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Remembering Viking at Mars camp

Miles O'Brien and producer Linda Saether
Miles O'Brien and producer Linda Saether  

CNN space correspondent Miles O'Brien and producer Linda Saether traveled to Devon Island, Canada, last week where NASA and other researchers were taking part in The Haughton-Mars Project. The NASA-led program is aimed at gaining insight into the possibility of living on Mars.

JULY 20, DEVON ISLAND -- For the Mars Nation, this is a big day, a very big day. Twenty-five years ago, July 20, 1976, the Apollo 11 of unmanned missions hit pay dirt on Mars' Plains of Gold. The amazing Viking 1 was the first spacecraft to successfully touch down on the surface of the red planet.

When the expected arrival time came, members of the Viking team in the control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California -- 200 million miles away -- held their breath for 20 minutes, waiting for the radio waves to wash ashore. Viking phoned home with good news, of course, and then started sending postcards aplenty.

First, it sent a picture that seemed like a misfire on a roll of film shot by a tourist a Disney World -- a portrait of its own foot. In this case, there was a valid reason for the footnote: scientists wanted to see how firm the surface of Mars is. If Viking was slowly being swallowed up by Mars muck, this would have been the first, and last, Viking postcard ever sent.

Take a tour of Mars on Earth

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    But Viking was on solid ground and, along with its identical twin, Viking 2, had an incredible run. Together, the Viking landers beamed back about 4,500 images before they went silent in 1983 -- their orbiters captured more than 55,000 aerial views. It was a scientific slam-dunk, with one notable exception: scientists had hoped the Vikings might find some proof of life on Mars (past or present). But on this visit to the Plains of Gold, the mother lode eluded them.

    Twenty-five years ago, most people would have predicted Viking was just the beginning of a bold exploration of Mars, that humans would have been there by now -- probably to stay.

    But we all know what happened after the footprints-and-flags race to the moon. The bold leadership and blank checks were lost and gone.

    Which is why, 25 years later, this rocky, icy island in the Canadian high arctic is as close as any Homo sapiens will get to Mars in the foreseeable future.

    All here know this in their heart of hearts, and yet they press on with their bold, seemingly bizarre, endeavor. Putting people inside a small, ersatz Mars lander and forcing them to don cumbersome "space" suits whenever they egress, as if the atmosphere were lethal, does invoke a certain snicker factor.

    I have to confess when I hopped on an ATV to shoot some videotape of one of the their suited sojourns outside, I could not help but think I was watching some overgrown space-campers.

    Things got even more comical when gum chewing by one of the crew activated his radio. The radio transmissions of each and every smack drove the mission commander and Mars Society founder, Bob Zubrin, to distraction. He walked over to his masticating crewmate, Vladimir Pletson, touched visor to visor, and yelled, "Vladimir, you are driving me crazy. Stop chewing that gum."

    By that time, it didn't matter. The Fletcherizing had gummed up Pletson's radio, the batteries were dead and his crewmates were dancing on their grave.

    Silly and amateurish as this scene may seem, it is little things like this that could seriously hinder a real mission to Mars. So why not simulate a mission here on Earth?

    Zubrin makes an analogy to military exercises. Soldiers know their heads won't get blown off if they peer out of a foxhole during a war game. And yet the military incessantly runs its troops through all kinds of elaborate simulated hoops.

    Even if they were "playing" Mars in one bodacious fort, they are learning some very cool things about how a crew would get along and work in such close quarters. It is more than NASA is doing, which is to say, not much.

    So there was a tinge of sadness on this Viking silver anniversary in this place. Zubrin and two of his crewmen, wearing their spacesuits, roared into the center of the encampment on their ATV's, in full "space" regalia, toting banners that read "HAPPY ANNIVERSARY VIKING" and "VIKING - WE ARE HERE."

    Tribute to Viking'
    A tribute to Viking  

    It was a slightly awkward moment as they held their signs up, waved them in silence (hard to talk sealed up inside those suits) and posed for pictures. We all obliged them, acting like Mars-paparazzi.

    As they decamped, Zubrin came up to me, beaming, and gave me the martian greeting. "Ack! Ack!," he yelled through his Plexiglas visor. We both laughed. At least he wasn't taking himself too seriously.

    In fact, you would be guilty of felonious shortsightedness if you dismissed all of this simply as bad dinner theater starring some slightly wacky space nerds. In their own "out there" way, they are keeping an important dream alive for others who are unable, or unwilling, to make the effort and run the risks.

    These people are dreamers, and dreamers have always looked odd to the rest of us. But without them, where would we be?

    One day, when the rest of the world catches up with Bob Zubrin and the Mars Nation they will look to this place, and these experiments and simulations, and find them very valuable. Mark my words.

    One thing is certain, the raison-d'Ítre for Zubrin's Mars Society transcends the world of space geekdom.

    Everyone I encounter is fascinated by Devon and for that matter, Mars itself. The toughest focus group that I know, my family, is typically blasť about what I do, and the stories I produce. Not this story. While I was gone, my 7-year old daughter Connery told my wife, "Normally I don't think much about what daddy does for work," she said. "But I find this very interesting, mommy."

    That it is. And I am glad I got a chance to see "Mars" with my own eyes. Maybe Connery will get to see the real thing some day.

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