– Founder and Executive Director of the Viking Mars Missions Education & Preservation Project –
In 2016, during the 40th anniversary of NASA’s Viking 1 Mars mission, an official from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum declared Viking "one of the greatest missions NASA has undertaken."
Indeed, Viking 1 was the first U.S. spacecraft to successfully land on Mars, beam back images of the Red Planet’s surface to Earth, and perform experiments searching for signs of life. Detailed pictures of the surface of Mars are taken for granted today, thanks to subsequent Martian rovers like Spirit and Opportunity. But, in 1976, the images from Viking 1 and 2 were truly groundbreaking.
Those familiar with the Viking mission often cite its long-term impact, not only in exponentially growing our Mars knowledge base, but in setting a standard of collaboration among experts in astrobiology, geology, engineering, computing, and other fields in pursuit of a common goal.
Rachel Tillman, founder and executive director of the Viking Mars Missions Education and Preservation Project, is ensuring that the artifacts, documents, and legacy of the pioneering space mission are kept alive, both as a historical record and a source of inspiration for future generations.
You’ve been working on the VMMEPP for quite some time now. Have you seen a measurable impact of what you’re doing? How has the public perception of the Viking mission changed as a result of your work?
When I first started the nonprofit, I went to NASA and I said, “Would you like to be involved as a partner with us?” When I talked to different PR people at the NASA centers, all but one said, “Viking is old. Nobody cares. We aren’t talking about landers anymore. We only talk about rovers.” That was the NASA position, and individuals – who I will never name – tried to shut me down. But I’m kind of hard to shut down [laughs]. People said I would never succeed – not just from NASA, but from other institutes as well. They also said, “You need a Space Act Agreement with NASA and you have to have a sponsor inside NASA.”
I took that as a challenge. I already knew that I’d succeed to some extent. I had a lot of people inside NASA that did support me already. NASA is multiple different centers and every single center has its own completely unique culture – totally different from each other – and there is a lot of competition between them. The measure of success to me was that every single NASA center that participated in the Viking mission was recognized for what they did. That was one of the things I knew was not happening, because JPL was getting credit for everything, but the Viking project office was not JPL – NASA Langley was actually the project office. I went to the folks that worked on Viking there and a lot of them didn’t talk about Viking anymore. It was a real sore spot for them, understandably, because they had been shut down just like I had. I re-instilled that energy and they started having anniversaries again and gatherings of people that had worked on the mission. That is a measure of success and I have led or inspired those types of gatherings in Virginia, Washington D.C., California, and Colorado.
Then, we started conducting oral interviews and I’ve done over 300. I get a lot of support from people who are actively in the space program. Prior to my work, the message was not to talk about Viking. I’ve made enough ‘hay’ in the public through interviews, social media posts, and building awareness through activities in libraries, calling news agencies whenever anything is posted about Mars that didn’t include Viking – I would literally call the news agencies and make corrections – that now NASA does not do many talks about Mars without including Viking. To me, that is a huge measure of success.
In terms of our activities, I’ve sponsored youth in the National History competitions. Some of the kids wanted to do a poster session, some wanted to do websites, others wanted to do a video documentary, so I’ve supported four different teams that wanted to use Viking as a topic. I set up interviews so that they got to speak with the actual mission people and do the interviews themselves. One of the teams, a group of 8th grade boys, did such a tremendous job on their documentary that I invited them to present at the Viking 40th Anniversary. We've worked with students from 3 years old to college and early career. Some of our mentees and volunteers have gone on to work in the field, some are going into robotics or working at various NASA agencies. Each of those is a metric of success.
You have been closely involved with Viking since childhood. We know the mission successfully landed unmanned spacecraft on Mars in the ‘70s and sent back amazing pictures to Earth. Beyond that, what do you see as the overall legacy of the mission in terms of space exploration and discovery?
The legacy of Viking is rather broad and I can touch on some of the precedents. It was the first spacecraft to have both an orbiter and a lander that were autonomous – not manually controlled. On the lunar missions, you had humans operating them. Viking was designed to operate autonomously, so it was essentially the first Artificial Intelligence craft that was programmed to execute 90 days of scientific experiments. That is mind blowing! As far as we can discover, it is the first instance of successful Artificial Intelligence – no human intervention. It was designed that way.
We actually did get to ‘intervene’ because it didn’t lose contact for any long durations during cruise or primary mission – it was designed so that if it did go offline, it could continue to do its missions – but it didn’t, so we did get to reprogram things and recalibrate and do a lot of really exciting things that were unexpected. Those decisions were made by teams of scientists, engineers, and the science team leaders. That kind of program management was a first – being able to decide, in real time, on a daily basis, what you want to do that day. That kind of real-time activity was profoundly impactful to future missions because they taught the community of space scientists and the lead space network aces – the people that were in charge of the spacecraft and the teams – how to interact on a real-time basis. There were four spacecraft – two orbiters and two landers – and the lessons learned from a program management standpoint were immense and absolutely informed Pathfinder, Phoenix, Curiosity, Spirit, Opportunity – all the subsequent Mars missions. There is a human legacy as well as a robotic legacy.
When you get down into the science, you’ve got meteorology – they created a six-year atmospheric data set. They never anticipated having that long of a data sampling, but because the length of data and the amount of data was so great, they were able to identify seasons on Mars. That was not designed into the program. They were able to study patterns of behavior of dust and figure out from the atmospheric data what might be causing dust storms. Those things weren’t designed into the mission at all.
Then you have the three biology instruments and one chemistry instrument. One of the main objectives of the mission was to identify biological organics – the media called it ‘searching for life.’ We can define that a million different ways, but Viking was the only mission that had biology instruments that looked for a biological metabolic response to the introduction of the regolith into the testing units. There were some positive results and some negative results. The chemistry experiment was interpreted as a negative result. The decision at the time was to communicate that NASA could not confirm a biologic response conclusively. That didn’t mean that there wasn’t life, but that is how it was interpreted, and there was infighting between those that were interpreting it in a variety of different ways, and that continues today.
Subsequent missions have looked at perchlorates on the surface and discovered that by heating up perchlorates, you can actually destroy any evidence of organics that might have been there. So there is now reason to believe that Viking might, in fact, have had a biologic response in the Labeled Release experiment. Who’s to say, without going back and studying those same things again, whether or not it was conclusive. But there is a lot more reason now than there was at the time to believe that it was positive, and that’s because the body of knowledge has continued to grow from the amazing missions that came after Viking.
Seismology is another great example. Last year, Insight landed on Mars and it was announced by JPL and the media that Insight was the first seismology instrument to land on Mars. That’s not true. Viking was the first seismology instrument on Mars. Part of our [organization’s] mission is to correct the mishandling of history or the rewrites of history and we contacted JPL and the news media folks that reported it incorrectly and informed them that they were, in fact, wrong.
When institutes lose their mission heritage, and don’t have systems in place to verify facts outside their organization, they risk contributing to misinformation. These errors are not intentional, but when they're not corrected, future readers essentially lose history. But the responsibility is not NASA’s alone. Journalists need to do better research and cross check facts. After all, we all make mistakes. I may make some too, and I hope I'm contacted with corrections if I do.
JPL did not respond and did not correct it. But that’s part of why I do what I do.
The Viking Mars Missions Education & Preservation Project (VMMEPP) is a 501C3 nonprofit funded by individual donations and sponsorship by carefully selected entities that support the mission of global education with a special focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), collaborative learning, and international cooperation. These are the values that made Viking one of the most successful missions of its era and a leader that set precedent for all future missions. Its mission is to preserve the history, artifacts, original documents, and data from the Viking Missions, to inspire current and future leaders and thinkers, and to instill collaboration and equity into missions of tomorrow.