July 20 was the 35th anniversary of the Viking I lander’s successful landing on the Mars surface in 1976. That mission was a major turning point in our understanding of Mars, providing detailed geological, chemical, and geophysical data that fueled science analysis for more than two decades.
Many people think that the Viking emphasis on searching for life (which, in hindsight, utilized the wrong approach for doing this) killed off Mars exploration for two decades. I see it differently — that the lack of a scientific framework for asking questions about Mars made it difficult to propose viable new missions. However, the Viking data, in combination with other data sources and terrestrial analysis, made it possible to put forward the scientific framework that we are working under today. That very successful framework suggests that environmental conditions on Mars were such that life could have existed at some time in the past or, under the surface, even at the present. The missions of the last two decades have all been based on this framework, and the upcoming missions are as well.
The Viking Lander spacecraft that made the first landing on Mars on July 20, 1976. (Courtesy NASA)
The Mars Science Laboratory, which launches this November, is set to explore surface chemistry as it is relevant to possible life. And, of course, the MAVEN mission will explore the history of the atmosphere and climate. We pitched our mission as related to life because of this climate connection, and it’s that strong connection that makes it of so much interest to the broader Mars science community.
So, as we celebrate our success to date as we move into the “build” phase of the project and move forward into the all-consuming effort during the coming two years prior to launch, keep in mind that we are part of a broad program of Mars exploration that goes back many decades. I’m very excited and very much looking forward to the important contributions that MAVEN will make to understanding the climate of Mars and to the “life” question. To Mars!