AMERICAN NOTES: Approaching Infinity

There stood Viking, an alien on Mars' Chryse Planitia (golden plains), its sophisticated cameras sending sharply defined photographs across 212 million miles to earth. And hardly anybody was watching. Sure, the crowd at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., erupted with unscientific enthusiasm. But as the first photos came in, television screens across the U.S. were flickering with Barbara Walters reruns, old movies and game shows. There was excitement, but nothing remotely comparable to the electric thrill of Neil Armstrong's message from the moon: "Houston—the Eagle has landed!"

TV later gave Mars considerable play, but not enough to...

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