SP-425 The Martian Landscape

 

Talking Our Way to Mars

 

[11] No account of Viking would be complete without mention of the meetings. In a large program, involving many persons with different backgrounds, interests, and tasks, communication is a major activity. Reams of printed material are distributed every day. Whenever a decision of some importance was imminent-almost a daily event-a meeting was convened. There were literally hundreds of committees within Viking. In my case, the more important groups were the scientists working on the Lander Imaging Investigation, the engineers designing the camera system, and the leaders from all science teams comprising the Science Steering Group. During the eight years before launch I must have attended more than 400 meetings Initially, the opportunity to fly to some distant city was an exotic diversion. But not for long. The routes to Hampton! Denver, Los Angeles, and Orlando-localities of Viking activity- became as familiar as the quarter-mile route from my home to my office at Brown University. That peculiar disorientation in both time and space that results from a long airplane trip became an accepted state of mind. One episode stands out. I recall shuffling out of an airplane late at night after a few hours of half-sleep, and failing to recognize either where I was or to what end I was traveling. For several moments I had the Kafkaesque feeling that I had somehow lost my identity, that I had become separated from the real world.

I cannot deny the excitement of participating in this nonstop drama of crisis and decisionmaking. Critics might question the usefulness of frantic racing around the country, with talk the only obvious product, but every meeting revealed new problems. Each person was obliged to report what progress he had been making. Cover-ups were impossible. In retrospect, thinking about all the blunt statements of disagreement and criticism, I am surprised that I can recall no instance when a participant lost his temper-at least to the point of climbing across the table and slugging his adversary. Everyone seemed to understand that the high stakes left room for neither social niceties nor aberrations.

On the positive side, helpful advice came from unexpected quarters. Useful exchanges of information prevented isolated journeys up blind alleys. When no obvious solution to a problem was apparent, we proceeded by vote. The majority opinion dictated the next step. In one sense, that appears absurd. Certain things are matters of fact. To what useful end can one vote on the proposition that a camera should cost no more than X dollars, whereas a biology instrument should cost Y dollars? Or that the average martian atmospheric pressure is 1 percent of the Earth's atmosphere as opposed to 0.5 percent? Viewed in another context, an open meeting in which all participants have equal vote has served Americans well in many previous situations. Perhaps more than we realize, it is a method of pooling information with which we have grown up. I like to think that the ultimate success of Viking can be traced back to those countless meetings at which we chewed on one problem after another- hours of thoughtful criticism and, sometimes, clamorous sharp-edged debate.


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