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#1 2020-03-06 15:33:53

Dayton3
Member
Registered: 2002-06-03
Posts: 135

Has Anyone Here Ever Discussed the Viking Program and Wolf Vishniac?

I've been interested in Wolf Vishniac and his sad fate since first reading about him in Carl Sagan's official biography.

The background for the Viking Program is truly epic all on its own.

https://history.nasa.gov/SP-4212/ch7-4.html

More about the actual program later.

Vishniac spent ten years of his life (he died at the age of 53) developing the first life detection instrument for deployment on Mars known as the "Wolf Trap".

But about 1970 or so,   the Wolf-Trap was dropped for inclusion aboard the Viking landers and three somewhat simpler life detection experiments were used instead.    There are indications that dropping Wolf-Trap was strictly an engineering and funding decision.   The life detection module aboard the Viking landers was already the most expensive part of them by far.   About 300 million in todays money.   And also far and away the most complex.   

How complex?   The one cubic foot modules had 40,000 different parts!!!

At any rate,  dropping Wolf-Trap was a huge blow to Vishniac.    He had spent ten years of his life developing it and was being paid by NASA to do so.  This funding was eliminated when Wolf-Trap was dropped from the landers.   Even more,  there are indications that while dropping Wolf-Trap was strictly an engineering and funding decision,  certain people in NASA trying to retroactively justify the decision suggested that Wolf-Trap was less likely to detect life on Mars than the other experiments.

Responding to this Wolf Vishniac decided to take simplified versions of Wolf-Trap to the nearest Mars like place on Earth.    Antarctica.

Vishniac had connections in the U.S. congress and managed to get approved for research trips to Antarctica despite having never taken the Arctic Survival Course required of all scientists working in Antarctica.

In 1973,   Vishniac went out alone to retrieve samples.

He never returned.

He apparently strayed off the established trail and fell 500 feet down a crevasse.

Carl Sagan had a crater on Mars named after him calling Vishniac the "first casualty of Mars exploration".

Last edited by Dayton3 (2020-03-06 15:42:25)

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#2 2020-03-06 18:27:17

tahanson43206
Member
Registered: 2018-04-27
Posts: 2,202

Re: Has Anyone Here Ever Discussed the Viking Program and Wolf Vishniac?

For Dayton3 re new topic ...

Out of curiosity I gave "Vishniac" to the FluxBB search window and asks for posts that might include the name.

Four posts showed up including yours.

So the answer to your question is yes.  That said, your post was by far the more detailed and (to me at least) interesting.

(th)

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#3 2020-03-06 18:40:27

louis
Member
From: UK
Registered: 2008-03-24
Posts: 5,657

Re: Has Anyone Here Ever Discussed the Viking Program and Wolf Vishniac?

Yes I was certainly aware of the life detection systems on Viking and the controversy over what they found. I didn't know a unit had 40,000 parts? Really?!  That's amazing.

I wasn't aware of Vishniac's story - how sad, but great that he was determined to prove the efficacy of his equipment.

I get the impression that NASA has wasted the last 50 years regarding determining the "life on Mars" issue. If it had been a priority for them, they would have sorted it by now. It should have been a priority since so much else depends on it. But I think with NASA there is always a tendency to try and meet lots of scientific interests, meaning they end up spreading themselves very thin.


Dayton3 wrote:

I've been interested in Wolf Vishniac and his sad fate since first reading about him in Carl Sagan's official biography.

The background for the Viking Program is truly epic all on its own.

https://history.nasa.gov/SP-4212/ch7-4.html

More about the actual program later.

Vishniac spent ten years of his life (he died at the age of 53) developing the first life detection instrument for deployment on Mars known as the "Wolf Trap".

But about 1970 or so,   the Wolf-Trap was dropped for inclusion aboard the Viking landers and three somewhat simpler life detection experiments were used instead.    There are indications that dropping Wolf-Trap was strictly an engineering and funding decision.   The life detection module aboard the Viking landers was already the most expensive part of them by far.   About 300 million in todays money.   And also far and away the most complex.   

How complex?   The one cubic foot modules had 40,000 different parts!!!

At any rate,  dropping Wolf-Trap was a huge blow to Vishniac.    He had spent ten years of his life developing it and was being paid by NASA to do so.  This funding was eliminated when Wolf-Trap was dropped from the landers.   Even more,  there are indications that while dropping Wolf-Trap was strictly an engineering and funding decision,  certain people in NASA trying to retroactively justify the decision suggested that Wolf-Trap was less likely to detect life on Mars than the other experiments.

Responding to this Wolf Vishniac decided to take simplified versions of Wolf-Trap to the nearest Mars like place on Earth.    Antarctica.

Vishniac had connections in the U.S. congress and managed to get approved for research trips to Antarctica despite having never taken the Arctic Survival Course required of all scientists working in Antarctica.

In 1973,   Vishniac went out alone to retrieve samples.

He never returned.

He apparently strayed off the established trail and fell 500 feet down a crevasse.

Carl Sagan had a crater on Mars named after him calling Vishniac the "first casualty of Mars exploration".


Let's Go to Mars...Google on: Fast Track to Mars blogspot.com

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#4 2020-03-23 10:48:57

Dayton3
Member
Registered: 2002-06-03
Posts: 135

Re: Has Anyone Here Ever Discussed the Viking Program and Wolf Vishniac?

If you carefully read the NASA history of the Viking program you find all sorts of interesting things.    Like how originally the program to put landers on Mars was called "Voyager" and was considered a precursor to a manned Mars landing.    Mars Voyager was supposed to be launched with a Saturn V launch vehicle.    But Congress in the late 1960s had turned sharply against NASA and thought that the Mars Voyager program was an attempt to get the U.S. committed to putting astronauts on Mars.    This was something that Congress hated the thought of committing to given the escalating costs to the U.S. of the Great Society and the Vietnam War,   thus Mars Voyager became the first planetary exploration program of NASA's killed.

Though in typical military fashion,  NASA recycled the "Voyager" name for the Outer Planets Grand Tour program.

Viking thus came to replace Voyager regarding putting two landers on Mars along with two orbiters circling the planet.    Almost immediately the program started running into budget problems with a dispute between "lander people" and "orbiter people".    Each side wanted theirs to have the bulk of the resources and mount the most sophisticated instruments.    Eventually the "lander people" won out as it was pointed out that NASA had already put spacecraft in orbit or flybys of other planets whereas aside from the  Lunar Surveyor,   NASA had not done so regarding landers.

Then the real battle got underway.

At first many scientists considered making high resolution pictures of the Mars surface and conducting analysis of the Martian surface and atmosphere to be the absolute highest priority.    But pretty soon the advocates of searching for life on Mars gained ascendency and pretty soon the bulk of the budget and engineering resources.   

This greatly annoyed many of the scientists in the first group.    For one,  most scientists felt the possibility of life existing on Mars much less being detected by a remote lander to be vanishingly small.   Almost to the point of impossibility.   Others felt it was more than a little ridiculous for the Viking landers to be tasked with searching for CURRENT  signs of life when it probably be more productive to search for signs of PAST life.

Now we get into the battle over which experiments to include in the tiny Viking landers life detection module.    To put it simply,   Vishniac's "Wolf Trap" was consider "wet" while the three experiments actually sent were considered "dry"

"Dry" in this case is misleading.    One of the life detection devices added no moisture at all to the Mars soil sample.   It basically looked for life in Martian soil "as it was".    It was definitely "dry".    The second life detection device added the equivalent of a single drop of water to the Mars soil sample.   The third life detection device (so called "chicken soup") basically saturated its Mars soil sample with a moist nutrient mixture.

But.

Contrasted to those three devices "Wolf-Trap" was definitely "wet".   Wolf-Trap (a light scattering experiment) basically called for suspending the Mars soil sample in water and watching for changes in the clearness of the water.    Given that bacteria growth causes water to become cloudy.   

While Wolf Vishniac was able to make Wolf-Trap far lighter, cheaper, and simpler as time went on,  there were concerns among the scientist that

1) Wolf-Trap would be difficult to ensure the reliability of.    "Reliability" on the Mars surface being one of the Viking programs major issues.
2) Wolf-Trap would be the LEAST likely device to detect life in Martian soil as it introduced conditions that were completely unlike conditions on the Mars surface in 1976 (or in millions of years).    That is being soaked in water.

Thus,  Wolf-Trap was dropped from the Viking landers.

And of course this took place in an era of massive budget pressures on the Viking program.   With costs skyrocketing,  especially for the life detection unit.

Also there were time pressures to finalize the design of the Viking landers and get the contractors to build them.   NASA already knew that when America celebrated its bicentennial in 1976 that there would be no U.S. astronauts in space.   The Apollo program would be over.   The Apollo Applications Program (that led to Skylab) would be over.    If the space shuttle was approved,  it was not expected to launch until 1977 at the earliest (it didn't launch until 1981.)   Thus Viking became the program to showcase NASA during the bicentennial which meant that for a July 4th, 1976 landing (it missed this goal by more than a week due to concerns about a hazardous landing zone) that Viking I had to launch in 1975.

Building a sophisticated spacecraft and readying it for launch in barely five years is a considerable undertaking,   and Viking program director knew they had to finalize their design and get on with it.   

Thanks to all those factors,   Wolf-Trap died

And three years later,  so did Wolf Vishniac.

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#5 2020-03-23 21:05:32

louis
Member
From: UK
Registered: 2008-03-24
Posts: 5,657

Re: Has Anyone Here Ever Discussed the Viking Program and Wolf Vishniac?

Even so, I think the Viking Landers were a stupendous success, one down from the Apollo missions really.

What you say about fighting groups of scientists with different interests rings true. NASA has surrendered itself to these fighting factions over the years and in trying to satisfy them all has spread itself very thin.

Dayton3 wrote:

If you carefully read the NASA history of the Viking program you find all sorts of interesting things.    Like how originally the program to put landers on Mars was called "Voyager" and was considered a precursor to a manned Mars landing.    Mars Voyager was supposed to be launched with a Saturn V launch vehicle.    But Congress in the late 1960s had turned sharply against NASA and thought that the Mars Voyager program was an attempt to get the U.S. committed to putting astronauts on Mars.    This was something that Congress hated the thought of committing to given the escalating costs to the U.S. of the Great Society and the Vietnam War,   thus Mars Voyager became the first planetary exploration program of NASA's killed.

Though in typical military fashion,  NASA recycled the "Voyager" name for the Outer Planets Grand Tour program.

Viking thus came to replace Voyager regarding putting two landers on Mars along with two orbiters circling the planet.    Almost immediately the program started running into budget problems with a dispute between "lander people" and "orbiter people".    Each side wanted theirs to have the bulk of the resources and mount the most sophisticated instruments.    Eventually the "lander people" won out as it was pointed out that NASA had already put spacecraft in orbit or flybys of other planets whereas aside from the  Lunar Surveyor,   NASA had not done so regarding landers.

Then the real battle got underway.

At first many scientists considered making high resolution pictures of the Mars surface and conducting analysis of the Martian surface and atmosphere to be the absolute highest priority.    But pretty soon the advocates of searching for life on Mars gained ascendency and pretty soon the bulk of the budget and engineering resources.   

This greatly annoyed many of the scientists in the first group.    For one,  most scientists felt the possibility of life existing on Mars much less being detected by a remote lander to be vanishingly small.   Almost to the point of impossibility.   Others felt it was more than a little ridiculous for the Viking landers to be tasked with searching for CURRENT  signs of life when it probably be more productive to search for signs of PAST life.

Now we get into the battle over which experiments to include in the tiny Viking landers life detection module.    To put it simply,   Vishniac's "Wolf Trap" was consider "wet" while the three experiments actually sent were considered "dry"

"Dry" in this case is misleading.    One of the life detection devices added no moisture at all to the Mars soil sample.   It basically looked for life in Martian soil "as it was".    It was definitely "dry".    The second life detection device added the equivalent of a single drop of water to the Mars soil sample.   The third life detection device (so called "chicken soup") basically saturated its Mars soil sample with a moist nutrient mixture.

But.

Contrasted to those three devices "Wolf-Trap" was definitely "wet".   Wolf-Trap (a light scattering experiment) basically called for suspending the Mars soil sample in water and watching for changes in the clearness of the water.    Given that bacteria growth causes water to become cloudy.   

While Wolf Vishniac was able to make Wolf-Trap far lighter, cheaper, and simpler as time went on,  there were concerns among the scientist that

1) Wolf-Trap would be difficult to ensure the reliability of.    "Reliability" on the Mars surface being one of the Viking programs major issues.
2) Wolf-Trap would be the LEAST likely device to detect life in Martian soil as it introduced conditions that were completely unlike conditions on the Mars surface in 1976 (or in millions of years).    That is being soaked in water.

Thus,  Wolf-Trap was dropped from the Viking landers.

And of course this took place in an era of massive budget pressures on the Viking program.   With costs skyrocketing,  especially for the life detection unit.

Also there were time pressures to finalize the design of the Viking landers and get the contractors to build them.   NASA already knew that when America celebrated its bicentennial in 1976 that there would be no U.S. astronauts in space.   The Apollo program would be over.   The Apollo Applications Program (that led to Skylab) would be over.    If the space shuttle was approved,  it was not expected to launch until 1977 at the earliest (it didn't launch until 1981.)   Thus Viking became the program to showcase NASA during the bicentennial which meant that for a July 4th, 1976 landing (it missed this goal by more than a week due to concerns about a hazardous landing zone) that Viking I had to launch in 1975.

Building a sophisticated spacecraft and readying it for launch in barely five years is a considerable undertaking,   and Viking program director knew they had to finalize their design and get on with it.   

Thanks to all those factors,   Wolf-Trap died

And three years later,  so did Wolf Vishniac.


Let's Go to Mars...Google on: Fast Track to Mars blogspot.com

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