I’m in Gentry Lee’s office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California for less than 30 seconds before he jumps to his whiteboard to explain to me why people care about Mars.

“Let’s not beat around the bush,” Lee says, “the reason Mars is fascinating and the reason that we went to explore Mars in the first place is because we’re still trying to answer the question: did life originate anywhere else other than on the planet Earth?”

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Gentry Lee was director of the Viking scientists and mission planners at JPL with 200 people working under him when Viking 1 (launched August 20, 1975) and Viking 2 (launched September 9, 1975) made American history on and around Mars. We often forget that the future is built piece by piece and that it takes trailblazers like Lee who, along with his team, managed to put two landers on Mars, and two orbiters around it, almost forty years before Curiosity.

Mr. Lee, who insisted that I call him Gentry after I first addressed him as Sir, is a 70 year old man, though you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s much younger. He’s dressed in jeans and a Texas Longhorns cap as we talk in his office at JPL. Lee has the energy, confidence and focused intensity of a man speaking in spiritual terms. He very clearly loves talking about Mars and takes great pride in what he’s been able to accomplish — blazing a path for the men and women (and robots) who now explore the red planet. I had heard that Mr. Lee was charismatic; one person at JPL even invoked religious analogies when describing him to me, claiming that hearing Gentry speak was like listening to a preacher at the top of his craft. And they were right.

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The Soviets actually achieved the first soft landing on Mars when the Mars-3 rover touched the red planet in 1971. But the Viking program was exceptional in so many ways, not least of which were its imaging capabilities. When the first pictures came in from the Viking lander the entire team was understandably overjoyed. The team had been told time and time again that they were too ambitious, that their Viking landers shouldn’t be nearly as complicated as they wound up being.

“The only two things that I think you remember in life are the excursions above the thresholds of joy and below the thresholds of pain, and if I look at my excursions above the threshold of joy there’s no question that the moment the first picture came down of the footpath from the first landing on Viking [in 1976], it was impossible for any of us to restrain the tears. Because we weren’t sure we could do this and we were told over and over again ‘you guys are trying to do too much, all you should do is build a sphere that can land on the surface with a window and you can stick a camera out and you take those pictures and you’ll be famous forever and look what you’re trying to do.’”

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At the time Lee told the press, “You would have believed that all the people in that room were ten years old because we all got up and forty of us ran over to the scope and watched it come in line by line.”

The Viking mission was unprecedented in its complexity. Never before had NASA set out to launch four spacecraft at the same time. With two landers and two orbiters, the mission required computer software that would have to be designed by the nation’s top minds. But selling the future isn’t so tough.

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As Lee explains, he enticed an engineer from the University of Chicago to come work for him by explaining just how monumental their mission was: “I can remember I recruited a University of Chicago professor who was just starting — software was just beginning — I recruited him to come and work for us by simply saying, ‘And Mark, do you realize that you can design the software that receives the first data that ever comes down from the planet Mars and puts it into the right order so that the scientists can make sense out of it?’”

But what about humans on Mars? Space nerds are clamoring for a manned mission to Mars, but the largest hurdle is and always has been one of cost. Lee explains, “As soon as I became engineering-savvy I recognized that in general it took about 80 times as much money to send a human being to a destination as it did a robot. And my own estimation of the ability of the human to do science better than the robot was a function of how much we already know about the place we’re going to — in other words, the ability to actually answer difficult questions.”

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The reasons, even if the space nerd kid in me didn’t want to hear them, made sense. “My mother used to ask me why it was so expensive to send human beings instead of robots and I always had an easy answer for her: well, there’s two reasons, first you have to provide a life support system for the human beings and protect in case there’s any stuff out there; and secondly, you gotta bring them back. The robots you don’t have to bring back.”

Lee is on the record as someone who is perfectly content allowing robots to do the job until we find a good reason to send astronauts: “Now, the one quote that I think is ascribed to me in Bartlett’s Quotations is ‘never send a human to do a robot’s job.’ Now, that comment has led some people to believe that I am against human spaceflight. That is not true at all. I’m not against human spaceflight and I believe that once robots have done what they can do, if they have asked questions that only an interactive intelligence can answer it will be time to send human beings there. But the idea that a human mission to Mars is on the horizon just defies all logic. I see no national or international will that is long enough in perspective or vision — in other words, under the changing political climates around the world — to sustain such an activity at such an enormous cost.”

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Again, Lee’s words were disheartening, but they made sense. Whether we decide to choose humans or robots next to boldly explore the unknown, it will be Lee and his Vikings we can thank for blazing that trail.

Photo: 1976 photo of Martian horizon from one of the Viking landers; A version of this post originally appeared at The Daily

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