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For me it was Viking on Mars

John Whitehead

December 10, 2012

I was only ten when Apollo 11 landed. The whole family was crowded around my Grandfather's TV late at night. The image was blurry, and I was tired (plus being allergic to Grandfather's dog and tobacco smoke). But in July 1976, I was 17 and understood what was going on when the two Vikings landed on Mars. I remember being fascinated by the hydrazine engines, that one simple molecule released enough energy for a rocket, rather than fuel and oxidizer having to mix. All the above helped steer me to be a student at Caltech, which runs the Jet Propulsion Lab. JPL built the Viking orbiters while Martin Marietta near Denver built the landers and NASA Langley ran the whole project. As a biology major I crossed paths with Caltech professors who had been part of Viking's search for life on Mars. A decade later, I ended up doing hydrazine propulsion technology research with the company that had built the Viking lander engines, Rocket Research Company near Seattle (now a part of Aerojet). All the robotic Mars missions are amazing engineering accomplishments. I look forward to seeing someone build a tiny high-performance rocket to actually launch geology samples off of Mars for return to Earth.


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