeds, but Viking’s images were of higher quality and more numerous, further confirming the suspicions of Mars’s wet past. As a result of these numerous discoveries, many scientists considered Viking a success, and it earned praise for its accomplishments. Horowitz, being an exobiologist, was one scientist that called Viking a

“dazzling success” for its capacity to resolve whether life exists on Mars, even if he was reactionary to its negative results.64 Bevan French, a NASA scientist, lauded the mission by stating that “the Vikings have become a bridge into the future. When the Landers have sent their last data back to Earth, they will remain like monuments on the surface of Mars, waiting silently until new machines, and finally human beings, come to stand beside them.”65 To French, Viking was just the beginning of human exploration of Mars, a foundation for future to build upon. Soffen, just as he believed Viking would make history before the mission, added afterward

63 One can browse the complete collection of Viking’s images at this : http://pds- geosciences.wustl.edu/viking/vl1_vl2-m-lcs-2-edr-v1/vl_0001/browse/index.htm. 64 Viking: The Exploration of Mars 56. 65 French, Mars: The Viking Discoveries, 28. 87 that “comparative planetology was conceived with Mariner and born with Viking. Our rendezvous with history was a major milestone in human affairs.”66 This sentiment implied that

Viking gave birth to the future of interplanetary studies. At the time, scientists working close to

Viking understood that this mission was leaving a legacy for future missions to not only Mars but other planets as well.

Nonetheless, although Viking received much praise, it also caused controversy over its impact to NASA, space science, and exobiology. Instead of spurring further missions to Mars like Soffen and others predicted, Viking, as NASA historian Erik M. Conway explains, “nearly signified an end” to Mars exploration.67 As the following chapter will discuss in more detail, by affirming that Mars was likely lifeless, scientists believed Viking caused political disinterest in

Mars during a period in which NASA faced further budget restrictions in the 1980s. Concerns

Klein had expressed earlier that Viking could hurt future funding appeared to come true, and it appeared as if Mars was suddenly no longer a major research priority. The next successful

NASA mission to Mars would occur in 1996, twenty years after Viking’s arrival at Mars, with the . In addition to its effect on future missions, Viking also instilled debate well into the 2000s over the validity of its biological experiments and the subsequent analysis that failed to find life. For example, Gilbert Levin continued throughout the 1980s and

1990s to insist that Viking had actually found life, and Klein repeatedly rebuffed these claims.

He responded by acknowledging that perhaps chemical reactions occurring in Mars’s soil had organic origins, but he found the claims “dubious” and “unsubstantiated.”68 Nonetheless, some scientists continued to suggest that Viking had indeed found life or that it did not use enough

66 Viking-Mars: Anatomy of Success, 30. 67 Erik Conway, Exploration and Engineering: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Quest for Mars (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2015), 2. 68 Harold Klein, “Did Viking Discover Life on Mars?,” Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere 29 (1998): 63. 88 techniques to detect it. For example, in 1999, a group of scientists, led by chemist Steven Benner of the University of , published research in a NAS journal that argued that life could still exist on Mars. Unlike Levin, Brenner acknowledged that Viking did not find life, but he concluded that “the failure of the Viking 1976 experiments to find organics should not, therefore, be taken as a strong argument against the presence of all organic substances on Mars.”69 There were still other life-detecting experiments to attempt on Mars that Viking did not try. Another scientist that recently contested Viking’s data analysis was Christopher McKay, a NASA researcher, who wrote in 2009 that Viking had actually detected life, but “we just did not realize it.”70 Viking became an obstacle that subsequent believers in Martian life had to overcome to continue advocating for biological research on Mars.

Overall, Viking left a complex, though notable legacy for NASA and astronomers to contend with. Undoubtedly, Viking was a success for its extraordinary journey to Mars and its extensive survey. Yet, the mission also ended a chapter of Martian exploration when it appeared to resolve the primary debate that compelled scientists to invest in Mars. It was a climax following years of belief among scientists in Mars as a habitable world, and to some scientists the ending was tragic. To others, the result was not clear, and certain individuals continued to argue that Mars was still a world where life could exist. By the time Viking, specifically the

Viking I lander, made its final transmission to Earth on November 11, 1982, more than seven years after it had left Earth, it had already surpassed expectations, but the implications of its discoveries would continue for many more years.

69 Steven A Benner et al., “The Missing Organic Molecules on Mars,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 97 (2000): 2429. 70 Ron Cowen, "Mars Organics Were Possibly Missed," Science News 178, no. 8 (2010): 9. 89


This chapter has detailed the climactic nature of the Viking missions and the surprising response from American scientists. Viking had a number of different aspects that worked in unison to create this large scale project, and each of these aspects could receive even more attention than this chapter gave them. First, Viking occurred in a particular political and social context within NASA and the United States in which NASA endured serious financial scrutiny from Congress. NASA could no longer afford overseeing multiple major missions at once, as it had under Apollo, and this forced it to downsize its objectives. Viking was born from this tighter budgeting, and it was an instance of NASA scientists choosing which aspects of space science they considered most compelling. Additionally, Viking then also affected future NASA finances when it failed to discover life, causing a shift in priorities away from Mars. Viking is therefore a fascinating example of the dynamics between science, politics, and society and how these influence scientific pursuits.

Second, there were a number of different individuals involved in the mission, and they each followed particular philosophies which influenced their perception of Viking. The main leaders of the Viking project were often staunch believers in extraterrestrial life. For example, specific scientists like Klein, Soffen, Sagan, Horowitz, and others held particularly strong views on the existence of life in the universe. These scientists had specific backgrounds that inspired their devoted interest in extraterrestrial life. Their fascination with life on other worlds combined with their positions within NASA fueled the creation of Viking as a hunter for Martian life.

These scientists reacted in different ways to Viking’s discoveries, with many flipping positions and conceding that Mars was likely absent of life. As this chapter has shown, there were alternate opinions to the consensus, that Viking failed to find life, and debate over Viking continued well

90 into the 1990s and 2000s. Viking’s impact on space science is therefore complex and multifaceted. In one way, the mission forced scientists to reconsider their beliefs, as the evidence was apparently too thorough to overcome. Mars was no longer a serious priority without the lure of life. On the other hand, Viking also validated the arguments espoused before the mission that studying Mars could produce striking and compelling data. It set a standard for future interplanetary missions and proved their inherent usefulness to science. Originally, scientists working with Viking such as Klein argued that the mission would offer a valuable source of knowledge, and its results affirmed this position. Later projects would use Viking as a standard for a successful, productive mission.

The most startling aspect of Viking’s story was the reactionary responses many scientists had to its apparent discovery that Mars was lifeless. Although Viking had analyzed only two particular spots on Mars’s surface, scientists, both those who continued to believe in Martian life and those who denied it, were quick to create generalized conclusions about Mars’s habitability.

These responses were unlike those after Mariner IV, which similarly did not find evidence of life, in which exobiologists continued to dominate characterizations of Mars. In that case, they argued that the mission was inconclusive, not comprehensive enough to assert Mars was inhabitable. Scientists did not frame Mariner IV as the ultimate solution to speculation on life on

Mars, and therefore they were more capable of criticizing its data than with Viking.

With Viking, the data was apparently substantial enough for scientists to discard their beliefs in Martian life. Why the different reactions? The answer is a mixture of the way scientists framed Viking’s importance and the belief that finding extraterrestrial life was fundamentally important to society. From its initiation, scientists designed the mission to focus on searching for life, and they constantly asserted amongst themselves and to the media that Viking would answer

91 whether life exists on Mars. Additionally, the expensive Viking mission occurred in a political context in which Congress was wary of NASA spending. Scientists could not question the capabilities of this costly mission and ask for further missions if even Viking’s $1 billion endeavor could not resolve the controversy. When Viking did not discover life, scientists felt they could no longer sustain a belief that life exists on Mars and had lost their opportunities to study Mars directly. Martian life was the primary lure for Martian research and the sole reason why Viking received such attention from the media. As a result, when that lure disappeared with no means of scientists to argue against the data, interest faded among scientists and the media.

Martian missions, as a type of Big Science, relied on public fascination and scientific unity to flourish, but without the possible existence of Martian life both fascination and unity dwindled.

Despite the predictions of scientists such as Soffen that Viking would spark further exploration of Mars, Viking was in many ways the end of a chapter in Martian research. It was a culmination, a long awaited excursion that appeared to answer the most compelling questions related to Mars. Viking did not find life, and, as a result, Mars took a backseat to an increasingly financially impinged NASA. Nonetheless, as is apparent today, Mars inspired scientific interest again, and in many ways it seemed that speculation on life existing there would never cease. As

Soffen noted toward the end of his life in 1998, after rejoicing for the discovery of organic material in a , “there is an intense contemporary interest in understanding the human place in the universe… We now have the technical tools to accomplish this quest.”71 To

Soffen, scientists had the ability to solve this philosophical question of life in the universe. Mars would return to the forefront of space science as captivation with extraterrestrial life resumed.

71 Gerald Soffen, “Astrobiology from Exobiology: Viking and the Current Mars Probes,” Acta Astronautica 41 (1997): 611. 92

Chapter 3:

The Dead Earth: Mars as an Emblem of Recent American Space Exploration

Unlike some fellow enthusiasts, Carl Sagan was cautious of whether humans should ever set foot on Mars. Without definitive evidence that Mars was lifeless, he expressed concern that humans would tamper the Martian ecosystem, and, as a result, humans should only settle on

Mars if no other life exists there and should use caution when sending probes there. If no life ever existed, Sagan believed that “the Martians will be us,” and then humans can land on its surface.1 Nonetheless, NASA has considered Martian missions, including eventual manned operations, a priority, as evidenced by the eight missions it has conducted since 2000. Today, on its main Mars website, NASA lists four goals scientists have set for future Martian missions.

These goals include determining if life ever arose on Mars, characterizing the Martian climate to model its past environments, characterizing Mars’s geology to better understand Mars’s history, and preparing for human exploration of Mars.2 Except for the last one, these goals all share the characteristic of focusing not on Mars’s present conditions but on its past, in which it was warmer and wetter. As NASA explains, “about 3.8-3.5 billion years ago, Mars and Earth were much more similar,” both warm and wet with conditions conducive for life to develop.3 Because it was once similar to the Earth, scientists perceive Mars as a lucrative source of information on the conditions necessary for the evolution of life, regardless of whether or not Mars ever had life.

In many ways, Mars has become a symbol of space exploration and planetary science in the twenty-first century.

1 Paul Raeburn, Uncovering the Secrets of the : Mars, (Washington, D.C.: The National Geographic Society, 1998), 221. 2 See the four goals at NASA’s website, http://mars.nasa.gov/programmissions/science/. 3 “Mars Exploration Program and Overview,” http://mars.nasa.gov/programmissions/overview/. 93

This chapter focuses on why scientists continued to show interest in Mars during the

1980s and 1990s, well after the disappointing results from Viking. It argues, as with the thesis overall, that interest in Mars during this period originated from a scientific commitment to the primacy of searching for extraterrestrial life, and that this commitment was connected to perceptions of the utility of Martian research to the broader scientific community and American society at large.

The period considered here, from 1980 to 2000, is important because it laid the foundation for the most recent surge of fixation on Mars. Because of a variety of factors that this chapter explains below, there were no further missions in the 1980s, and it was not until 1992 that NASA attempted another launch to Mars. This chapter will also demonstrate that the period is useful for analyzing why Mars is such a compelling object for research. During this period, several scientists devised new ways of perceiving Mars in order to reaffirm its importance to science and society. They argued that Mars was once a wet, warm, Earth-like planet and, because of this similarity, the study of Mars could offer into the history of life on Earth. Even though the formulation of such arguments and rationalizations for the study of Mars were often vague, they appealed to a broader social fascination with Mars and with alien life. When combined, social fascination along with scientific speculation spurred new missions in the 1990s such as , Mars Global Surveyor, and , all of which sought to verify this conception of a wet Mars. Scientists focused on Mars because they perceived it as a lens for understanding the past; in other words, Mars was a practical tool for investing major scientific theories regarding the origins of life. Public interest combined with a new theory of

Martian life rejuvenated scientific investment in the planet.


The story of missions to Mars from 1980 to 2000 is also important because it presents a case where a major scientific enterprise continued to garner support and interest despite the shifting political climate as the Cold War ended and American scientists struggled to justify their endeavors in a new post-Cold War context. Interesting, although Martian exploration, like most of modern space science, incorporated institutions with Cold War origins such as NASA, this chapter shows how scientists sustained Martian exploration even though there was no obvious connection to national security as was the case in so many other cases of Cold War science.4

Scientists did not attempt to frame Mars as a national security interest, and NASA continued to fund new Martian projects even in the mid-1980s when it was hamstrung with national security related projects such as the space shuttle. As this chapter will show, political context matters but does not necessarily determine science, even in the case of expensive projects such as missions to Mars. Instead, the broader social context of the United States was more important, especially since particular scientists, such as Christopher McKay, were able to continue to tap into popular and scientific interest (within NASA) in the possibility of live on Mars. Because of their positions in NASA, they swayed the agency’s priorities toward Mars.

As Mars continues to draw considerable interest from scientists and society, the planet retained its distinction as an exceptional astronomical object with a unique connection to modern science. Mars’s allure has grown further because of NASA’s serious objectives for manned missions to the planet. By analyzing what makes Mars so special to its enthusiasts, historians can better understand the way science operates in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as well as science’s connection to society, politics and culture.

4Wolfe, Competing with the Soviets, 23-39. 95

Space Science in Transition: From Viking through the Space Shuttle

Space science entered the 1980s on the heels of the Viking expeditions, the most successful planetary missions conducted to that point. Scientists felt Viking’s legacy throughout the next two decades because of its discoveries, in particular its failure to discover life on Mars.

As shown in the previous chapter, the Viking landers did not uncover a single piece of evidence to suggest that Mars has, or ever had, life thriving on its surface. There was no sign of any organic material in Mars’s soil, and the planet’s environment was even more inhospitable than previously thought. Although some notable exobiologists, such as Gerald Levin, did not consider the debate over, for the most part, scientists resigned themselves to the fact that Mars was not an oasis of life as previously imagined. Viking created a new perspective of Mars, one without currently existing organisms, which would affect the way scientists framed Mars later in the

1980s and beyond.

Despite Viking’s success on Mars, NASA did not undertake another Martian mission until 1993, a result of a shift in the agency’s priorities as well as national political views of space science funding. NASA’s primary focuses during this was period were the space shuttle and, eventually, the space station, two projects with considerable price tags and long term commitments.5 The space shuttle, unlike Martian missions, was a project designed for both civilian and military use. The government expected the shuttle to carry satellites for communication and surveillance into space for the military, directly connecting the shuttle to national security.6 NASA conceived the space shuttle in the 1960s as a necessary vehicle for

5 See Roger Launius’s history of NASA for a chronology of NASA’s projects and their development through the 1980s. Roger Launius, NASA: A History of the U.S. Civil Space Program, (Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 1994). 6 R. Jeffrey Smith, “Shuttle Problems Compromise Space Program,” Science 206 (Nov 23 1979), 910. 96 creating large scale structures in space, and it was an ongoing endeavor during the Viking missions. Originally authorized in 1971 as a $5.5 billion project, the space shuttle had blossomed into an over $8 billion development by 1980.7 Numerous delays had forced NASA to allocate more of its budget toward the shuttle and away from other projects, such as missions to Mars other planets. In comparison, the Viking missions combined had cost only $1 billion. By the

1990s, the space shuttle program received almost one-third of NASA’s annual overall budget of around $15 billion, a serious commitment to maintaining the shuttles.8 Finally, the space shuttle program endured one of the worst space disasters in NASA’s history when Challenger exploded in January 1986. This disaster caused a major shift in NASA’s philosophy toward spaceflight, and, as this article will describe later, it even affected the views of scientists toward manned missions to Mars and other planetary bodies. NASA used the space shuttle only a few times a year before the disaster, and afterward it ceased space shuttle missions for two years. The space shuttle is important to consider because incidents surrounding it affected the timing of NASA

Martian missions, even if they did not impact the prioritization of Mars among scientists.

This massive shuttle project occurred during a period of significant financial scrutiny of

NASA by Congress and President Reagan. Space scientists felt the pressure from the US government in 1981 when the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) suggested that NASA cease its planetary exploration programs entirely by 1983.9 This cessation would have ended the few planetary projects NASA had planned, most notably the mission, a highly anticipated probe to study Jupiter. Fortunately for NASA, by 1982, this government hostility toward the planetary program weakened thanks to a “firestorm of from their constituents

7 Ibid. 8 Launius, NASA: A History, 118. 9 M. Mitchell Waldrop, “Planetary Science in ,” Science 214 (Dec. 18, 1981), 1322. 97 in the scientific community,” leading Reagan’s science adviser to insist that “there was never any intention of cancelling the planetary program.”10 Nonetheless, this budgetary pressure forced

NASA to limit its planetary projects to just a few missions: Galileo, which NASA delayed until

1989, , a small Venus mission, and Mars Observer, the next planned Martian mission that NASA delayed until 1992. Once again, the space shuttle played a major role in these delays extending beyond the 1980s, with the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) explaining to

Congress that “three major NASA planetary probes-the Galileo to Jupiter, the Magellan to

Venus, and the Mars Observer-… have been substantially delayed by the [Challenger] accident.”11 The incident had forced other, non-shuttle projects to take a backseat while Congress and NASA recuperated. The 1980s were a difficult period for space science, particularly for planetary probes, in the United States, and the future did not look promising.

Scientists and other analysts at the time were fully aware of the issues space science faced, and they voiced their displeasure, often including criticism toward the space shuttle. For example, one New York Times article lamented that “the age of planetary discovery by spacecraft is sliding into a time extended eclipse” and quoted Sagan as saying “it’s just a pity it’s all coming to an end so soon.”12 Toronto’s The Globe and Mail, another prominent newspaper, similarly declared an end to the “planet decade” of the 1970s, but then lamented that “planning for new projects has virtually reached a standstill and we’re in for an unprecedented dry spell that could last for most of the 1980s.” Of course, “the Space Shuttle is the culprit here.”13 Another report in

Science by Washington Post reporter R. Jeffrey Smith declared that the shuttle’s costs and constant delays would force scientists to “postpone for years or even cancel missions such as the

10 M. Mitchell Waldrop, “Planetary Science: Up from the Ashes?” Science 218 (Nov. 12 1982), 665. 11 “The 1988 Budget and the Future of the NASA Program,” Congressional Budget Office, March 1987, 19. 12 John Noble Wilford, “A Rich Era in the Study of Planets Draws to a Close,” The New York Times, August 25, 1981. 13 Lydia Dotto, “Planet Decade Ends; Changes of Probes in 1980s are Dim,” The Globe and Mail, January 7 1980. 98

Galileo orbiter.”14 It appeared that national security interests, namely with the shuttle, would win out in this drought of missions to Mars and other worlds. Nonetheless, despite the dearth of new projects, interest in Mars continued to progress during this period, and the demand for further research was not something NASA or the US government could ignore. New perceptions of

Mars that formed in the 1980s led Mars into a new era of space exploration.

Back from the Dead: Mars’s Resurgence

After Viking’s startling lack of discovery of life on Mars, some scientists resigned themselves to the fact that Mars was truly lifeless, a desolate world with an inhospitable environment, as noted in the previous chapter. For example, astronomer Fred Whipple thought the search was over and stated in 1982 that “the results showed no evidence whatsoever of hydrocarbons in the Martian soil. Thus, we have to give up the concept of Mars as an abode for life…”15 Yet, not all scientists had given up, and, ironically, it was Mars’s apparent lack of life that spurred even more interest in the planet. This section will begin by describing the new characterization that scientists used to describe Mars from the 1980s through the 1990s. It will then explain why this perception gained in popularity among scientists and the media. Scientists described Mars as a counterpart to Earth, a planet that failed to attain Earth’s level of success but nonetheless possessed striking similarities. Some scientists postulated that Mars might have had life in the past, but it went extinct at some point. This speculation meant Mars was a direct counterpart to Earth, further connecting Martian research with terrestrial environments and appealing to scientific and social interest in discovering life or habitable environments on other worlds.

14 R. Jeffrey Smith, “Shuttle Problems Compromise Space Program,” Science 206 (Nov 23 1979), 910. 15 Fred Whipple, “Great Achievements in Space Exploration,” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 35, May 1982, 35. 99

Despite the disappointment of some scientists at the lack of present life on Mars, some individuals continued to study Viking’s vast collections of data throughout the 1980s in search of new discrepancies. Viking had produced so much data that analysis of it continued many years after the mission and spurred new investigations into particular aspects of Mars, most notably the possible presence of water. Mars still had distinguishable evidence of water on its surface, and any sign of water could suggest the existence of life. Notable geologist Michael Carr wrote an analysis in 1980 that pointed out some of the peculiarities of Mars’s surface features, characteristics that suggested Mars had a long history of geological transformations. Carr noted that “Mars appears… to have been volcanically active throughout its history, and its large volcanoes are probably still active. Moreover, the surface has been modified to varying degrees by the wind, and possibly by water and ice also.”16 Viking’s orbiters collected images that revealed fluvial channels across Mars’s surface, features that suggested water once flowed on

Mars. Carr stated that these channels “present some of the most perplexing problems of Martian geology” because Mars clearly did not have water presently flowing anywhere on its surface.17

Carr published another analysis in 1986 that concluded water indeed created these fluvial structures, reaffirming that water once flowed on Mars and perhaps exists underground.18

Although he believed that wind and volcanism played more important roles on Mars than water, these structures would contribute to later speculation that Mars once had liquid water.

Carr’s contributions were merely a hint at the coming resurgence as other scientists followed up on his research. NASA astronomer Christopher McKay was among the first to develop the new perspective of Mars as a lifeless Earth. A planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames

16 Michael Carr, “The : Volcanic, Tectonic, and Fluvial Features on the Surface of Mars Record a Long and Varied Geologic History,” American Scientist 68 (November-December 1980), 626. 17 Ibid, 631. 18 Michael Carr, “Mars: A Water-Rich Planet?,” Icarus 68 (1986), 187-216. 100

Research Center, McKay considered himself an astrobiologist, a type of biologist focused on life in the universe.19 He undertook expeditions to Antarctica in the mid-1980s to study the effects of the harsh climate on microbial life, studies resembling those of Horowitz in the late 1960s, as described in the previous chapter. In 1986, McKay published an article in Advances in Space

Research, a peer reviewed journal for the Committee of Space Research and International

Council for Science, titled “Exobiology and Future Mars Missions: The Search for Mars’ Earliest

Biosphere” in which he laid out the foundation for future analysis of Mars. In his introduction, he described that “on Mars, geological investigations based on the Viking datasets have shown that the primordial Mars was in many biologically important ways similar to the primordial Earth; the surface of both planets was characterized by the presence of liquid water.”20 Although he acknowledged that there was no present life on Mars, he insisted that “four billion years ago the surface of Mars could have been conducive to the origin of life.”21 The key ingredient to life is water, and, according to McKay, Mars once possessed an atmosphere capable of supporting liquid water. Regardless of its actual past, he believed that Mars had obvious potential for further research investment, and McKay used his article as a rally cry for scientists to support new and more ambitious missions to Mars.

McKay’s perspective spread to other scientists who validated his theory with new evidence. Astronomer James , also of NASA’s , published a more thorough, data-driven analysis in 1987 that supported the claim that Mars once was a world

19 Exobiology was the older term for astrobiology with both focusing on studying life on other worlds. The latter title has a broader meaning, implying it is a study of not just extraterrestrial, i.e. non-earthly, life but life in the entire universe, including the Earth. See, as an example from this period, D. J. Des Marais and Malcolm Walter, “Astrobiology: Exploring the Origins, Evolution, and Distribution of Life in the Universe,” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 30 (1999). 20 Christopher P. McKay, “Exobiology and Future Mars Missions: The Search for Mars’s Earliest Biosphere,” Advances in Space Research 6 (1986), 269. 21 Ibid. 101 much different than today. “Today, Mars is a desert world,” Pollack and his colleagues described, “however, the may not have always been as severe as it is today.”22

To Pollack, Mars’s atmosphere once possessed a significant quantity of greenhouse gases, namely carbon dioxide (CO2). These gases prevent sunlight from bouncing off the surface and leaving the planet, instead trapping them within the planet’s atmosphere and providing heat.

Only a relatively small amount of CO2 is necessary to induce a significant warm up on the planet’s surface. Pollack argued that CO2 weathered the various geographical features on Mars such as its numerous valleys, helping to shape their appearances, and used this conjecture as evidence that the atmosphere was once thicker. Overall, there was a distinct possibility that Mars was once a wet, warm world with liquid water flowing along its surface. Pollack emphasized the importance of this possibility, explaining that “if the above scenario is correct, it has important implications for the possible occurrence of life on Mars.” Although Viking had proven that no life currently exists there, “we suggest that much more favorable climate conditions for life may have existed for an extended period of time during the planet’s early history. If so, it seems premature… to assume that life never existed on this planet.”23 Pollack and McKay had devised a new way for scientists to perceive Mars, one that challenged the characterization of Mars as lifeless and offered an alternative for continuing the search for life. Despite the suggestion by

Whipple and others that it was time to give up on Mars, Pollack emphasized that this conclusion was hasty upon further analysis of Viking’s data.

This new perception spread gradually through the late 1980s and into the 1990s because of more scientists providing supporting evidence. Another NASA researcher, Sherwood Chang,

22 J.B. Pollack, J.F. Kasting, S.M. Richardson, and K. Poliakoff, “The Case for a Wet, Warm Climate on Early Mars,” Icarus 71 (1987), 203-204. 23 Ibid, 220. 102 published such an article in 1988 in which he intended “to draw attention to some qualitative considerations concerning the relation between biological and planetary evolution on Earth, and finally to consider prospects for past and present life on Mars.”24 Unlike the prior reports, Chang focused on Earth’s early history, describing the way the planet evolved to allow organic material and eventually life to form. One such characteristic of early Earth that Chang emphasized was its

CO2 rich atmosphere, a compound that acted as a greenhouse . Chang tied his analysis to

Mars by pointing out that Mars’s water-filled “coincided with the period of Earth history when life originated.”25 The comparison was clear, that both Earth and Mars share a common background in which both had wet periods simultaneously, and this comparison implied that it is possible Mars once possessed life. In fact, Chang insisted that “the search for evidence of extinct life on Mars should be among the highest scientific priorities in future explorations of the planets” because of its significance to understanding the origins of life on Earth and in the universe.26 Considering Chang was an exobiologist and NASA employee, his views demonstrate that interest in life on Mars was still festering among those with background in studying extraterrestrial life.

The connection between the Earth and Mars’s history was a crucial because scientists argued it allowed for a comparative analysis, and this comparison would help spread this new conception of Mars as a once livelier world within the scientific community and into popular media outlets. As Chang described, the Earth and Mars were like siblings that both possessed similar histories, including a warm and wet period. If this geological history was accurate, then

Mars was a clearly practical source of knowledge that could reveal details on the origins of life,

24 Sherwood Chang, “Planetary Environments and the Conditions of Life,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, 325 (July 1988), 601. 25 Ibid, 609. 26 Ibid. 103 both on Earth and in the universe. Even if Mars never possessed life, as Chang and others theorized, “what we can learn of [Mars’s] past history constitute basic data pertinent to a general theory of the origin of life.”27 McKay similarly quipped that even if Mars never had life, “it would certainly prompt a more in-depth comparison of early Earth and early Mars in an effort to determine just what critical environmental or planetary factor… could account for the disparate biological histories.”28 Another set of NASA researchers led by D.E. Schwartz postulated that

“searching for fossil evidence for this past life would be analogous to studying the Earth’s earliest biosphere.”29 Mars was a lens that scientists could use to see into Earth’s history, a characteristic that made Mars useful for space scientists and pragmatic choice for advancing their work and careers. These scientists now had a new, exciting question to answer, namely why

Mars and the Earth underwent such different developments.

From the mid-1980s through the early 1990s, interest in Mars among scientists and the

American media was on the rise because of this new belief in a wet Martian history. Articles in popular science magazines reflected this growing curiosity in Mars. One Astronomy magazine article, used as the issue’s cover story, characterized Mars as “a bleak yet promising planet” that shows signs of a wet history.30 The article, like Chang’s analysis above, emphasized the contrasting histories between the Earth and Mars, noting that “clearly at some point Mars and

Earth took different evolutionary paths as a planet.”31 Included was an artist’s depiction of early

Mars as a world with volcanoes and oceans, appearing almost identical to another drawing of the

Earth. The article concluded on a profound question, that

27 Ibid, 219. 28 McKay, 277. 29 D.E. Schwartz and Rocco Mancinell, “Bio-Markers and the Search for Extinct Life on Mars,” Advances in Space Research 9 (1989), 155. 30 Michael Carroll, “Digging Deeper for Life on Mars,” Astronomy (April 1988), 7. 31 Ibid, 9. 104

if no traces of life are found on Mars, what made the Earth different enough that

living things could inhabit this special place and not our neighbor Mars? The

answer to this question may have a more profound effect on the scientific

perspectives of humankind than any other single event of this century.32

The question references philosophical implications that the Earth is exceptional and that we, as humankind, possess a unique situation in the universe. Similarly, a Discover magazine article written by popular science writer Michael Tennesen highlighted the same points in 1989, explaining that “the possibility that Mars was once warm and wet makes studies of the planet essential to our understanding of how our own planet came to be the oasis it is.”33 Like the previous article, Discover highlighted the same major question, namely “how does an Earth-like planet – early Mars – change from something the present environment of Earth to the deep ice- age conditions on Mars today?” In both articles, the connection between the Earth and Mars as planets with similar histories was Mars’s primary lure to scientists and other enthusiasts because of the comparison’s inherent instrumentality. Popular magazines expressed interest in this new theory of Mars’s wet history because of its implications for Martian life and discovering another

Earth-like world.

With Mars returning to the forefront of space science, the next step for interested scientists to make was to determine how to conduct research on Mars going forward. Although

NASA did not initially have the funds to conduct Martian missions similar to Viking, this financial concern did not stop scientists, enthusiasts, and from suggesting new projects. The most ambitious suggestions involved sending people to Mars for unmediated

32 Ibid, 15. 33 Michael Tennesen, “Mars: Remembrance of Life Past,” Discover (July 1989), 84. 105 research. Scientists had suggested manned missions in the 1960s and 1970s as eventual necessities, and NASA had held various conferences to discuss the possibility, but NASA never devised a serious attempt to land people on Mars. In the 1980s, the University of Colorado-

Boulder sponsored workshops called the “Case for Mars” that convened scientists to consider the reality of manned missions, and scientists expressed strong interest in them.34 Nonetheless, such aspirations were simply too costly for NASA to consider, and some scientists expressed concern over human spaceflight, particularly after the Challenger disaster. For example, famous

American scientist James Van Allen wrote critically that “there, of course, remain many matters of deep scientific interest on Mars but these matters can be addressed systemically- at much less cost and without risk to human life- by automated, commandable spacecraft.”35 Similarly, Sally Ride wrote a report after Challenger that cautioned scientists against manned missions to Mars at present. In the report, she suggested that “settling Mars should be our eventual goal, but it should not be our next goal.”36 Instead, NASA should launch more robotic missions until it deems spaceflight safe.

Scientist such as McKay expressed a strong desire for more Martian missions reminiscent of Viking. McKay advocated for a sample-return mission, a lander that could obtain a sample of the Martian soil and return it to Earth for direct analysis. In combination with a rover that scientists could remotely drive across the surface, scientists would have more access to Mars than ever. According to him, “a Rover/Sample Return mission offers the best opportunity for a detailed understanding of the surface history of Mars.” “The analytical and procedural flexibility in a laboratory setting,” McKay continued, “is vastly greater than is achievable even with a

34 Marcia S. Smith, “Mars: The Next Destination for Manned Spaceflight?,” Congressional Research Service (September 1984), 22-23. 35 James Van Allen, “Myths and Realities of Space Flight,” Science 232 (May 1986), 1076. 36 Colin Norman, “Space Program Said to Lack Direction,” Science 237 (August 1987), 965. 106 sophisticated rover or lander.”37 Chang was also a proponent of a sample-return mission, saying that the only way scientists could determine definitively whether life ever existed on Mars was to obtain direct samples of its soil for laboratory analysis.38 Other advocates included James Van

Allen and Sally Ride, who considered sample-return missions more feasible and less risky than manned operations. Even so, NASA has yet to develop a sample-return mission. Instead, in 1986

NASA approved the Mars Observer mission scheduled for a 1992 launch to perhaps begin a new era of Martian missions to study the planet’s past.

Mars Observer: A Failed Start

Although NASA had focused on other projects throughout the 1980s as described above, the agency had not omitted Mars as a priority. By the late 1980s, Mars was once again an important object for NASA projects partially as a result of the fact that, as the prior section noted, many of the scientists advocating for Mars, such as McKay, worked within NASA’s research centers. In 1987, Thomas Paine, head of NASA during Apollo 11, stated that “Mars should be the central focus of our long-range, manned space program” because of its potential significance to biology.39 Of course, Paine also acknowledged that NASA had limited funding that was only a third of its budget during Apollo 11. Martian exploration would begin again with a modest fly-by and orbiting mission called Mars Observer and then proceed to more ambitious projects. This section and the following one will explain the scientific rationalization of these missions, the first of a new generation of probes, to reveal what spurred this revival. Once again, a fascination with extraterrestrial life and habitable worlds in science and society fueled the interest in these missions.

37 McKay, 282. 38 Chang, 609. 39 Jonathan Eberhart, “More Momentum for Mars: And Martians,” Science News 132 (August 1987), 68. 107

Mars Observer was a disappointment to scientists for a number of reasons, but it played an important role in reigniting scientific and social interest in Mars. The first disappointment occurred when NASA delayed the mission from an original launch date of 1990 to 1992 as a result of the Challenger disaster.40 This delay was in opposition to scientists and some

Congressmen that believed the mission could still fit into the 1990 launch window.41

Nonetheless, as it was the first mission since Viking, there was much anticipation for its launch and arrival at Mars. Observer was a that would orbit Mars for an estimated 687 days. Its primary objective was to map Mars’s topography and characterize its climate and geology.

NASA described the mission as a precursor for future projects, helping “to lay the foundation for future expeditions to the Red Planet.”42 Additionally, NASA framed the mission as a comparative analysis between the Earth and Mars based on the perception that McKay and others had devised. In one instance, the agency explained that “Mars offers us the opportunity to study how another world developed over billions of years” and that Observer would “sharpen our understanding of the important similarities and differences among Earth, Mars and Venus.”43

Caltech scientist Arden Albee, part of Observer’s project team, added further that “if you look at

Mars, Venus, and Earth the sizes are not too different and they’re not too far apart in the solar system.” The challenge,” he wrote, “is to understand why these three planets, which should be a lot alike, differ in some very significant ways.”44 Observer in particular focused on Mars’s

40 Marcia Smith, “NASA’s Proposed Postponement of the Mars Observer Mission,” Congressional Research Service (February 1987). 41 M. Mitchell Waldrop, “Boland, NASA at Odds over Launch of Mars Observer,” Science 235 (February 1987), 743. 42 Mars Observer: The Next Mission to Mars, (Pasadena, California: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1992), 6. This characterization of Observer as a foundation piece is similar to the Mariner IX mission of the early 1970s which NASA described as a precursor to Viking. 43 Ibid, 2-6. 44 Daniel Pendick, “A Year in the Life of Mars,” Science News 144 (August 1993), 107. 108 environment, such as its climate and atmosphere, to better understand Mars’s present conditions in comparison to the Earth. In popular media, U.S. News & World Report described Observer as a vanguard that would help answer important questions such as “was the Martian climate once radically different, perhaps even resembling Earth’s?... And – the overriding question driving this exploration – could Martian life have existed at any point?”45 These questions described the way Mars was intelligible and inspiring to scientists, easy for both scientists and others to understand its benefits. This comparison between the Earth and Mars was now a motivating factor for large scale missions.

To the dismay of Mars enthusiasts, the Mars Observer mission never reached its destination, and the dearth in Martian missions would continue. In August 1993, just days before the satellite was to arrive at Mars, NASA lost contact with Observer, bringing the $1 billion dollar mission to an end. 46 Albee described himself as “numb” upon discovering this loss, and another project scientist said “it’s difficult to concentrate. It’s depressing to even talk at the moment. These kinds of missions demand a long-term effort from a lot of people.”47 To scientists such as Albee, this loss was devastating after 17 years without a single Martian mission. One member of Observer’s team explained why this failure caused such a setback for scientists by pointing to this lengthy drought before Observer, stating that “with planetary

Albee is listing Venus here because of the Magellan missions to Venus that were ongoing at the time. Magellan revealed that Venus was far from Earth-like and not a possible refuge for life. Nonetheless, it is similar in size to the Earth, meaning scientists occasionally compare it to the Earth and Mars to understand their different histories. 45 William Cook, “The Invasion of Mars,” U.S. News & World Report 115 (August 23 1993) 50. 46 August 1993 was not a good month for NASA, as, according to the John Travis article cited below, the NASA had also lost a rocket, delayed another space shuttle launch, and experienced issues with the Galileo probe at Jupiter that delayed picture transmission time from 10 minutes to 2 weeks. This was almost the same cost as the two Viking expeditions. 47 John Travis, “Mars Observer’s Costly Solitude,” Science 261 (September 1993), 1264. 109 science, there’s a 10- to 15-year gap between experiments. That’s what really hurts.”48

Misfortune had postponed further Martian investigations at least for a few years.

A Rock and a Rover: A New Generation of Martian Missions

Fortunately for scientists advocating for Mars’s usefulness to science, in 1996 scientists finally obtained evidence that would validate the potential Mars had to understand the evolution of planets and life, and it did not require any interplanetary missions. Starting in the mid-1980s, scientists postulated that rocks from Mars somehow ended up on Earth in the form of meteorites, classified as Shergotty-Nakhla- (SNC) meteorites.49 The accepted explanation for this today among scientists is that major collisions in Mars’s early history launched rocks into space.

Some of these rocks ended up on Earth. In 1996, NASA scientist David McKay, not related to

Christopher McKay, and a team of scientists issued a groundbreaking report on a particular meteorite discovered in 1984 called ALH84001. McKay and his team stated in their introduction that “our objective was to look for signs of past (fossil) life within pore space or secondary minerals of this Martian meteorite,” meaning their intention was to search for life before beginning the analysis.50 They also acknowledged that there was no way of knowing where on

Mars the rock originated or what processes the meteorite had undergone. Nonetheless, they concluded that the rock could have fossilized compounds indicative of life. Through a rather complex series of processes, they discovered that the meteorite appeared to contain organic material and concluded that “although there are alternative explanations for each of this phenomenon taken individually, when they are considered collectively, particularly in view of

48 Ibid, 1267. 49 Richard A. Kerr, “Martian Meteorites Are Arriving,” Science 237 (August 14 1987). 50 David McKay et al., “Search for Past Life on Mars: Possible Relic Biogenic Activity on Martian Meteorite ALH84001,” Science 273 (August 16, 1996), 924. 110 their spatial association, we conclude that they are evidence for primitive life on early Mars.”51

These scientists believed that the evidence they had collected, when considered as a whole, suggested Mars indeed has signs of extraterrestrial life.

This discovery sparked controversy that put Mars into the forefront of both space science and the American popular media. Always a major advocate for the existence of extraterrestrial life, Carl Sagan deemed the discovery “a turning point in human history, suggesting life not just on in one paltry solar system but throughout this magnificent universe” because of his belief that Earth was not an exceptional world.52 Even President Clinton acknowledged the report, commenting that, if confirmed, “it will surely be one of the most stunning insights into our universe that science has ever uncovered.”53 The media, though likely exaggerating the implications of this report, also explained why Mars was now so important to science. Newsweek again connected Martian life with grander understanding of humanity in the universe, explaining that “this search for answers… is ultimately the search for our context, for our place in the universe.”54 Time extrapolated further that “it would undermine any remaining vestiges of geocentricism… and strongly support the growing conviction that life, possibly even intelligent life, is commonplace throughout the cosmos.”55 To the media, Martian discoveries such as this one could have profound effects on human knowledge, including the context of Earth in the universe. As a result, Mars was instrumental both for scientific advancements in biology and other fields as well as philosophical understandings of humanity. The mere speculation of fossilized life on Mars revealed the way the planet was so practical and intelligible to science,

51 Ibid, 929. 52 Leon Jaroff and Dan Cray, “Life on Mars,” Time 158 (August 19 1996) 58. 53 Ibid. 54 Adam Rogers and Mary Hager, “Come in, Mars,” Newsweek 128 (August 19 1996) 56. 55 Jaroff and Cray, “Life on Mars.” 111 despite the fact that scientists could not verify McKay’s conclusion.56 Martian life was such a popular topic that suggestions such as these, even when lacking evidence, easily sparked enthusiasm in science and society.

While scientists debated the meteorite discovery, NASA had proceeded beyond Observer to a new series of missions deemed Mars Surveyor, also called the Mars Global Surveyor

(MGS), and Mars Pathfinder. Launched on November 7, 1996, Surveyor consisted of a single orbiter that was in many ways similar to the original Mars Observer mission, designed to study

Mars’s atmosphere and map its surface. Unlike Mars Observer, which was an expensive probe,

MGS cost only around $150 million and proved that NASA could conduct planetary missions at a lower cost.57 Only a month later, on December 4, NASA launched Mars Pathfinder, the first lander to reach Mars since Viking. Pathfinder consisted of one landing unit that deployed a remote-controlled rover called , allowing scientists on Earth to have more extended access to Mars’s surface. Like MGS, Pathfinder cut the price tag for Martian missions, costing only $200 million total compared to Viking’s $1 billion.58 As Erik Conway writes in his recent book, “Mars Global Surveyor and Pathfinder had shown the world (and, more importantly,

NASA), that ‘faster, better, cheaper’ work.”59 NASA had decided that it was more efficient to create multiple smaller, less complex probes with fewer instruments instead of a single large one.

This downsizing lessened issues with cost that had hampered Mars exploration, meaning NASA could avoid cutting Martian missions despite political scrutiny. This new conception of conducting cheaper, smaller missions was crucial to the surge of Martian missions in the 1990s.

56 A 1998 response to the ALH84001 report called the analysis “not proven but never conclusively refuted.” Martian missions have not discovered any similar evidence. See Richard Kerr, “Requiem for Life on Mars? Support for Microbes Fades,” Science 282 (November 20 1998). 57 Marcia Smith, “Mars: The Search for Life,” Congressional Research Service (September 11 1996), 3. 58 Ibid, 4. 59 Erik Conway, Exploration and Engineering: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Quest for Mars, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2015), 139. 112

During both of these missions, the perception of Mars as a once Earth-like world continued to grow, particularly as they discovered more evidence of water on its surface. In

Pathfinder’s analysis of Martian geology, it discovered a number of small, rounded rocks that suggested water once flowed across them. Additionally, the rocks contained a high concentration of silica, also known as quartz, a compound indicative of a wet environment. A group of scientists working with Pathfinder characterized Mars as “more Earth-like than previously recognized, with a warmer and wetter past in which liquid water was stable and the atmosphere was thicker.”60 This evidence, combined with the detailed images of Mars’s large valleys provided by MGS, further suggested Mars was once a wet world. Carr, the geologist that suggested Mars once possessed liquid water in the early 1980s, described one Martian valley pictured by MGS as “like the lower Colorado River below Hoover Dam.”61 Mars and the Earth were once similar planets, but, as JPL member Matthew Golombek pointed out, Mars had “a significant climatic change at some time in the past” that produced a much drier world.62

Learning what caused this large-scale change would, as Carr wrote, “have a profound importance for the formation of planets, the evolution of , and the origin of life.”63 Mars’s history would also provide significant clarification on the development of planets and their environments such as the Earth.

These missions demonstrate that the most compelling characteristic of Mars to both scientists and the public was its comparability to Earth because of the possible existence of water and Martian life. For example, German scientist Tilman Spohn and his colleagues believed that

“the planet Mars is of particular interest to the public as its environmental conditions are the

60 M. P. Golombek et al., “Overview of the Mars Pathfinder Mission and Assessment of Landing Site Predictions,” Science 278 (December 5 1997), 1748. 61 Jeffrey Winters, “A Survey of Ancient Mars,” Discover 19 (July 1998) 112. 62 Matthew Golombek, “A Message from Warmer Times,” Science 283 (March 5 1997) 1471. 63 Michael Carr, Water on Mars, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), v. 113 most earthlike of any of the terrestrial planets.” Yet, Mars is also of interest to scientists “as an object of comparative planetology.”64 They added further that “our knowledge of Mars will not only serve planetology but also allow us to further our understanding of our home planet, the

Earth, by having a similarly well known but interestingly enough different planet to compare with.”65 By studying Mars’s past and its divergence from that of the Earth, scientists could uncover details on the Earth’s formation, the creation of its oceans, and the evolution of organisms. Even if Mars is dry now, if life had evolved during its wet past, Carr speculated that

“it could have survived within the canyon lakes long after favorable environments had disappeared elsewhere.”66 Water was a crucial component of Mars’s significance to science, as the mere existence of liquid water creates the potential for life to evolve. As Discover described aptly, “though there’s not a drop to drink on the surface of Mars, we keep seeing water everywhere we look.”67 Time magazine characterized Mars as “our sister planet” which we, as humans, enjoy exchanging information with.68 Pathfinder and MGS had validated the conception of Mars as once wet and Earth-like, and these characteristics led to Mars’s increased popularity among scientists and Americans.

By 2000, Mars was an established, constant source of interest for scientists and the

American public, enough so that historian Erik Conway characterizes the period as one consumed by “Mars Mania” because of the escalation of media exposure and public fascination.

US News & World Report assessed that, in 1997, “Dolly the cloned sheep may be the most important science story of the year, but it won’t be the biggest. That distinction is likely to

64 Tilman Spohn et al., “Mars,” The Astronomy and Astrophysics Review 8 (1996), 182. 65 Ibid 230. 66 Carr, Water on Mars, 203. 67 Winters, 112. 68 Jeffrey Kluger and Dan Cray, “Uncovering the Secrets of Mars,” Time 150 (July 14 1997) 26. 114 belong to Sojourner.”69 Similarly, Sky & Telescope cited that NASA’s Pathfinder website had logged 40 million hits by July 4, 1997.70 MGS and Pathfinder had ignited a new era of research about Mars, one based on a lifeless Mars instead of a habitable Mars. For example, geologist

Raymond Arvidson stated “all our existing paradigms went out the window. With MGS, we’re giving birth to one or more new paradigms, but we’re still trying to figure out what Mars actually did.”71 The new paradigm of a wet, Earth-like Mars was now prominent, but many questions still lingered among scientists. Most importantly, as asked by scientist Aaron Zent, “how could a place so desiccated ever have supported rivers…?”72 He explained further that “much of the current Mars-related research focuses on the evolution of the Martian climate and the processes that have brought us the Mars we see today.”73 Explaining this new paradigm was the objective of this generation of Martian missions. With NASA supporting a long term plan of continuous

Mars-related projects, Mars’s resurgence was only beginning. NASA had planned launches for

1998, 1999, and beyond even before Pathfinder arrived. As JPL engineer Mark Adler noted, “for the first time in a long time, NASA has a program of missions with a unified objective.”74 This objective included further robotic exploration of Mars in the coming years.

Some scientists believed that probes were only a precursor to eventual human habitation.

Adler, for example, stated that one objective for scientists was to figure out “how to lead towards human exploration of Mars around the 2014-or-so time frame.”75 Scientist Alfred McEwen of the

University of Arizona thought human missions were necessary, explaining that “we’re asking

69 William Cook, “A Drive on the Red Planet,” U.S. News & World Report 123 (July 7 1997), 65. 70 Carolyn Collins Petersen, “Welcome to Mars!” Sky & Telescope 94 (October 1997) 34. 71 Richard Kerr, “A Wetter, Younger Mars Emerging,” Science 289 (August 4 2000), 715. 72 Winters, 112. 73 Aaron Zent, “The Evolution of the Martian Climate,” American Scientist 84 (Sep-Oct 1996), 442. 74 Raeburn, Uncovering the Secrets of the Red Planet: Mars, 212. 75 Ibid, 219. 115 questions we can’t answer without sending people and collecting the samples.”76 Scientists would need to travel to Mars themselves and analyze the soil directly in order to attain a comprehensive understanding of the processes Mars has undergone. Of course, the popular media also speculated on manned missions with Time, for example, writing that “what remains largely unspoken is the lingering hope that such a [manned] mission might experience, somewhere beneath the desolate Martian surface, a close encounter with organisms that are alive today.”77 In such a fantasy, both Earthly and Martian life might interact in some capacity when humans arrive. Likewise, Newsweek suggested that “after the rover’s success, will man be next?”78 Even though such imaginative ideas remain well in the future, discussions of sending people to Mars were irresistible to both scientists and the media.


From around 1980 to 2000, Mars underwent a notable shift in its role within science that revealed the planet’s intricate relationship between science and society. After a lengthy drought in NASA projects, Pathfinder and MGS turned Mars into an icon of both science and space exploration. As President Clinton noted, these missions marked “the beginning of a new era in the nation’s space-exploration program.”79 Mars became an emblem of twenty-first century space exploration, and the planet would receive ten more missions after Pathfinder by 2016.80

Mars clearly is an exceptional world in the eyes of scientists and space enthusiasts, with no other planet or other astronomical body receiving nearly as much interest and investment. Scientists acknowledged this exceptional perception as an extension of human curiosity, with one National

76 Kerr, “A Wetter, Younger Mars Emerging,” 716. 77 Leon Jaroff and Dan Cray, “Life on Mars,” 65. 78 Sharon Begley, “The Stars of Mars,” Newsweek 130 (July 21 1997), 26. 79 Kluger and Cray, “Uncovering the Secrets.” 80 See NASA’s online list of Martian missions, http://mars.nasa.gov/programmissions/missions/. 116

Geographic publication, for example, stating that Mars has held an “unshakeable grip on human imagination for thousands of years.”81 This metaphor casts Mars as an unwavering lure for humanity, the natural progression of science and knowledge. These chapters have shown that

Mars was more than simply an unshakeable lure; rather, scientific appeal to extraterrestrial life and habitable worlds spurred social allure with Mars and vice versa.

For historians, explaining Mars’s exceptionalism reveals what values scientists consider most important in their discipline. In this case, scientists believed Mars was a source of important knowledge related to life, and they argued that it was inherently practical to science.

The most important concepts included the existence and evolution of life elsewhere in the universe, the development of planetary environments, and the history of the solar system. The notion that Mars could answer questions related to these topics was not new during the 1980s and 1990s, but Mars’s perceived practical utility to science increased during his period because scientists introduced a direct comparison between the Earth and Mars. Although Viking had established that Mars is dry and lifeless, subsequent analysis of Martian geology implied that

Mars at some point in its history had liquid water flowing on its surface. The Earth and Mars were now directly comparable because both worlds had similar early developments, meaning studying one world could produce knowledge about the other. When missions resumed, including Observer, MGS, and Pathfinder, scientists framed them based on this new model of

Mars’s Earth-like past. The missions discovered further evidence to validate this paradigm, and it elevated Mars into an icon of space research and, speculatively, human exploration.

Mars is also exceptional for its ability to outlast tumultuous politics. Unlike other space projects ongoing during this period, such as the space shuttle and space station, Martian research

81 Raeburn, Uncovering the Secrets, 27. 117 did not offer any national security incentives, yet it continued to draw interest from scientists and got funding from NASA both before and after the Cold War. Throughout the 1980s, the space shuttle and related projects dominated NASA’s budget, forcing Mars and other objects of interest to wait for a better financial situation. It appeared as if national security interests would win out, but scientists had different priorities than the military, and NASA continued to plan for future

Mars missions. For example, it designed Mars Observer well before the Cold War ended.

Finally, scientists justified expenditures on Martian missions by emphasizing its practicality to both science and greater society. Analysis of Mars could reveal important information on the uniqueness of life on Earth and the position of humanity within the universe. Scientists also insisted that eventually people would land on and live on Mars, further supporting Martian research as practical.

Whether or not humans would ever visit Mars, many people thought the red planet offered valuable lessons for science and humanity. Abour Cherif, a biologist at DeVry

University, and Gerald , a geologist at Columbia College, in an article for The American

Biology Teacher pointed out the environmental lessons Mars could teach us. Mars, as a lifeless, desolate version of Earth, “serves as a ‘worst case’ example of the price humanity will pay if our planet should lose its shield.”82 The authors believed humanity should learn from Mars and understand the fragility of a planetary environment. A lack of responsibility could turn Earth into another Mars. According to the media articles such as by Discover and Newsweek, Mars could also challenge existing paradigms in philosophy and religion by proving the existence of life beyond Earth.83 In some way, whether it is lifeless or inhabited, Mars has played an

82 Abour Cherif and Gerald Adams, “Planet Earth: Can Other Planets Tell Us Where We Are Going?” The American Biology Teacher 56 (January 1994), 35. 83 Tennesen, “Mars: Remembrance.” 118 instrumental role within science that, as scientists perceive, can also potentially influence other disciplines as well. Despite its dead landscape, Mars continues to inspire intelligent life on Earth.

Rogers and Hager, “Come in, Mars”. 119


This thesis has charted the history of Mars in American science since the 1950s to answer the question of why Mars has shown such remarkable consistency as an object of scientific interest. Why did scientific fascination with Mars continue for so long? What can an analysis of

Mars tell historians about the way scientists establish their priorities and interests? These chapters have suggested that Mars had such longevity because of the way space scientists successfully found ways to make Martian research useful to the broader scientific community and interesting to American society. In essence, when space scientists choose to invest in

Martian research, they embraced the notion that this enterprise would produce knowledge applicable to topics beyond just Mars itself. In addition to describing Mars’s physical features such as its atmosphere or soil composition, scientists argued that this research would enlighten scientists on the evolution and frequency of life, the commonality of habitable worlds, and the philosophical situation of humanity in the universe. By 2000, Mars had become a lens for scientists, an instrument that scientists would look through to see something they could not without the tool.1 Just as a microscope allows scientists to see to scales normally impossible to perceive, they believed that Mars allowed them to look into history, through time, to events and developments beyond human experience. These arguments for Mars’s practicality appealed to social endearment with extraterrestrial life and interplanetary exploration, allowing Martian research to become a part of American culture.

1 The notion of Mars as a lens is similar to Bruno Latour’s concept of black boxes as explained in Science in Action. Black boxes are concepts or instruments that make a scientific or technical idea easier to understand or apply. Typically, they are tools that provide a particular output, such as data, for a specified input. Bruno Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987) 2-3. 120

Mars, Science, and Society

Scientists believed that the study of Mars was a particularly crucial one for science because of the difficulty scientists had in deciphering life’s early development and evolution. It was impossible for scientists to directly observe life’s origins, meaning biologists could rely only on speculation to create theories. To search for evidence of life’s earliest stages, some scientists looked to other planets in hopes of uncovering some sign that life has occurred elsewhere, somewhere beyond Earth.2 Any extraterrestrial life would introduce comparative analysis with

Earth-based life, and it would reveal a different stage in life’s evolution than perceptible on

Earth. Exobiologists who considered searching for extraterrestrial life a major priority turned their gazes toward Mars in the 1950s and 1960s, drawn by a theory that Mars possess simple organisms such as vegetation that grow on its surface. If true, Mars was an ideal lens for perceiving life’s history within the solar system. As a result, major expeditions seemed a practical investment because of the likelihood that such missions would produce knowledge applicable to Earthly biology. Even if Mars was lifeless, such a discovery would help establish the frequency of life in the universe, as well as the conditions that life can thrive in. Regardless of the outcome, they believed Mars an important source of knowledge.

Scientists also emphasized pragmatism when characterizing particular Martian expeditions, including their objectives and discoveries, to persuade each other and the public that such projects are worthwhile. Mariner IV, the first such mission, was, as expressed by NASA

2 James Strick’s article “Creating a Cosmic Discipline: The Crystallization and Consolidation of Exobiology” offers a detailed history of exobiology and the way its priorities and interests changed during the 1950s and 1960s. See, Strick, James E. "Creating a Cosmic Discipline: The Crystallization and Consolidation of Exobiology, 1957–1973." Journal of the History of Biology 37, no. 1 (2004): 131-80. 121 and supporting scientists, an inherently practical endeavor. Its images would provide clarity to a world previously only visible through telescopes, allowing scientists to observe directly whether life currently exists on Mars. In the minds of some scientists before the mission’s arrival,

Mariner IV would undoubtedly change the way science understands life by applying techniques previously unattainable, namely imaging the surface from space. Because scientists expected such practical information from Mariner IV, they perceived the results in the same way, as inherently useful to science regardless of the findings. In this case, the practical benefits were visible in the form of photographs that anyone could see for themselves, but the surface these images showed was not what many had anticipated. Anyone looking at the Mariner IV’s imagery could perceive that there was no sign of life on Mars. The images were reminiscent of the

Moon’s landscape, covered in craters with no sense of depth to the topography. These photos appeared to dismantle every expectation of Mars as a world that could reveal life’s early origins and evolution.

Mariner IV showed that Mars’s twenty-first century predominance in space science was not inevitable. Because of the perceived disappointment in Mariner IV’s findings, interest in

Mars could have ended abruptly in 1965. Without a means of incorporating the science with

American society that could lure both scientists and the public, Mars could have become a peripheral object, irrelevant to the US space program. Expeditions such as Mariner IV are Big

Science projects that require a consensus among NASA scientists as well as the federal funding to create. In such contexts where resources are limited or competition for resources is intense, scientists must offer substantive rationale for these missions. In the case of Mariner IV, a brief survey for extraterrestrial life was a sufficient reason, but, with that question apparently resolved,

NASA’s Mars program was in jeopardy. For example, just a few years later, after Apollo 11

122 landed on the Moon, interest in lunar expeditions both among scientists and the public dwindled, resulting in the program’s end. How could scientists with a deep interest in Mars such as exobiologists or geologists continue to support new expeditions? This challenge forced scientists to adjust their rationale, but with a continuous effort on arguing that Mars was a source of important knowledge.

Mars’s ability to proceed through these obstacles and maintain enough interest to fund new missions is what makes the planet such a fascinating topic in the history of space science.

After Mariner IV, scientists were reluctant to relinquish their beliefs in Martian life and instead argued that the data was incomplete. They pointed out that Mariner IV had simply created a discrepancy between years of Earth-based observations and the mission’s small set of images.

There was no definitive proof one way or another whether Mars possesses life or whether its environment is habitable. As a result, more missions were necessary to resolve this discrepancy, particularly missions that could land directly on Mars, sample its soil, and provide colored images. Some scientists such as Sagan noted that Mariner IV’s images did not depict the planet in enough detail, and others such as Horowitz argued that if microbial life could survive in frigid conditions such as Antarctica then they could survive in even a cold environment on Mars as long as some water existed there. Therefore, Mariner IV had simply shown scientists that there was still much to learn about Mars and its habitability.

This rationalization shows some important characteristics of scientific interest in Mars that explain the planet’s longevity. First, it reveals how scientific belief in Martian life was not a result of empirical data or observational analysis. Instead, broader currents in American society and culture inspired their interest in Martian life, such as Soffen’s focus on extraterrestrial life in college. These scientists devised their beliefs during an era of popular fascination with aliens,

123 science fiction, and interplanetary exploration. They thought their arguments in favor of researching Mars were reasonable and not fringe or disjointed from science or society. Second, it demonstrates that exobiologists had established a foundation for Martian research based around biology and life. Without that foundation, there was no rationale for investing in Mars, no means of incorporating Mars into science and society. Scientists build upon this foundation in subsequent missions and reconstructed it to overcome data discrepancies.

To argue for Mars’s usefulness, scientists expanded the scope of research from a cursory observation of visible life, such as vegetation, to an in-depth analysis in search of microscopic organisms and organic compounds. The next major Martian mission, Viking, would conduct a surface-based analysis to search for these signs of life. Even though microbes are not as grand as plants or other larger organisms, they still, in the eyes of scientists, offer practical information for understanding life’s interplanetary evolution. Bacteria represent one of the earliest stages of life’s development, meaning microbial life on Mars would act as a lens for looking into life’s history. Even if the bacteria did not currently exist on Mars, some scientists speculated that finding just basic organic material such as carbon chains or fossilized organisms would have just as big of an impact on biology. By the time Viking departed for Mars in 1975, scientists had adjusted their views on Mars’s habitability since Mariner IV, but they maintained that the search for life was the most important reason for investing in Martian research.

Therefore, it was no surprise that Viking’s primary objective was to search for life in

Mars’s soil. NASA described Viking as an ambitious, but pragmatic project that would perhaps answer the question finally as to whether life exists on Mars; however, despite Viking’s thorough analysis, its results were reminiscent of those Mariner IV transmitted a decade earlier. With no sign of life or organic compounds in the soil, Viking appeared as another dead end that would

124 lead to Mars losing its prioritization within science. With no lure such as life, some scientists believed Mars was a lost cause, including Lynn Margulis who called further Martian expeditions financially irresponsible after Viking.3 Reactions such as those after Viking demonstrate how important Martian life and its scientific and social allure was to maintaining Mars’s consistent interest within science. Without this means of incorporating Martian research into broader science and social interests, some scientists believed Mars was not a fruitful investment. When the practical implications, in this case extraterrestrial life, are removed, Mars is no longer a priority to science.

When scientists once again argued that Mars was a useful source of knowledge, interest once again expanded and resulted in additional missions from NASA; however, scientists once again adjusted their rationale for these missions. They extended Mars’s practical benefits to science beyond just the evolution of life to that of planetary environments. To scientists such as

Christopher McKay, Mars was a lens for looking into the history of the solar system, allowing scientists to see planets, including the Earth, as they were long ago. McKay and others insisted that Mars was once wetter, warmer than today and therefore a more useful comparison to the

Earth than the Mars Viking depicted. This new perception of Mars’s past elevated the planet’s practicality to science and was the characterization NASA used for its series of missions in the

1990s. Observer, MGS, and Pathfinder all aimed to search for Mars’s dynamic history, one in which water and life could have existed, in order to enhance scientific understanding of the Earth history. Mars was a representation, an instrument, of larger concepts such as life’s origins and stages in planetary development.

3 Margulis, “After Viking,” 25. 125

Mars and the Historiography of Modern Science

There are a handful of explanations for why social incorporation was the primary factor in Mars’s longevity. First, the most overarching reason is the institutional context with which

Martian research took place, as mentioned earlier. Since World War II, science has undergone a transformation in which large institutions and Big Science are the predominant means of conducting scientific research. As scholars such as Paul Forman have explained, the government increasingly supported scientific research and development financially.4 This new source of funding helped propagate large scale projects known as Big Science that require extensive resources from the federal government.5 Yet, the government cannot simply fund every Big

Science project, as Daniel Kevles showed with the Superconducting Super Collider. Instead, scientists must offer some reason for why the government should support their objectives, and one common method of persuasion is claiming that the project is practical. Often times during the Cold War this practicality appealed to military or national defense concerns, such as a new weapon, vehicle, or utility for the military. Forman emphasized this appeal to security as he noted the way science relied on the military for funding, with scientists readily framing their projects as practical for defense purposes. Creating new technology is a tangible form of incorporation in which the funders, in this case the government or military, can perceive and use the product directly. Scientists and their institutions, such as NASA, had to devise similar

4 For more on the institutionalization of science, Michael Aaron Dennis’s article, “Our First Line of Defense: Two University Laboratories in the Postwar American State,” explains the way scientists adapted university institutions to new military priorities after World War II. Additionally, David Kaiser’s article, “The Postwar Suburbanization of American Physics,” discusses how physics in particular expand in size as a discipline, including the formation of new institutions. 5 For more on Big Science, see Galison, Peter, and Bruce William. Hevly, eds. Big Science: The Growth of Large- scale Research. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992. It includes a number of chapters discussing Big Science as a concept and its characteristics. 126 reasons for the government to recognize their projects with grants and other sources of revenue, but military projects had clear, easily applicable claims to practicality.

As A. Hunter Dupree, Daniel Kevles, and others have suggested, this need for science to appear practical is not new to postwar science, and some projects have succeeded in garnering support without appeals to national defense. The Human Genome Project, for example, instead claimed that it would produce substantial medical benefits that would improve overall health in society. Although this type of practicality is not as tangible as a submarine or nuclear weapon, it is still clearly beneficial to society without any obvious drawbacks. As Dupree emphasized, scientists have also often appealed to the government to support research in the form of surveys and exploration in which individuals would scout territories, such as in the Western United

States, or coastlines to discover what particular resources were available. In these cases, the science had an economic basis for government support as scientists argued their work would reveal the land’s value for exploitation. As a result, science does not need to appeal to just military priorities to receive government support.

Yet, these examples did not occur within a dynamic Cold War context in which military expansion was a significant priority for the US government, and this particular context is what makes Mars such a unique topic within the history of Cold War science. All of the Martian missions discussed here were expensive projects that required government support through

NASA. As a result, individuals interested in these missions had to devise practical applications for these projects, but the type of practicality was different than emphasized by Forman and others above. Scientists did not relate Martian research with military projects, and there were no obvious technological advantages to sending probes to Mars. Instead of claiming that Mars would produce a concrete, tangible benefit to society, scientists instead emphasized that

127 understanding life’s origins and evolution were so significant to knowledge that missions were worth the expenses. Occasionally, some scientists referred to philosophical issues such as answering how exceptional life on Earth is or whether life is more common in the universe than previously thought. Other individuals believed that Mars was an inevitable destination for human exploration and settlement, and, therefore, probes should characterize the planet before humans attempt to land on it. Yet the rhetoric predominantly emphasized Mars’s importance as a lens for looking into the history of life and planetary environments. These arguments were not often detailed and generally appealed to the sentiments these scientists held, but they were effective.

The question remains as to why this rationale was able to maintain interest and investment in Mars for a number of decades. First, Mars was engaging to scientists because of its ability to foster a large, multi-disciplinary coalition. Unlike the Superconductor Super Collider, which was useful only to a subset of physicists, Mars was attractive to a wide variety of scientists. Although biology was the field benefiting the most from Martian research and exobiologists played an important role in initiating NASA’s Mars program, missions such as

Viking showed that Mars offered a plethora of data for fields such as geology, chemistry, meteorology, and physics. Regardless of whether some scientists believed that Mars had life or not, they generally agreed that Mars was a useful investment. This consensus was unusual compared to indecision over projects such as Apollo and the Hubble Space Telescope in which different groups of scientists had different objectives.6 This broad coalition of support from a variety of scientists is a major reason for consistent interest in Mars in the late twentieth century.

6 See Robert W. Smith, “The Biggest Kind of Big Science: Astronomers and the Space Telescope,” in Big Science: The Growth of Large-Scale Research, ed. Peter Galison and Bruce Hevly, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992). He describes the disagreements among scientists as to whether such a telescope was useful or not. 128

Generally, the narrative in this thesis has shown how Mars expanded from a topic important just to exobiologists to a pragmatic investment for science in general.

Second, in addition to arguing for its practicality to science, scientists also had to garner support from the government and American society. This thesis has focused just on the perspective of scientists, but it complements works by other scholars who have written about political and social contexts as discussed below. The social circumstances surrounding Martian research were a major reason for Mars’s consistency. Scientists successfully embedded Mars into

American science and culture by representing it as an icon of space science and NASA’s research.

Expanding Mars’s Role in History

Because space science is reliant on federal funding for its existence, historians have explained the connection between the field and the surrounding political context. For example,

Joseph Tatarewicz has shown how the political context of the Cold War encouraged the creation of NASA and the space program. He stated that the space program had “capitalized on scientific, technical, political, and social forces which had been gathering since World War II,” particularly the response to the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite that spurred an American response.7 As explained above, space science, including Martian exploration, indeed relied on the propagation of the space program as a response to Soviet advancements, as the government was the primary source of funding for space missions.8 However, this Cold War backdrop did not necessarily dictate the research and development NASA choose to conduct. Although political context was

7 Joseph Tatarewicz, Space Technology & Planetary Astronomy, (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), xiv.

129 important to funding Martian research, social and scientific contexts, explained further below, were also significant. Tatarewicz’s account does not explain how a particular topic like Mars can persist through changing political contexts.

Clearly, the prospect of searching for extraterrestrial life, the biggest lure for scientists to invest in Mars, is appealing to not just scientists but either the government or American society as well. Historian Stephen Dick has demonstrated that the notion of extraterrestrial life has played a significant role in influencing both American science and society in books such as The

Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology. Along with James Strick, he argues that exobiology was fundamental to the expansion of space science because of its broad scientific and social appeal. The possible discovery of life on another world holds a lot of weight in the United States in which American culture romanticizes space flight and aliens in its media and literature. Historian Howard McCurdy suggests in his book, Space and the American

Imagination, that public fascination in space, including extraterrestrial life, played a role in space science’s expansion in the late twentieth century.9 As a result, instead of just a political context influencing Mars’s popularity in science, there is also a social and cultural context that explains why Mars captivated scientists and grew into an emblem. To put it another way, Mars is an example of a boundary object, a term Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer conceived, in which multiple parties, both within and outside of science, express an interest in the object’s scientific properties.10 The different parties typically share a reason for investing in research related to the object. Star and Griesemer in their article describe the process of translation in

8See also Paul Stares’s book, The Militarization of Space: U.S. Policy, 1945-1984 which discusses attempts by the United States to propagate military projects in space. Writing in the 1980s in which the Reagan administration considered militarizing space, it highlights such projects pose to national security. 9 Howard McCurdy, Space and the American Imagination, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2011). 10 Susan Leigh Star and James R. Griesemer, “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39,” Social Studies of Science 19, August 1989. 130 which scientists and other interested groups must find a common means of understanding the object. In the case of Mars, translation is simple, as the concept of extraterrestrial life is widely understood and appeals to cultural interests in alien worlds. This simplicity and broad understanding contributes to Mars’s popularity in science and society.

This mixture between political and social contexts is what makes Mars such an important topic in the history of science, but, as Erik Conway has noted in his recent book, Exploration and

Engineering: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Quest for Mars, there is also an administrative context that affects research related to Mars.11 He argues that NASA’s administrative priorities were the ultimate factor in determining whether Mars would receive missions or not. When NASA turned its attention toward the space shuttle and space station,

Martian projects faded into the background, but when NASA regained interest in Mars, projects resumed. Chapter 3 of this thesis discussed this situation and its impact on Martian research. This thesis, however, argues that Mars’s prioritization within NASA is related to the interests of scientists working within it. Many of the staunchest believers in Martian life worked within

NASA, such as Soffen, Klein, Young, and others such as Horowitz contributed to the missions.

Often times, they romanticized Mars as a crucible of knowledge, an inevitable destination for human exploration. As a result, it is not surprising that Mars was such a priority for NASA, as this perception was attuned with the scientists working within the agency.

Yet, there is an additional context that this thesis emphasizes in contrast to Conway, namely the scientific developments surrounding Mars and its missions. Although the political and institutional background certainly influenced the way scientists conducted Martian research,

11 Erik Conway, Exploration and Engineering: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Quest for Mars, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2015). 131 the way scientific conceptions of Mars changed and persisted was not dependent on these factors. Scientists had particular theories, beliefs, and perceptions of Mars that they formed based on observation and on their social context. In some cases, as with Mariner IV and Viking, scientists responded hastily or argued against the data to uphold their beliefs or toss them aside.

Mariner IV’s images portrayed a desolate Mars, but exobiologists denied this characterization and argued the missions offered inconclusive results. They directly contradicted the empirical evidence to uphold their prior belief in Martian life. The response to Viking was also oddly unscientific. Although the mission did produce a lot of data, it was not a comprehensive survey; nonetheless, scientists willingly generalized its results to declare Mars dead or, like with Mariner

IV, they argued against the data by continuing to believe Martian life existed. Certainly, science alone did not form the notion that life could exist beyond Earth and its importance to science which spurred early Martian research, but subsequent examinations changed the way scientists perceived the red planet. By focusing on the missions and their effects on these perceptions, this thesis shows that scientific practice influenced how scientists respond to new observations and change their beliefs. Therefore, attention to the broader scientific community and context is necessary for understanding Mars’s proliferation within science.

Mars in Science since 2000

Since 2000, Mars’s enthusiasm within NASA has not capitulated. After Pathfinder,

NASA has launched an additional nine missions to Mars, more than one every two years. This large surge in missions is partially a result of NASA’s new emphasis on smaller, less expensive projects that analyze only a few specific aspects of Mars. Nonetheless, some of these more recent projects have made significant discoveries that contributed to Martian fascination. They have conducted extensive searches for water both on and underneath Mars’s soil. For the most part,

132 their combined results have reaffirmed the perception that Mars once possessed extensive liquid water, and perhaps such water still exists in particular spots today.

In 2003, the twin rovers and Opportunity landed on Mars and sparked a national sensation through their thorough their numerous, high quality images. Throughout the twenty- first century, water has become the most alluring aspect of Mars, and NASA designed these rovers to specifically analyze Martian geology for signs of water. Both rovers photographed

Mars’s surface in extensive detail, bringing the planet to life unlike any missions before. Images depicted Mars in such high quality that the planet appeared more real than ever, and its landscapes often looked like those on Earth. described the importance Spirit and Opportunity, explaining that “these missions, along with a series of orbiters, have revealed a world of remarkable complexity and tangled history, including a bygone epoch of lakes and rain.”12 They provided further affirmation of a once wetter planet where life could have thrived.

In 2007, NASA launched the spacecraft to continue to search for water on Mars, this time with a focus on its icy polar regions. To the excitement of many scientists, Phoenix reinforced a number of important characteristics of Mars’s surface hypothesized after Pathfinder.

A Scientific American article summarized Phoenix’s importance in this excerpt:

How do we reconcile [Viking’s] gloomy assessment with the planet's undoubted

wonders? The answer may lie with Phoenix. Its chemical experiments on Martian

soil, the first since Viking's, suggest an alternative interpretation of the Viking

null results: perhaps Viking detected no organic molecules because the analysis

technique inadvertently destroyed them. Phoenix also discovered near-surface

12 P.H. Smith, “Digging Mars,” Scientific American 305, November 2011, 28-36. 133

water ice, which planetary scientists had hypothesized but had never actually

seen. Not dry and barren, our neighboring planet may well still be habitable.13

First, it is noteworthy that Viking often resurfaces as a benchmark for all subsequent Martian missions as mentioned in chapter two and earlier in this conclusion. Even forty years later,

Viking’s discoveries still frame the way scientists and the media describe Mars, as if every mission since is an attempt to overcome Viking’s portrayal of Mars as inhospitable. Second,

Phoenix was a major affirmation of the perception of Mars as a once wet and warm world as

Christopher McKay and others espoused in the 1980s. It discovered water in the form of ice just below Mars’s surface, suggesting that this water was once liquid and froze at some point. It also found a mineral called carbonate in Mars’s soil, which is traditionally a result of water and carbon dioxide mixing together in a solution. As a result, Phoenix was a major contributor to the current perception that Mars possibly still possess some form of life.14

Finally, the most recent mission sponsored by NASA is Curiosity, a rover similar to

Spirit and Opportunity that is the primary source of data affirming NASA’s recent announcement of discovering liquid water on Mars. Operating on Mars since August 2012, Curiosity’s primary objective is to search for water, and it has compiled plenty of evidence to support the perception that Mars was at least a wet, warm world millions or billions of years ago. It has focused on

Martian geology, using rocks and their physical characteristics as reference points for Mars’s history. In addition to its concentration on water, it also has a less direct connection to searching for life on Mars. One Sky & Telescope article explained Curiosity’s importance to the search for life in terms similar to those used regarding Viking:

13 Ibid. 14 For more in depth information on the technology and discoveries of these more recent missions, see Erik Conway’s new book, Exploration and Engineering: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Quest for Mars. 134

Even in the likely event that Curiosity finds no evidence for life on Mars, it’s

studying rocks that changed little over billions of years and that record the

geologic and climatic conditions under which terrestrial life got its start. There’s

nowhere on Earth we can do that. Our best hope for understanding what things

were like when life started on Earth rests, ironically, on another planet.15

Once again, as these chapters showed with Viking and missions afterward, to some scientists

Mars is a crucible for knowledge on life and its evolution, both life on Earth and elsewhere. This constant appeal to life further solidifies the foundation exobiologists built many decades ago.

New Developments for Future Research

This thesis for the most part has only examined Martian research conducted within the

United States by NASA. Generally, NASA has dominated Martian exploration since its initiation in the 1960s, with only a few Soviet missions occurring between 1960 and 1990, and no other space agency has succeeded in landing a probe on Mars. In recent years, some international agencies have expressed interest in a Martian program. In 2013, India launched its Mars Orbiter spacecraft which arrived at Mars in 2014, initiating its own program and conducting analysis of

Mars’s surface from orbit.16 Indian scientists had espoused a similar perception of Mars as that expressed American scientists, namely its inherent usefulness to science. One journal article by

Indian scientist Subbiah Arunan described that “of all the planets in the solar system, Mars has evoked the great human interest.” “The question that is to be answered,” Arunan wrote, “is whether Mars has a biosphere or ever had an environment in which life could have evolved and

15 Emily Lakdawalla, “The History of Water on Mars,” Sky & Telescope, September 2013, 21. 16 See this Space.com article for a brief overview of the , http://www.space.com/30633-india- mars-orbiter-mission-anniversary.html. 135 sustained.”17 This rhetoric reflects the belief that Mars is an important resource for charting life’s evolution. Additionally, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced in 2005 its intention of designing, in cooperation with NASA, a Martian probe called ExoMars that it will launch in spring 2016.18 This mission, unlike India’s Mars Orbiter Mission, includes a lander that will touchdown on Mars’s surface. Like both NASA and India, the ESA argues that Mars is significant because “Mars has not been affected by widespread tectonic activity; consequently, it may be possible to find ancient rocks that have not been exposed to high-temperatures. The best chance to find signatures of ancient life on Mars is in the form of chemical biomarkers and fossil communities, either preserved underground or within surface rocks.”19 It appears that even international scientists belief in the pragmatism of researching Mars, a belief centered on the possible existence of life.

The rise of non-American space agencies highlights some important facets of science that will become increasingly relevant in the future. Thus far, historians of space science have only examined NASA and American scientific developments, as if American space science exists in isolation. As space agencies grow in size around the world, historians will need to apply a broader lens to topics such as Mars. Numerous, intriguing questions will arise, such as how influential American precedents are for international programs and whether other societies have different approaches to space science. Although NASA has committed to sending people to

Mars, international agencies will also see Mars as a fruitful destination, perhaps spurring either competition or cooperation between different nationalities. Twenty-first century space science

17 Subbiah Arunan and R. Satish, “Mars Orbiter Mission Spacecraft and its Challenges,” Current Science 109, September 2015, 1061. 18 See the ESA’s official site for in depth information, http://exploration.esa.int/mars/. 19 “Searching for Signs of Life on Mars,” http://exploration.esa.int/mars/43608-life-on-mars/. 136 thus far has experienced increased internationalized, and future analysis of Mars will likely need to expand its scope beyond the United States.

Overall, Mars is a multi-faceted topic that, when analyzed, reveals many interesting facets related to American science, politics, culture, and society. A true overview of Mars and its many different implications within global society would create a much larger volume than offered here. Nonetheless, simply focusing on the American scientific point of view about Mars uncovers many significant developments within science during the postwar period, namely its relationship with politics and society. Mars clearly holds an exceptional position within science, and it reveals the values that science considers most motivating. Scientific analysis of the planet also demonstrates the way science adapts to changing contexts, how certain priorities can survive over lengthy periods of time. With no sign of receding from the forefront of space science, Mars is, as planetary scientists Alfred McEwan stated in 2000, “a complicated story, and we’ve barely begun to figure it out.”20 For both scientists and historians, there is still much to learn.

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