Mars. The red planet. A planet that has captured the human imagination for decades. Mars has been the feature of millions of Hollywood sci-fi movies that claimed it as the home of Aliens dubbed “Martians”. Humanity has long imagined what it would be like on Mars and created fancy sceneries for it, ranging from advanced Alien colonies to barren wastelands. For some reason, people and scientists have always wanted to know what it’s like on Mars. Is it covered with vegetation? Are Martians a thing? Today, we know that Mars is actually quite different from what we imagined it to be. It’s actually a barren wasteland with inactive volcanoes and large polar ice caps. Now, it was only in the past decades that we’ve been able to see Mars so clearly, all thanks to the efforts of a group of Nasa scientists, engineers, and technicians who came together in the 70s to create an ambitious robotic project named Viking. In August 1975, Viking 1 was launched in Cape Canaveral, Florida, marking the start of NASA’s Mars missions.
The project started almost a decade before the launch at the Langley Research Center in Hampton Virginia. It truly was a collaborative effort as many different companies created parts that would quickly assemble into the two Viking rockets. The entire operation aimed to find out what was on Mars.
Project Scientist Gerald Soffen even admitted that “the team was not quite sure how to search for life on Mars, so they did the obvious. They searched for the small creatures always associated with the higher forms of life: microorganisms.”
On Aug. 20, 1975, their hard work had finally paid off and Viking 1 was launched. A month later, its twin, Viking 2, followed. Both arrived at their destinations in the summer of 1976, America’s bicentennial year. When Viking 1 finally reached its orbit, a camera that the team had put on the rocket itself beamed back images of Mars to the NASA scientists. This was so that they would have a good idea of where the rocket itself should land. A good location was chosen near ancient outflow channels known as Chryse Planitia. On July 20, 1976, the team had decided that it was time for the rocket to land on Mars itself, and had the rocket separate from orbit, and descend down to the red planet. Now this rocket, it’s going 10,000 mph, which means that there’s a lot of heat. To combat this, the engineers had given the rocket a heat-shielding aeroshell. The team took many precautions when thinking about landing. Parachutes deployed, rockets were fired, aeroshells were released, slowing the rocket down to a steady 6mph. It took 19 minutes for confirmation that the Viking had landed successfully. Those 19 minutes were key in this space adventure. Immediately after touchdown, the lander’s camera took its first picture and relayed the historic image back to Earth. The first of these pictures being of the rocket itself, so that the project scientists could see if the rocket truly did land safely.
The Viking project was the first of many other Mars missions that would come such as the Maven or the Mars Pathfinder. Viking was essentially the Grandfather of all Mars missions, snapping pictures of Mars and sending them to Earth so we can learn more about that special red planet. NASA hasn’t just stopped at the Viking project, they’ve done many more different missions in observing Mars such as the Mars rover or the Mars Phoenix. More inquisitive crafts are on the drawing satellite boards. As you know, Mars did indeed have water. Now what happened to that water, only time will tell. One day, we will learn what happened to Mars, and it is all thanks to Viking, for setting the stage. When and if humans manage to colonize Mars, the Viking twins will always be there to greet, reminding us of how far we’ve come.