Space: Mars: The Riddle of the Red Planet

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Mars was a distant shore and the men spread upon it in waves ... The first wave carried with it men accustomed to spaces and coldness and being alone ... They came and made things a little less empty, so that others would find courage to follow.

—Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles

For centuries, in fiction as well as in fact, men have dreamed about going to Mars and exploring the Red Planet. Last week, on July 20, at 8:12 a.m. (E.D.T.)—seven years to the day after the first men walked on the moon—this dream became a reality. "Touchdown! We have touchdown!" shouted Project Manager James S. Martin Jr. as he watched the consoles at Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Only 17 sec. behind schedule, the lander was safely down on Mars' Chryse Planitia (golden plains).

"This has got to be the happiest time of my life," said Martin as he popped the cork on a bottle of champagne. "It's incredible to me that it all worked so perfectly." Scientists who had sweated through Viking's earlier delays and other technical problems greeted the landing with applause or jokes. A few were damp-eyed. Most, however, were simply overwhelmed by the implications of their accomplishment. "How many times does Columbus arrive in history?" asked Gerald Soffen, Viking project scientist. "We've just witnessed one of the arrivals. We are a privileged generation." For the first time, through an obedient and ingeniously contrived robot, man was about to gaze at a Martian landscape, to begin sifting through Martian soil for evidence that life exists beyond the earth.

Painted Desert. Like an apprehensive human who had plummeted from the sky onto alien soil, Viking first looked down at its footing, transmitting back to Pasadena the historic, if not dramatic first picture from the Martian surface. It showed one of the lander's round footpads resting upon an area of hard-packed soil strewn with pebbles and small rocks of varying sizes. At J.P.L., 212 million miles away, scientists could clearly see the rows of rivets on the lander's foot, late (Martian) afternoon shadows and—extending from rocks—dirt tails that might have been formed by the strong winds that frequently scour the planet's surface.

It was when Viking lifted its gaze and surveyed the landscape that man could really imagine standing on Chryse Planitia. "Terrific!" exclaimed the Viking scientists. "Fantastic!" There before them in a spectacular 300° panoramic view was a rock-strewn—and apparently lifeless—plain reminiscent of the deserts of Arizona and northern Mexico. Clearly visible were bright patches of sand and dunes, some low ridges, what seemed to be an eroded crater and a landscape littered with rocks. Some of the more distinctively shaped rocks were promptly given names like "Midas muffler" and "Dutch shoe" by scientists. On the horizon, about two miles away, was a ridge that could be the rim of a large impact crater from which many of the rocks may have been ejected. Scientists estimated that some of the boulders were as big as 12 ft. in diameter, large enough to have overturned the Viking lander had it put down in their midst.

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