Changing Knowledge of Mars Forever: Viking Lander Celebrates 40 Years of Success

Prior to launch, Lockheed Martin (then Martin Marietta) employee Charles Bennett painted this acrylic watercolor painting of a Viking lander on the surface of Mars.

Planning a trip with no knowledge of the final destination can be challenging since you have to be ready for anything. Mars was no exception.

Forty years ago, Lockheed Martin (then Martin Marietta) was on the team that took the risk to create what would be known as the most complex interplanetary mission of its time with very little knowledge of what waited on the other side. Viking 1 became the first U.S. spacecraft to land on another planet.

In 1969, NASA set out on a mission to learn more about the mysterious red planet. At the time, the world knew very little about Mars. Would there be life there? What about water? Could it support human life in the future? It was a mystery that would unfold in a few short years.

As Viking 1 touched down on Mars on July 20, 1976, and Viking 2 landed on Sept. 3, 1976,  these two landers opened a new chapter in history and science books. For the first time, scientists began to uncover what Mars was really like.

Viking 1 and 2 were the most complex interplanetary missions of their time. In partnership with NASA and the Langley Research Center, Lockheed Martin designed, built and tested the two landers at its facility near Denver. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, of Pasadena, California built the orbiters for the mission. 

Viking Lander in Clean Room
Lockheed Martin (then Martin Marietta) technicians and engineers prepared a Viking lander for encapsulation prior to its launch in 1975. The two Viking landers were built in the same clean room near Denver. Since then, many of NASA’s Mars spacecraft have been built in this same clean room.

The goal of the Viking mission was to photograph the surface of Mars, characterize the composition of the soil and search for life. To help reach these goals, Lockheed Martin also built the robotic arms used to collect surface samples, an array of testing instruments and flight software. The company also built the aeroshell, an aerodynamic heat shield and back shell, for each lander which protected the lander, as they plunged through the unknown atmosphere of Mars. The Titan IIII rockets that launched the Vikings were also built by Lockheed Martin at the same Denver facility.

Dr. Ben Clark headed the team that developed the x-ray fluorescence spectrometer instrument, which was used to determine the chemical composition of the Martian soil. He started his journey when he beat out the competition by analyzing five unknown soil samples in 20 minutes apiece; it took his competition four days to do the same work. Clark was promptly welcomed on board the Lockheed Martin Viking team.

The Viking team worked for six years to build the spacecraft. After pouring countless hours into this mission, Clark and the team held their breath as Viking sent the initial relay of communication letting everyone know they had mission success.

“The first white-knuckle event was the landing,” said Clark. “Everything was happening as it was supposed to so we knew we had landed safely. We celebrated big time.”

The next milestone was to wait for the long anticipated first photo of the Mars surface. Many were concerned the surface would be spongey, so the lander was created with plate-like footpads to help prevent the lander from sinking into the surface. Pixel by pixel, the photo downloaded to reveal a footpad surrounded by a rocky surface.

“To see those photos was quite an event,” said Clark. “It was on national television, and there were only three channels at that time, so everyone saw it.”

After landing on Mars, Viking 1 sent back this first photo of Mars. The photo showed the never-before-seen terrain of the planet.

Viking was new, innovative and changed the way space exploration was viewed. It broke the boundaries of expectations in its technologies and findings.

There were more than a dozen new technologies used on Viking. For example, to protect the landers from the intense heat as they descended through the Martian atmosphere, engineers developed a new thermal protection material comprised of ground up cork and silica. Dubbed SLA561V, the material has been used on every NASA lander mission to Mars since.   

“For Lockheed Martin, this mission was huge,” said Clark. “The most successful thing is that because we built it, all of the sudden, we were the wonder horse of the whole aerospace community. It was a well-known program that did almost the impossible and worked so well.”

The landers performed so well, in fact, that Lockheed Martin adapts the processes and techniques to make today’s explorations just as successful. The Phoenix and InSight landers, the most recent Mars exploration landers, can be affectionately referred to as Viking grandsons, according to Clark, because of the many technologies adapted from the original expedition.

“People look back at the last time they did something successful,” said Clark. “It’s sort of like families. You raise your children similar to how you were raised. Things get pushed forward generation after generation, and we have done that with the success of Viking.”

All three of NASA’s current Mars orbiters were built by Lockheed Martin and the company plays a role in their operations. Additionally, Lockheed Martin built NASA’s next mission to Mars, the InSight lander, scheduled to launch in May 2018, and will play a role in the 2020 Mars rover.

With the ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars, Lockheed Martin has developed a Mars basecamp plan, which has astronauts arriving in 2028.

“I’ve always thought the pursuit of human exploration of Mars was important,” said Clark. “The exploration will go faster. We can put geologists out there and we will have a better opportunity of finding life because they will be able to look under every nook and cranny.”

Looking behind the success of Viking, you see a Lockheed Martin team that came together to make history. It was a team that made the impossible possible.

“I stayed at Lockheed Martin because of the people,” said Clark. “The people here work better together. People are competent, cooperative and know how to get things done. There is a deep-seated culture that percolates down to all new employees.”

Employees at Lockheed Martin who work on current interplanetary missions are proud to have their company played such a prominent a role in this ground-breaking Mars mission. The risk-taking combined with the findings of the mission have long paved the way for successes.

Ben Clark and NASA Administrator
During the lander development, Ben Clark briefed Dr. James Fletcher, NASA Administrator, with Jim Martin, Viking project manager, about his Viking instrument as the team prepared for launch.

The Viking Mars Mission Education and Preservation Project

The Viking Mars Missions Education & Preservation Project  (VMMEPP) was formed to honor all those who dedicated time and effort to make this mission a success. VMMEPP is a 501c(3) nonprofit, dedicated to preserving the history and artifacts from the Viking mission - the first successful combined orbiter and lander mission to Mars. VMMEPP is partnering with institutions worldwide to share the educational and historical materials through exhibits, an online Viking museum with original material for research, engineering, and historical documents and images, as well as virtual and in person education outreach by VMMEPP and Viking team members.

June 2016