The two-part Viking spacecraft began to unlock the secrets of Mars and fueled public enthusiasm for planetary exploration.
Collection Item Summary:
This is the proof test article of the Viking Mars Lander. For exploration of Mars, Viking represented the culmination of a series of exploratory missions that had begun in 1964 with Mariner 4 and continued with Mariner 6 and Mariner 7 flybys in 1969 and a Mariner 9 orbital mission in 1971 and 1972. The Viking mission used two identical spacecraft, each consisting of a lander and an orbiter. Launched on August 20, 1975 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Viking 1 spent nearly a year cruising to Mars, placed an orbiter in operation around the planet, and landed on July, 20 1976 on the Chryse Planitia (Golden Plains). Viking 2 was launched on September 9, 1975 and landed on September 3, 1976. The Viking project's primary mission ended on November 15, 1976, 11 days before Mars's superior conjunction (its passage behind the sun), although the Viking spacecraft continued to operate for six years after first reaching Mars. The last transmission from the planet reached Earth on November 11, 1982.
While Viking 1 and 2 were on Mars, this third vehicle was used on Earth to simulate their behavior and to test their responses to radio commands. Earlier, it had been used to demonstrate that the landers could survive the stresses they would encounter during the mission.
NASA transferred this artifact to the Museum in 1979.
Collection Item Long Description:
“Life as we know it with its humanity is more unique than many have thought.”—President Lyndon B. Johnson, “Remarks Upon Viewing New Mariner 4 Pictures from Mars,” July 29, 1965.
Mars had long held a special fascination for humans who pondered the planets of the solar system—partly because of the possibility that life might either presently exist or at some time in the past have existed there. Astronomer Percival Lowell became interested in Mars during the latter part of the nineteenth century, and he built what became the Lowell Observatory near Flagstaff, Arizona, to study the planet. He argued that Mars had once been a watery planet and that the topographical features known as canals had been built by intelligent beings. The idea of intelligent life on Mars remained in the popular imagination for a long time, and only with the first photographs from Mars by Mariner 4 in 1965 were the hopes of many dashed that life might be present on Mars. This images showed a cratered, lunar-like surface without structures and canals, nothing that even remotely resembled a pattern that intelligent life might produce. U.S. News and World Report announced at the time that “Mars is dead.”
Later spacecraft, especially Mariners 6 and 7, in 1969, reexcited curiosity and laid the groundwork for an eventual landing on the planet. Their pictures verified the Moon‑like appearance of Mars, but they also found that volcanoes had once been active on the planet, that the frost observed seasonally on the poles was made of carbon dioxide, and that huge plates indicated considerable tectonic activity in the planet’s past. Suddenly, Mars fascinated scientists, reporters, and the public once again, largely because of the possibility of past life that might have existed there.
The Viking mission that emerged from this excitement consisted of two identical spacecraft, each with a lander and an orbiter. Launched in 1975 from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, Viking 1 spent nearly a year cruising to Mars, placed an orbiter in operation around the planet, and landed on July 20, 1976, on the Chryse Planitia (Golden Plains), with Viking 2 following in September 1976. These were the first sustained landings on another planet in the solar system. While one of the most important scientific activities of this project involved an attempt to determine whether there was life on Mars, the scientific data returned mitigated against the possibility. The two landers continuously monitored weather at the landing sites and found both exciting cyclical variations and an exceptionally harsh climate that prohibited the possibility of life. Atmospheric temperatures at the more southern Viking 1 landing site, for instance, was only as high as +7 degrees Fahrenheit at midday, but the predawn summer temperature was ‑107 degrees Fahrenheit. And the lowest predawn temperature was ‑184 degrees Fahrenheit, about the frost point of carbon dioxide.
Although the three biology experiments contained on the landers discovered unexpected and enigmatic chemical activity in the Martian soil, they provided no clear evidence for the presence of living microorganisms in soil near the landing sites. According to scientists, Mars was self‑sterilizing. They concluded that the combination of solar ultraviolet radiation that saturates the surface, the extreme dryness of the soil, and the oxidizing nature of the soil chemistry had prevented the formation of living organisms in the Martian soil.
The failure to find any evidence of life on Mars, past or present, devastated the optimism of scientists involved in the search for extraterrestrial life. Collectively, these missions led to the development of two essential reactions. The first was an abandonment by most scientists that life might exist elsewhere in the Solar System. Planetary scientist and JPL director Bruce Murray complained at the time of Viking about the lander being ballyhooed as a definite means of ascertaining whether or not life existed on Mars. The public expected to find it, and so did many of the other scientists involved in the project. Murray argued that “the extraordinarily hostile environment revealed by the Mariner flybys made life there so unlikely that public expectations should not be raised.” Murray believed that the legacy of failure to detect life, despite the billions spent and a succession of overoptimistic statements, would spark public disappointment and perhaps a public outrage. Murray was right. The immediate result was that NASA did not return to Mars for two decades. The Viking Program’s chief scientist, Gerald A Soffen, commented in 1992: “If somebody back then had given me 100 to 1 odds that we wouldn’t go back to Mars for 17 years, I would’ve said, ‘You’re crazy’.”
The second reaction, never accepted by scientists, found a powerful public life. Some asserted that a corrupt Federal government, and its mandarins of science, had found evidence of life beyond Earth but was keeping it from the public for reasons ranging from stupidity to diabolical plots. NASA has had to respond to these charges repeatedly thereafter. This issue first arose on 25 July 1976 when the Viking 1 orbiter took an image of the Cydonia region of Mars that looked like a human face. All evidence suggests that this was the result of shadows on the hills, and Gerry Soffen said so at a press conference, but some refused to accept this position. The “face” remains a sore point to the present, with Soffen being asked about it many times over the years. Always, he stated it was not the remnant of some ancient civilization but was a natural feature lit oddly in this one image but not in any others. As NASA stated officially in 2001, “The ‘Face on Mars’ has since become a pop icon. It has starred in a Hollywood film, appeared in books, magazines, radio talk shows—even haunted grocery store checkout lines for 25 years! Some people think the Face is bona fide evidence of life on Mars—evidence that NASA would rather hide, say conspiracy theorists. Meanwhile, defenders of the NASA budget wish there was an ancient civilization on Mars.”
The artifact in the National Air and Space Museum’s collection is a structural dynamics test article transferred from NASA.
U.S. Flag and Bicentennial logo
The Viking landers carried the logo of the bicentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The missions were a bicentennial gift to the American people.
Viking dropped soil samples into three canisters on top of the spacecraft for testing. Can you find them? (Hint: One has a funnel.)
National Air and Space Museum
Do not reproduce without permission from the Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum
Transferred from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Aluminum, mixed metals, phenolics
Approximate: 72 × 120 × 120 in., 421.8kg (182.9 × 304.8 × 304.8cm, 930lb.)
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National Air and Space Museum Collection
Country of Origin
United States of America
Explore Object Connections
Mars Pathfinder with its rover, <i>Sojourner</i>, was the first spacecraft to land on the surface of the Red Planet after the Viking mission.