Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Landing of Viking 1 in 1976

In reading about the landing of NASA’s Viking 1 on Mars, July 20, 1976, we found a beautiful article entitled “Mars? New Realities for Sci-Fi,” which appeared in The New York Times a few days later.

Lamenting the public’s lack of interest in the subject, columnist John Leonard asked several science fiction writers about the significance of the landing and why they did not join Carl Sagan and Ray Bradbury at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena to await the historic feat, which was originally scheduled for July 4th. Here are some excerpts from Leonard's article.

Isaac Asimov: "'We’ll find out what it’s really like ... That’s not inhibiting for a writer. That means a whole new set of stories. Every advance of science opens up new possibilities for fiction.' Why hadn’t Mr. Asimov gone to Pasadena? 'Carl Sagan invited me a dozen times ... but I don’t fly.'"

Kurt Vonnegut: "almost went to Pasadena for the scheduled Fourth of July touchdown, stayed instead in the Hamptons, and feels he probably made the right decision because who would want to wait around for two weeks in Pasadena? Asked about the landing, he is typically laconic: 'I’m relieved they sent instruments. ... It’s better than the moon. Everybody knew what the moon was like. Ray Bradbury says we’ll be on Mars in 20 years. Won’t that be something?'”

Frederik Pohl: "was in New Jersey. He had intended to go, but the Fourth of July postponement postponed him, too. He will be there in September for the landing of Viking 2. 'A good first step,' says Mr. Pohl.

Frank Herbert: "stayed home in the State of Washington. Mr. Herbert, whose superb Dune series was completed this month ... is at work on a new novel 'and you know how that is.' But he watched the landing on TV, and liked the dominating chat of Mr. Bradbury and Dr. Sagan. 'I think … that science-fiction writers and the scientists engaged in space exploration, in their fantasies and their work, are the only people concerned with making us immortal. The planet’s finite. So is the solar system. Most people don’t just live from paycheck to paycheck; they live from the late movie to the alarm clock. Our attention-span is short. But to survive we’ve got to colonize. It’s very exciting.'"

Larry Niven: "was at the lab for the countdown. 'A tough ticket, too,' he says. Mr. Niven is known as a writer who cares a lot about hard science. What did he feel in Pasadena? 'All the appropriate emotions ... But one more: it got to me. Maybe it would crash. Maybe the cameras wouldn’t work. All the data were 15 minutes late. Our hopes, our wishing, was 15 minutes late.' ... Mr. Niven is not worried by facts. 'My first three books on Mars were about three different Mars. … They kept changing Mars on me. We don’t stop writing when reality changes.'"

Note that Robert A. Heinlein and artist Jon Lomberg, neither of who is mentioned in Leonard's article, were both present at JPL on July 20, 1976. Lomberg created a radio documentary of the Viking landings, a five minute excerpt of which is available at CBC Radio's website. The entire documentary, which includes live recordings from mission control at JPL and interviews with science fiction writers, is part of the "Visions of Mars" library.

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