Preserving the stories of Viking

Rachel Tillman has a scrapbook that is out of this world. What started out as a young girl’s effort to save a cool piece of space history has morphed into a project to preserve the artifacts of the iconic Viking program and the stories of the people who made it happen.

VMMEPPTillman is the founder, executive director, and chief curator of the Viking Mars Missions Education and Preservation Project, a Portland-based nonprofit that has a huge collection of photos, documents and artifacts from the Viking missions and aims to collect oral histories of some 10,000 people who had a hand in the project—the “Vikings,” as Tillman calls them.

Little kid heaven

Her interest in the mission started early.

“My father worked on the Viking mission,” she said. He is James E. Tillman, a professor emeritus of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington who was a member of the Viking meteorology team.

“He is an explorer; scientists often are explorers,” Tillman said of her father. “He was so engrossed in his work that lived and breathed it. He brought it home at night.”

What he often brought home was the latest problem or design or a new photo from the lander, and he would ask the kids what they thought about it. Rachel ate it up.

Viking on Mars

One of the more famous photos in planetary exploration history: the first sent from Viking 1 shortly after it landed on Mars July 20, 1976. The original is part of the VMMEPP collection. Photo: NASA/JPL.

“I was interested from the get-go,” she said. Often she would go to her father’s office after school and soak up all of the conversations he and other scientists were having about technical matters. She’d go look it up and figure out the language, and would often make drawings about what she was learning. She made a few trips with her father to the Jet Propulsion Lab in California, and then got to go to Florida for the launches of the Viking spacecraft in 1975.

“We were down there at Cape Canaveral for the launch with Carl Sagan and Gerry Soffen and my dad and the guys from KSC,” she said. “I saw the rocket fly off.”

That’s quite a crowd for a little kid to hang out with. Rachel recalls Sagan as intense and funny, but said Soffen, the chief scientist on the Viking mission, was her hero.

“He was thoughtful, funny, very smart, absolutely wanted to know whatever it was out there to know,” she said. “He was also a magician. I’m a kid, that’s really cool!”

“The makeup of the people of the mission was amazing,” she added: Hard working, dedicated, sacrificing, funny, intelligent, grumpy, passionate—all of those things that a kid really picks up on.”

“I couldn’t have dreamed a better life than I live,” Rachel said.

They were going to melt it down

Viking was in Rachel’s DNA, but her work as a preservationist started almost as an accident.

NASA built three flight-ready Viking landers, but the first two worked and so the third—VL3—was not needed. Several groups and companies fiddled with plans to turn it into a rover, but ultimately nobody had any funding to do anything, so the lander was set aside. Then around 1979 James Tillman was looking for some used filing cabinets and found some interesting items on the NASA surplus list: his own Viking meteorology instrument, and VL3.

VL3 at MOF

They didn’t scrap Viking Lander 3! The lander, owned by Rachel Tillman, is on exhibit at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“They were scrapping it,” Rachel said. “They were going to melt it down.”

She immediately said that they had to get it and save it. Her father thought it was a ridiculous idea, but she convinced him to do it anyway because she had a ready purpose for the lander.

“We’re going to put it in my school,” she told him, “and we’re going to teach kids about robotics and about Mars and about science and engineering.”

Rachel now owns the Viking lander VL3, and it actually was at her school for a while. It also was on display for some time in the electrical engineering department at the UW. For the last ten years it has been on loan to the Museum of Flight, where it is a part of the permanent exhibit Space: Exploring the New Frontier.

“That’s how my preserving began, was with the Viking Lander,” Rachel said. Though it started with a great piece of historic hardware, Rachel is now drawn to the human side.

It’s about the people

“My role as a kid who grew up with the mission is to honor the people who did it,” she said. “Everybody. Not just the rock stars.”

Greg and Viking stuff

The author in front of information boards the Viking Mars Missions Education and Preservation Project uses at outreach events. The box my arm is resting on contains James Tillman’s Mars meteorology instrument. Photo: Rachel Tillman.

“Every Viking represents a child today that may want to do something like what they did,” Rachel added. “They don’t have to be the mission director, they don’t have to be the principal investigator of a science instrument, they don’t even have to be the lead engineer.”

So many other people had important functions from keeping travel schedules to crunching numbers to designing small but important components of the landers.

“All of these people are so critically important to the mission, and 95 percent of them were forgotten,” Rachel said. “That’s my job: preserve the history and the individuals; not just the timeline events, but the people who did them. That’s what this is all about.”

The Viking Mars Missions Education and Preservation Project was founded in 2008, but only really started doing any outreach in the last year. It’s been mostly underground work as Rachel met and interviewed as many of the Vikings as possible. She thought it was important to do some public events this year, the 40th anniversary of the Vikings’ landings on Mars. They held an open event in Denver—the landers were built there by Martin Marietta, which is now Lockheed Martin. NASA also held some events at Langley and at JPL, and the project held three “Science Pub” talks last month through the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

The future of VMMEPP

To date the project has run mostly through donations from James and Rachel Tillman, some of the Vikings, and a few others, but in the next year or so they will be doing some more serious fundraising.

“Our plan is to create a trust fund around all of the artifacts of Viking so they can’t be given away or sold,” Rachel said. “As we get new donations they will stay in this trust.”

She said the fund will help with management of the artifacts as well as preservation. Then in the next year or two they plan to issue a request for proposals from institutions and organizations that would like to host the Viking artifacts.

“They’ll have to meet the requirements that we set for care of the artifacts and for creating access to the artifacts for the public, because that’s critically important,” Rachel said.

In the meantime, the project has established an online museum, where you can go page through raw documents from the Viking missions. The project website is a treasure trove of photos and facts and stories about the Viking missions.

Rachel plans an outreach event at the Hillsdale Library in Portland for December 20, but then will probably be mostly invisible for a little while.

“Doing the oral history interviews, creating access, and protecting the artifacts, those our our three really big pushes.”

It’s a fascinating and worthy cause. If you would like to help with the preservation effort, you can donate to the project online through Facebook (through December 13) or Amazon Smile, or simply send a check to:

Viking Mars Missions Education and Preservation Project
5331 SW Macadam #258-504
Portland, OR 97239

Podcast of our interview with Rachel Tillman:

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