Flashback: 1978 NASA Film Shows Viking Discoveries

In what’s a sort of foreshadowing of the upcoming August 5 MSL landing, which is being called “seven minutes of terror”, here’s a flashback film from 1978 called “19 Minutes to Earth” which looks at the discoveries made by the Viking orbiter and lander, which made its historic arrival on Mars 36 years ago, on July 20, 1976.

In true late ’70s style the video is full of funky music and (what was then) state-of-the-art video graphics. Awesome.

Even more than the music, though, what’s interesting about the 1978 film is how the subject of microbial life is discussed. Both Viking 1 and 2 were designed to search for evidence of biological activity on Mars, which they did by digging into the Martian soil and looking for signs of resulting respiration.

Although the results were initially deemed inconclusive, further research into the Viking data has prompted some scientists to claim that the landers did, in fact, find evidence of life on Mars.

It’s still a much-debated topic, one that scientists hope to help settle with the upcoming research performed by Curiosity and the Mars Science Laboratory mission.

Funky music and all, the Viking programs paved the way for all future missions to Mars. Lessons learned from Viking technology have blazed the trail for Mars research, from Pathfinder’s Sojourner rover to Spirit and Opportunity, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and ESA’s Mars Express. Very soon Curiosity will continue on with the legacy of robotic exploration of the Red Planet, and someday I’m sure our children and grandchildren will look back at the “funky videos” of our time.

Let’s hope that by then they’ve made their own great strides in space exploration and have found answers to the questions that inspire us today.

Video: NASA. Image: artist’s concept of the Viking lander (NASA).

18 Replies to “Flashback: 1978 NASA Film Shows Viking Discoveries”

  1. One could well reflect over the fact that the abject failure of Viking is what landed us in the current search regime of looking for habitability instead of life, which is what MSL will do.

    After 30 years it is the same regime that similar research on much more distant exoplanets has managed to come to in 20 years.

    – The Viking experiments were looking for massive amounts of complex life such as heterotrophs (consumers of organics in complex ecological webs) and plants (aerobic photosynthesizers). Instead of looking for what must be there at the base of a persistent extant ecology, autotrophs consuming abundant CO2, they did their very best to kill them off by drenching them in a mess of soggy nutrients.

    Didn’t it occur to them that if organics and O2 were scarce, heterotrophs (organic consumers) and plants (O2 producers) would be out and the experiments inconclusive?

    So the Vikings failed to detect extant life.

    – Viking were heating samples as Phoenix still did, despite the knowledge that were would be plenty of oxidants about. What would be the chances that they were _not_ heat activated (as it later turned out)?

    So the Vikings failed to detect extant organics.

    – Viking were digging for ice with a short shovel. According to current estimates based on among other things the finds of Phoenix, there would be ice some 5 – 20 cm deeper.

    So the Vikings failed to detect extant water.

    Let us hope MSL can prepare the way for the many needed sample-return missions to have a fair chance to locate extinct or extant life by finding good preservation conditions for organics (water-deposited layered clays) and perhaps even organics.

    The recent find that enough methane would be produced by impactors to predict any observations of methane, still arguable, means that the concurrent Maven atmospheric mission will be less interesting. MSL will be the do-or-die focal point.

    Oh well, we will always have Pari … the exoplanets.

    1. One could well reflect over the fact that the abject failure of Viking is […]

      Hold it right there, dude. There is no such thing as failure. There are only results. And those results were inconclusive.

      1. A “personal coach”!? Personally I would think the “dude” would be the personal coach woo-man. (As in, what is the statistics that such an investment works for whatever it is supposed to work for? Isn’t it “feel good” services, in which case a gym pass would be cheaper and healthier?)

        An inconclusive series of experiments is a failure if the results are inconclusive at best. The best conclusion is that another experiment need to be done, and perhaps that could be predicted in advance as it seems to be the case here.

        But Viking was a political dodo that couldn’t fly. It was given a lot of money to optimistic and lazy research strategies (lots of water and nutrients, needing strong signals = easy to do), which context I tried to make clear in my previous comment. Of course they could have succeeded, but the likelihood was low and apparently they didn’t consider the possible outcomes of the complete set of experiments.

      2. Chill out, dude! My objection was your use of the term “abject failure” to describe the Viking program, which (in my opinion) was an engineering success; however, as you’ve pointed out, the biological experiments were, to say the least, somewhat ill-conceived and could have been thought out better.

      3. I had to study the Viking results as part of a a planetary science course and at a shallow level they do appear strangely naive. I think the biologists must have been poorly represented on the committee or maybe the accountants had the final say, or perhaps they just thought there would be a manned mission soon so why bother too much.

      4. Indeed, we would need something like a history of astrobiology or planetary science text for a more well rounded assessment. But I have none such.

        For one, as you imply, any research labor under constraints that outsiders can’t assess well if at all. So it may be impossible to do anything than superficial assessments.

        [Comparisons are fair however, with their stated goals or similar work.]

      5. I’m cool, you started and continues to emote (“dude”).

        I don’t think you have seen my cuss words yet. (As a Swede I am tragically handicapped in that department, all my parent generation had to offer is religionist or sexist cussing. Those inconsiderate sons of fathers!)

        But I also note you stopped bringing in extraneous woo into the assessment of science. =D Woo will always make me respond.

        I think my assessment was well backed up in my first comment. Its primary science mission was compromised as we agree on, and we agree on the engineering success.

        I don’t particularly like to make these observations on Viking or the underwhelming progress of planetary astrobiology as opposed to exoplanetary, but I think they are necessary.

      6. Maybe it’s because you’re a Swede, you’ve misunderstood the slang general term of address “dude” as an insult, which was not intended – it simply means “a fellow” or “chap”. Have you not seen the comedy film “The Big Lebowski“?

    2. I think that if there is life on Mars, even autotrophic, that it is subterranean (submartianian?). The surface may simply be too irradiated with UV to support life. Also the top soil appears to be full of perchlorates, which does not bode well for life. At the regolith-ice boundary there might be some prospect for a thin liquid layer that might support microbial life.


      1. The perchlorates are an environmentally stable energy source, not an organic harming oxidant at those pressure & temperature conditions.

        I think peroxides such as hydrogen peroxide would do the trick of breaking down organics outside of direct UV irradiation, though I note some cells can handle some amounts with advanced metabolism.

        Yes, latest at the ice boundary those oxidants would be neutralized I take it.

  2. Yes.. the lumbering music was at least somber if not pedantic and dated… a video that needs to be restored? or archived as a curiosity? Curiosity envy anyone?

    1. Yes those were the days when you were expected to concentrate on something for more than er, sorry, must take this call …

  3. All I know is, results aside, I can imagine my teacher putting this video in the AV Dept.’s Beta player and telling us to be quiet and watch it as he headed down to the teachers’ lounge for a Winston.

  4. Pretty cool flashback.

    Yeah and I noticed how much they knew or just discussed.

  5. What does strike me is the qualiy of the images. Far better than I remembered.

  6. Anyone know where I can find Jon Lomberg’s report on the Viking landing on Mars, July 20, 1976. I heard it live via Radio America and recorded it to cassette. I have since lost it (although I’m guessing the audio may have faded anyway). This site has a broken link to a copy of it http://www.sffaudio.com/?p=2673. Its supposedly on the Phoenix DVD but going to Mars to grab a copy of it isn’t really on the cards for me…

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