Viking mission history

December 8, 2011

As we awaited the launch of NASA’s multibillion-dollar Mars Science Laboratory mission (launch went off perfectly on November 26, 2011), I prepared a briefing for my colleagues in planetary exploration at NASA HQ on the history of NASA’s Viking program, which sent two orbiter/landers to Mars in the 1970s. Alas, they have not yet found the time to hear the briefing, so I’m posting it here. (Without my narrative, it may seem sketchy, but I hope you may find it of interest).

This briefing reviews the history of the management and budget of the program, not its technical performance or scientific productivity. The point I want to make is that the Viking program was chronically over budget and off schedule (sometimes shockingly so). Yet it’s gone down in history as a major success. Technically and scientifically, it was. Let’s hope that the Mars Science Laboratory mission, whose management and budget history thus far is much like Viking’s, ultimately will be, also like Viking, technically and scientifically ground-breaking.

If you’re interested in the definitive scientific  review of the results of Viking’s life-detection experiments, see the Natioanl Research Council’s 1977 report, “Post-Viking Biological Investigations of Mars” (Committee on Planetary Biology and Chemical Evolution, Space Science Board, Assembly of Mathematical and Physical Sciences). It’s available free at:

Viking history.2011

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