Founder and Executive Director of the Viking Mars Mission Education & Preservation Project.
By Becca Gladden, Senior Writer.
Jun 14, 2020
In 2016, during the 40th anniversary of NASA’s Viking 1 Mars mission, an official from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum declared Viking "one of the greatest missions NASA has undertaken."
Indeed, Viking 1 was the first U.S. spacecraft to successfully land on Mars, beam back images of the Red Planet’s surface to Earth, and perform experiments searching for signs of life. Detailed pictures of the surface of Mars are taken for granted today, thanks to subsequent Martian rovers like Spirit and Opportunity. But, in 1976, the images from Viking 1 and 2 were truly groundbreaking.
Those familiar with the Viking mission often cite its long-term impact, not only in exponentially growing our Mars knowledge base, but in setting a standard of collaboration among experts in astrobiology, geology, engineering, computing, and other fields in pursuit of a common goal.
Rachel Tillman, founder and executive director of the Viking Mars Missions Education and Preservation Project, is ensuring that the artifacts, documents, and legacy of the pioneering space mission are kept alive, both as a historical record and a source of inspiration for future generations.
Tell me about the Viking Mars Missions Education and Preservation Project (VMMEPP) and how you got involved with it.
The VMMEPP is a nonprofit that I founded in 2008. I grew up with the mission. My father was a scientist on the mission. He had his office at the University of Washington, where he was a professor emeritus, and it was floor-to-ceiling books and notes and papers and stuff. I was an organized little kid and spent many afternoons after school at my father’s office and started sort of piling things up informally and organizing his office. Over the years, I became his note-taker. We would go to colloquiums and I would take notes for him.
I learned about Viking in a very intimate way. I was 10 when it launched and 11 when it landed on the surface of Mars. It was profoundly influential to me because of the people I grew up with, which included my dad [James Eugene Tillman], Carl Sagan, Jerry Soffen, Conway Leovy, Joost Businger – those were the guys I knew the best. They would all fly down to JPL or up to NASA Ames and sometimes family would go.
My father’s work was fascinating to me. I was there when Viking launched. When the first picture came down, I wanted to see it so badly. We were at Jet Propulsion Laboratories. I wanted to touch Mars. I thought it was amazing that we could do this. I actually touched the monitor when they were showing the pictures as they came down and thought, “This is as close to Mars as you can get!” I was 11 years old.
How did those early experiences affect your education and career path?
I got through high school and knew I wanted to go into the sciences, but I also loved people and I wanted to change the world. I wanted to make it a better place – leave it better than you found it. I was kind of an activist kid, actually. I was surrounded by so many amazing people from all around the world. I wanted people to treat each other better and communicate better.
I did a triple major called an IPS in college in biology, Japanese, and art. I am an artist and I draw technical art – natural sciences, mostly. I’m also a writer and poet and that is the communication piece. I’ve studied French, Japanese and Spanish and I worked in the Philippines for a bit and learned some Tagalog. The illustration piece became about science illustration as well as communicating messages about a variety of things, including record albums back in the ‘80s.
This entire time, my father was working on the Viking mission – the primary mission and the two extended missions – and then around 1980, the budget for the Viking mission came to an end when other missions were selected for funding. Every time a mission is extended, you have to write proposals to get it extended and those proposals start before the funding ever happens – but many times it doesn’t happen at all.
My dad said, “My meteorology instrument is still working, so there’s no way I’m going to let you shut that down” – not just him, but a lot of people didn’t want it to shut down. At the end of the day, a bunch of money was raised at a big event in D.C. – [Robert] Heinlein was there, Sagan was there, all kinds of amazing people were there. But it turned out the government can’t accept donations and NASA wasn’t going to continue it anyway.
My dad wrote a proposal to take the mission over and, once that was approved, my dad ‘ran’ the mission from his office at the University of Washington. He’s the only NGO that’s ever run a mission outside of NASA, as far was we know. There weren’t a lot of Viking instruments that were actually still working – most of them ran their course during the 90-day primary mission – but the cameras and the meteorology instrument were still working. The S-band antenna was working for a while. They could still do some measurements, but the biology and chemistry instruments had been shut down because they had maximum sample ability. Most of the instruments at that point were doing analysis of the amazing data they had collected.
My dad worked with a few folks at JPL, NASA Ames, different academic institutes, and had a whole group of students that came up under him who worked analyzing the data and programming various scenarios. The Deep Space Network (DSN) was run out of JPL and he had a tiny Tiger Team of people just trying to keep the lander alive and negotiate for time on DSN – which at that point was very, very busy because you had Voyager, the shuttle missions starting, Helios, and all these other missions fighting to get time on the DSN.
The end-of-life of the mission happened in 1983 – the beginning of the end was actually in November of 1982 – and I went off to college the next year. I had learned so much about all the effort – the human energy – that went into the mission over the span of six-plus years. In the middle of that, in 1979, my dad actually found his meteorology instrument on the government surplus scrap list and bought it. He also found the Viking Lander Body – the third one that was built to go to Mars called the VL3 or the flight spare – and I said that I wanted it. He said, “What are you going to do with it?” and I said, “We’ll put it in my school and we’ll teach kids about science and engineering. They can’t throw this away. This is important.” So we bought it off the scrap list and I own it. It’s in a museum on loan right now.
Click each photo to see details:
Photo credit: © The Viking Mars Missions Education & Preservation Project (VMMEPP) and NASA.
The Collector Head at the end of the Surface Sampler Boom (above left) and other instruments (above right) onboard the Viking lander.
Is that the genesis of what became the VMMEPP and your efforts to preserve Viking mission artifacts?
The preservation piece – honoring the people that worked on Viking and preserving the mission history – has been a part of my life literally since I was a thinking human. I helped my father write the copy for the Viking View of Mars exhibit at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in 1983. I rewrote the content and my dad worked with Ted Maxell – a wonderful man that worked at the museum – and their incredible team on the exhibit design and details. In 2008, they were talking about end-of-lifing it and I realized that we needed to continue the legacy of Viking. I did this kind of geeky litmus test to see who knew about Viking. I interviewed librarians, your Average Joes on the street – I would literally talk to strangers in the grocery store. The discovery at that point was that really nobody under the age of 40 even knew what Viking was. So I decided to do something about it. That’s when I started creating the nonprofit. I began interviewing people immediately and we’ve been doing it ever since. We’ve interviewed over 300 people and we’ve done 50 or more activities, including the Viking 40th Anniversary which I held in 2016.
Part of our mission statement is to inspire and educate future thinkers and leaders. I intentionally never said to “teach” or “instruct” science or engineering – it’s to inspire and educate leaders and thinkers. They could be amazing artists who love space and don’t know what to do with that. It could be people like these math geniuses and all they care about is they want to be on a mission figuring out how to design trajectories. It could be a kid who loves politics and wants to get funding because they’re so angry watching Congress not fund anything. It could be anybody! We need to inspire these kids. We need to plant some seeds and ask them questions, then watch them grow and just be there.
(End, Part 1)
Professor James E. Tillman, (above) at the first MarsMaker event 2016 in Portland, Oregon, began inspiring youth in their pursuit of the sciences in the 1970s and 1980s. The Viking Mars Missions Education & Preservation Project (VMMEPP) leads MarsMaker events around the world to inspire and educate future thinkers and leaders. To view more photos from the VMMEPP, please click here.
"Mathematics, science and logical thought processes are the foundation of engineering, science and technology.
"A thorough understanding of their fundamentals and interrelationships is essential.
"Without this understanding, their is little potential for both an informed government, capable of offering reasonable legislative choices, and an educated electorate, capable of understanding the choices and making the wise decisions necessary to ensure a productive and secure future."
- James E. Tillman
The Viking Mars Missions Education & Preservation Project (VMMEPP) is a 501C3 nonprofit funded by individual donations and sponsorship by carefully selected entities that support the mission of global education with a special focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), collaborative learning, and international cooperation. These are the values that made Viking one of the most successful missions of its era and a leader that set precedent for all future missions. Its mission is to preserve the history, artifacts, original documents, and data from the Viking Missions, to inspire current and future leaders and thinkers, and to instill collaboration and equity into missions of tomorrow.