CCNet SPECIAL - VIKING AT 25:
REPORT ON THE SYMPOSIUM ON MARS EXPLORATION
HELD IN WASHINGTON ON 19 JULY, 2001
By E.P. Grondine < email@example.com >
APPLICATIONS FOR NASA FUNDING TO UNDERTAKE CRATER COUNTS
ON MARS GLOBAL SURVEYOR IMAGERY TO BE ACCEPTED IN THE FALL
Before proceeding with an over-all report on the symposium, there is one
item which will be of great and immediate interest to several Conference
participants. Last year at the Mars planning session in Houston I had asked
Scott Hubbard, who was then undertaking the re-organization of NASA's Mars
plans, about the funding for Martian crater counts. Scott had told me
then that ensure the funding not only for the crater counts, but for analysis of
all Mars data, including the data to come from future probes, was one of his
highest priorities, and he was talking steps to assure that funding; further,
Scott had spoken about the desirabilty of developing computer programs so
that those crater counts could be done in a complete and exhaustive manner.
At the reception held after the symposium I had a chance to ask Dr. James
Garvin, NASA's Lead Scientist for Mars Exploration, whether NASA was going
to proceed with the crater counts which Hubard had desired. Dr. Garvin told
me that researchers seeking funding to do crater counts on Mars Global
Surveyor images would be able to apply for those funds in the fall from the
Mars Fundamental Science research program.
MALIN HITS PROBLEMS DOING CRATER COUNTS
Another important item to mention befor recounting the day's events is that
I also had a chance to talk with Mike Malin about the Martian crater counts.
I approached him asking about whether any other teams besides the one in
Berlin were working on the problem of counts, and he told me that as the
images from Mars Global Surveyor were distributed via the internet without
any record of who was using them, he had no way of knowing. He then went on
to tell me about some of the problems he and his team were having doing
crater counts, which came as a complete surprise to me, as I had no idea
they were working on them.
Malin told me they had tried to apply traditional hand crater counting
techniques to the images but had been completely confounded by the
problem of trying to identify what was a crater, what was a pit, what were
ealier craters which had only "recently" been exhumed, and what were image
artifacts. Some areas did not have any craters, and here they could either
assume that those surfaces were young, or that their surfaces had been
recently obscured. The end result was that it was becoming very
difficult for them to reliably date any geological formations on Mars by counting
the craters on them.
During the conference Malin had presented global images of the development
and history of the recent dust storm on Mars, and had managed to identify
the Hellas impact basin as its point of origin. Full body images of Mars
recently released by NASA are oriented on the crater from the Hellas impact,
and it appears that this impact event and its subsequent effects are now
recieving greater attention from those at NASA.
OTHER RECENT NASA WORK ON THE HISTORY OF MARS IMPACTS
Further, during the conference James Garvin spoke about the new gravity maps
of Mars. These were now revealing the impact history of Mars' northern
hemisphere; so far, it appeared that the Northern hemishpere had been
hit as often as the southern hemisphere, but the craters were now covered over.
VIKING, 25 YEARS LATER: THE 19 JULY MARS EXPLORATION SYMPOSIUM,
HELD AT THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY HEADQUARTERS, WASHINGTON, DC
Generally, the most ardent space enthusaists in the United States may be
divided into two classes: those who want to send man to Mars soon, and
those who want to send man to Mars sooner. Some idea of the intensity of
these desires may be gained by noting that in recent years NASA Adminisrator
Daniel Goldin has been under very caustic attack by some of the most
extreme US space enthusiasts for not abandoning the International Space Station
and the Shuttle and sending man to Mars immediately; even more remarkably,
these attacks occured at the same time Goldin was attempting to put in place
the elements for a manned flight to Mars to occur shortly after 2010.
One thing is certain, articles on Mars always sell magazines, and it was
little surprise to see the National Geographic Society lending its
facilities for the symposium. The symposium was sponsored by the
Lockheed Martin corporation, and in part this sponsorship appears to have been
motivated by a desire by Lockheed Martin to compensate for its role in
the failures of the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander probes; in
another part it was also probably motiviated by the fact that the Lockheed
Martin corporation sells both launchers as well as scientific probes, so
any increase in the public's enthusiam for Mars programs translates into a
bottom line benefit.
Noel Hinners, the lead engineer on both the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars
Polar Lander had worked in organizing the symposium, and I had an
opportunity to thank him once again for the detailed description which
he had provided to us of the problems he had hit, and he took some comfort in
the knowledge that his story had proved of benefit to Conference
participants. Despite NASA Administrator Dan Goldin's acceptance of full
responsibility for the MCO and MPL failures, the dual failures have had a
very bad effect on Hinners' health, and he is now walking with a cane.
THE CHANGING FACE OF MARS
Thomas Young, who headed up the landing team for Viking, told one story
which strikes me as being particularly revealing. When the Mariner IV probe
had returned to Earth the data containing the very first detailed image of
the surface of Mars, the software which had been developed to convert
that data into a usable image had failed. Jack James, the lead engineer, and a
young assistant had then taken the raw hexadecimal dump of the data and
had begun to convert it into an image by hand, an incredibly laborious
As the image of Mars' surface gradually emerged, all that appeared was
craters and yet more craters, not the rivers and fields and forests, or
the canals or buildings, or any of those things which so many had so
fervently expected to see for nearly a century. Faced with an image that appeared
very similar to the surface of the Moon, James turned to his assistant and
said, "You've just seen something very extraordinary. You've just seen the
death of the planetary program."
And then he had added, "We've got about an 8 hour head start on everybody
else in looking for a new job."
My feeling that afternoon was that of being among 500 or so people who had
still not gotten the news. Even though all aknowledged the undeniable, even
comparing the image of Mars held in the era before modern space probes
with that held afterwards, most of the presentations focused on water on Mars
and the search for life, and on what symposium participants percieved as a
real need for manned visits there, rather than on the real Mars, one of
epochs of impact debris stacked atop previous epochs of impact debris, all of it
stirred together and shaped by carbon dioxide "storms", "rivers", and
"oceans"; a planet so different from the Earth and far from it that it
would take an incredible effort to send even a few men there to visit briefly.
For the most part the symposium's participants and attendees were all
old enough to have grown up during the times when the earlier misconceptions
about Mars were still prevalent. As is usual today, these paid for the
appearance of a group of young people from among the very much smaller
group of current Mars enthusiasts; this, as though to re-assure themselves
that their earlier efforts had not been for nought, that their life's work
had had meaning, and that their dreams live on in some way.
But the plain fact evidenced since Mariner IV by all of NASA's budgets
is that when those first real pictures came down from Mars, the urgency of
flying men to Mars ended for most people.
The engineers present at the symposium spoke about engineering in a time
when NASA's funding accounted for 5% of the total budget of the government
of the United States. Viking itself cost somewhere around $1 billion
dollars, and that unmber is in the dollars of those times: when you consider
that a hamburger from McDonald's cost .15 dollars then, and costs .79
dollars today, it is quite probable that this amount translates into nearly
$6 billion of today's dollars. It is remarkable that under Dan Goldin's
administration NASA has sent 4 probes to Mars for about 1/6 of this
amount, less than $1 billion of today's dollars, including not only the two
which failed, but also another two, Pathfinder and Global Surveyor, which
succeeded far beyond anyone's expectations.
THE SEARCH FOR LIFE
As for Mars, after Mariner IV many had still hoped that there would be life
there, maybe not the intelligent life they had dreamed of finding, but some
form of life nevertheless. When Viking had not found conclusive evidence of
life, interest in Mars had faded even further, not to be renewed for some 20
But once our understanding of life and the forms it could take once again
made it again possible to hope for life on Mars, NASA had renewed the
search. Several of the sympsoium's technical presentations focused on the
forms life could take, and how we could find it in those cases. Dr. Garvin
spoke of the current hopes for water on Mars and endorsed the illusions
held by many as to how recently bodies of water existed on Mars. He pointed
to sedimentary layers, which he posited must have been formed by water, but
gave no consideration to the possibility that these layers might be the
result of varying impact rates, coinciding with Mars' (and the Earth's)
passage through the plane of the Milky Way. Garvin explained other
geological formations as hydrological in origin, with water as the working
fliud, but he minimized the possible role of CO2 as a working fluid in their
formation, even when it is known that water can not behave in the same way
it does on Earth at the temperaturs and pressures found on Mars.
Whatever the fantasy, reality always has a way of intruding; and while for
the most part Garvin focused his talk on the search for water and life, at
points he was emphasized the role of the Hellas impact event in the
evolution of Mars, and the new gravity crater maps of Mars' northern
hemisphere. He still held out hope that some craters were "ice filled",
though he did not mention that this might be CO2 ice; it was as though he
was trying to break the news of the existence of craters on Mars gently to
the crowd, or at least in such a way that it did not interfere with his
Garvin left little doubt that the search for life will dominate Mars studies
for the next decade. The Mars Odyssey spacecraft is focused on the
search for hydro-thermal geological formations; that orbiter is going to be
followed by 2 rovers in 2004 looking for either evidence of hydrothermal
activity or of hematite deposits. NASA will then try to get very fine
detail images from Mars orbit of the surface of Mars, and then will send
rovers equipped with equipment capable of working at a veryfine scale -and
this equipment may include equipment capable of looking for fossils.
The search for life will continue, even after it is dead.
Two of these new pieces of equipment were discussed during the symposium.
The first of these was a laser operating in frequencies which cause dual
carbon chemical bonds to flouresce. This is especially useful in detecting
life forms which live just under the surface of rocks, such as the life
forms found florishing under the surface of rocks in the Antartica. The
other piece of equipement discussed is an x-ray tomographic unit the
size of a laptop conputer, which is capable of finding fossils within rocks, and
of providing 3-dimensional images of those fossils which can then be
radioed back to scientists on the Earth.
WHAT HAPPENS IF LIFE IS FOUND?
Both Garvin and Naderi left the time of the return of any samples of life
from Mars open. The reason for this is that no one knows when the return
of living samples form Mars will be possible, if they exist.
The reason for this vagueness is that engineering a "safe" sample return
capsule, that is one capable of containing any living organism and
preventing it from escaping into the Earth's bioshpere, is going to be a
formidable engineering challenge. The design will not only have to
satisfy NASA's own planetary safety officer, but also officials from the
National Institute of Health and the Center for Disease Control.
The back contamination problem that any Martian life may present to life
on Earth was generally either avoided or minimized by symposium
participants. Malin thought it would only be a problem for those who had watched too
many episodes of the X-Files on television. Dr. Firouz Naderi, NASA's Mars
Program Manager, warned that it would be a real problem. Space
journalist Leonard David mentioned it, but prefaced his mentions by repeating
several times the very political "I don't know, I just don't know...".
Fortunately or unfortuantely, I don't have to be political, but I do
have to be clear. There is no planetary protection official anywhere on this
Earth who would want his name remember in the way Pandora's is, alongside of
THE REALITY OF MANNED MARS MISSIONS
During that part of the symposium which covered the times of Viking,
pictures of the scientists from those times were projected on the walls
to either side of the stage: how well dressed those young engineers were,
how smiling, how intensely focused. Then had come the Vietnam War, the
reductions in the NASA budgets, and most of the space engineers, now
with wives and families, had cut off their hair, and become space warriors
working on military contracts. Viking veteran Dan Goldin is very
typical in this regard: he started off his working career engineering manned
flight to Mars with the Saturn launcher; he had moved on to Viking life science
experiments; and finally he had ended up working in the most secret of
the defense reconnaisance satellite programs.
As it appears from both his public statements and some of the
engineering studies completed, when he had become NASA administrator, Goldin had
started to work once again on the problem of sending man to Mars. The small
studies seem to have become focused around the possibility of converting the
Shuttle over to a Shuttle C type of heavy lifter when the new RLV was supposed
to have come on line, which was anticipated to have been about the year
2005. This would have made manned Mars flight possible around 2010, a date
which Goldin has frequently mentioned. Unfortunately, problems were
encountered in building the composite fuel tank for the RLV, and that program is now
on indefinite hold, along with the plans for an early manned Mars flight.
At a more realistic level, NASA Associate Administrator for the Office
of Spaceflight presented a list of the real problems involved in manned
flight to Mars. Rothenberg thought that it would be unlikely that manned Mars
flight would be considered or recieve consideration or political backing
until sometime around 2010, when the Shuttle was replaced as a launch
Rothenberg mentioned that the manned space flight team had been working
with the robotic team to ensure that robotic exploration would be undertaken
in such a way as to make manned Mars flights possible, which goes a long
way towards explaining why the Mars Sample Return had been scheduled for the
year 2010, that is it had been scheduled at that date before the losses
of the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander had ruined that schedule,
and the X-33 fuel tank failure had halted work on the RLV. Rothenberg was
working with Garvin, and communication systems for future unmanned
probes were being designed with their subsequent use for manned space flight in
Unlike Goldin, who later in the day still spoke of a time frame of just
past 2010, Rothenberg estimated the time frame for manned fight to Mars was
no sooner than 2025. He estimated that by that time space research and
manufacturing facilities would be in full use, and that space tourism
would be thriving. More importantly to Conference participants, Rothenberg
thought that man tended space telescopes with apertures of from 300 to
500 meters would be constructed at the Earth-Sun libation point of L-2; but
he only mentioned these in regard to the search for terrestrial planets
outside of our solar system. I think that Conference participants should make
it a point to see that any possible telescopes of this class are considered
with the detection of small threatening NEOs kept firmly in mind.
Rothenberg initially spoke about the problem of manned Mars flight in
terms of the duration of manned flights. 100 day flights were sufficient for
manned exploration of the Moon, which included the use of a station in
lunar orbit, with 5 days travel each way, and about 90 days on the Moon's
surface. (See http://www.geocities.com/epgrondine for one architecture for such a
lunar program.) 500 to 1,000 day duration spaceflights would sufficient
for manned visits to an asteroid; but 1,000 days was felt to be the minumum
sufficient for manned flight to Mars. Rothenberg did not mention the
possbile use of asteroid KY-26 in manned flights to Mars.
Rothenberg saw that providing radiation shielding would present a severe
problem. Mechanical techiques seemed out of the question; shielding
with a spacecraft's hydrogen fuel appeared possible. Zero gravity also
presented another severe problem. Rothenberg brought up the problems which would
be presented during such a long flight in the delivery of medical and
dental services to the crew.
A way of getting around the supply constraints, the radiation
constraints, and the zero gravity restraints would be to reduce the travel time to
Mars to 30 days, this by having a 1 g acceleration on the outbound course
followed by a 1 g deceleration for Mars insertion. Rothenberg pointed
out again that even for a Keplerian orbit fuel requirements for a
conventional rocket engine were between 400 to 500 metric tons, and he felt that
either nuclear propulsion or the production of fuel on Mars would have to be
considered for quick trips to be possible. It should be noted here that
the earlier designs for the Mars Sample Return mission had been intended to
test exactly such fuel production technologies. Rothenberg made no
examination of the use of solar thermal engines for this flight, engines
which are completely clean and re-usable, while at the same time
delivering the same specific impulse as nuclear engines.
Rothenberg spoke repeatedly about the need for success with the International
Space Station as the only way of securing the public's support for further exploration.
He was of the opinion that any manned space effort beyond low Earth orbit
would have to be international in scope. He spoke at length about the severe
problem that NASA was already facing in securing the services of young
people with scientific training and engineering skills.
Rothenberg made no mention of the problem of back contamination, and the
reason for this omission is simply that this would have been addressed
by the Mars Sample Return mission(s).
TERRAFORMING MARS IS NOT POSSIBLE...
During the question period at the end of the day, questions were asked
about the feasability of terraforming Mars. The first point that was made was
that terraforming Mars would require incredible masses to be sent there.
The second point was even more negative, as even if anyone suceeded in
terraforming Mars, as Mars had no magnetic field it was entirely subject
to very intense radiation, radiation which would quickly undo any
terraforming effects which had been achieved. Since no one has any way of giving
Mars a magnetic field, the question terraforming is now moot, and will remain
...EXCEPT IN SCIENCE FICTION
The big news of the day was author Larry Bergen's information that NBC
was developing a television series about manned flights to Mars. This
series is to be based on the small piece of fiction with which Bergen closed a
recent non-ficiton book of his on umanned missions to Mars.
It has been known for some time that the Fox television network (Rupert
Murdock) had entered into a deal with "Titanic" director James Cameron
for the broadcast of a science fiction series based on the books "Red Mars",
"Green Mars", and "Blue Mars" by Kim Stanley Robinson. This television
series is being developed by Cameron at the same he is working on an
IMAX flim on the same theme.
It appears that more than a few folks at NBC subsequently "thought" it
would be nice if they had a Mars series of their own, and purchased the
television rights to Bergen's work to give their writers something to work with.
Incredibly enough, since Bergen was not writing it he knew little about
the NBC series, except that it would resemble a combination of "The Right
Stuff" by Tom Wolfe and "The West Wing" NBC's fictional television series about
What is even more incredible is that for the same money one could
actually have a television show which showed Mars, instead of a series which
imagined it. Television episodes usually cost about $2 million apiece to film,
and with 13 shows required for a season, that comes to at least $26 million
dollars. I think that the Russian firms would be delighted to sell a
Molniya, landing stage, a 4 wheel rover, and antenna usage for a similar
amount. Perhaps the CBS or ABC television networks ought to look into
Ah well then, dream shows always draw better than real shows, don't
DANIEL GOLDIN'S PRESENTATION
NASA Administrator Dan Goldin arrived late for his presentation,
emerging clearly fatigued from what must have been a brutal meeting with
representatives of President George Bush Jr's Office of Management and
Budget. In recent years, under several Presidents, including Bush Snr
and Clinton, the Office of Management and Budget has come to play an
increasing role in the management of NASA. I think this may be due to the fact
that no President wishes to be seen as anti-space; instead, they prefer to let
OMB do the dirty work of reducing NASA's budget, doing the work well away
from them, and well concealed from public reaction. Due to his fatigue,
Goldin gave his presentation in a very mechanical manner, and followed this by
reading a letter from the President, a letter which it appears that Bush
Jr did not write himself, but simply signed when it was presented to him.
I suppose some space enthusiasts will take heart at that fact that at
least he did that.
AT THE END OF THE DAY
In closing this review of the day's events, one of my goals for the
symposium was to meet William Allen, President of the National
Geographic Society, at the reception held after the symposium. This is a goal
which I did not succeed in fulfilling.
From their magazine we can see that the members of the National
Geographic Society are quite interesed in the mysterious Etruscans, the mysterious
Minoans, the mysterious Ponapeians, and the mysterious Olmecs; and I am
quite sure that some day some these members are going to be absolutely
stunned to learn the role that the impacts of asteroids and comets
played in making these peoples so "mysterious". Support of people like them is
going to be necessary if we are ever to get sufficient funding from the
government to deal with this hazard in a thorough way.
Oh well - you loose some, you win some. Let's all hope that the losses
do not include the population of a continent, as they have in the past.
Best wishes -
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