He may not be a household name, but remember the name of Dr. Wolf V. Vishniac. A microbiologist by trade, he was the first human to “walk on Mars.” He may have died over 40 years ago, but his legacy can be felt through one of the iconic educational books and accompanying TV shows from the last century (Cosmos, written by Dr. Carl Sagan), his early studies concerning whether the hostile Martian terrain can support life, and current Mars missions. But his journey was not an altogether easy one, nearly felled by budget cuts.
An obituary written by Sagan sums up Vishniac’s early life. Born in Berlin in 1922, he and his family emigrated from Germany in 1940. He earned a doctorate in chemistry and microbiology from Stanford University in 1949. During a period where he was a faculty member at Yale University, his life’s work was born. Sagan wrote, “In the late 1950s, the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences organized two discussion groups on the East and West Coasts which respectively became known as EASTEX and WESTEX, devoted to the possibility of space vehicle investigations of extraterrestrial biology.”
One of the members of the EASTEX meeting wondered why no one had devised a remote device to gauge the presence of microbes or organic life, and “challenged the biologists to develop such instrumentation as precursors of instruments to be dropped on the planets to search for indigenous microbiology.” Thus the idea for the “Wolf Trap” was born. According to a history accessible on Solarviews.com, “The very first grant NASA made in the area of biological science was [to Wolf] Vishniac for $4485 to develop ‘a prototype instrument for the remote detection of microorganisms on other planets.’”
The website went on describe the objective of the Wolf Trap: “At the heart of the instrument was a growth chamber with an acidity [pH] detector and light sensor; the former would sense the changes in acidity that almost inevitably accompany the growth of microorganisms, while the latter would measure the changes in the amount of light passing through the growth chamber, Microorganisms, such as bacteria, turn a clear culture medium cloudy [turbid] as they grow, and the light sensor would detect such changes. The pH measurement would complement the turbidity measurement, providing an independent check on growth and metabolism.” If used by NASA, this would be the first instrument of its kind on any spacecraft. Its aim was to be placed on a future Mars lander.
In 1961, Vishniac took a position as a professor of biology at the University of Rochester. According to Sagan, he also had involvement in quarantine and sample/crew handling procedures concerning the Apollo missions, which took place from 1968 to 1972 (with crewed Moon landing missions commencing in July 1969). His work on his own experiment became more complex. By early 1972, costs for the Mars lander project (named Viking) had skyrocketed.
A NASA History article describes the dilemma of sacrificing science to streamline costs: “ … It became apparent at a biology instrument review in late December that more drastic changes would have to be made. … Walt Jakobowski and Richard Young from NASA Headquarters met with representatives from the Viking Project Office, Martin Marietta, and TRW on 24-25 January to discuss ways to remedy the problems, especially cost, which had escalated to $33 million.” In what was described as a “difficult decision,” Vishniac was informed that his brainchild, begun in 1959, would be the victim of budget cuts.
He was understandably not happy about having his work curtailed and, according to the NASA History article, was the object of some derision from other scientists due to having accepted “space dollars” (a NASA grant) for his experiment. However, despite this disappointing development, Vishniac was still a part of the Viking team. Despite the deletion of his instrument, Vishniac’s scientific legacy can be felt to this day. While the Viking project has long been defunct (not before returning data concerning Mars’ composition, environment, and, of course, the first images from the surface of another planet), the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers still search for signs of past and present life on the Red Planet.
And he hadn’t given up on his fascination for Mars, our planetary neighbor. Around that time, he made a trek to Antarctica’s Asgard Mountains on a quest to search for life in the hostile, unforgiving environment; he used a modified version of the Wolf Trap and found microorganisms growing in what were thought to be lifeless regions. While this proved to be a watershed discovery in the hunt for life in areas not believed to support life, he did not yet know this would be his last voyage.
On Dec. 10, 1973, Vishniac suited up for the austere Antarctic surface—the closest thing we have to Mars on this planet. He had erected many life detectors in the area as part of his long-term studies and was due to collect them. That day, he embarked on his “extravehicular activity” and did not return. It was discovered he had fallen a long distance while attempting to retrieve some equipment from a crevice.
Perhaps it was his good friend, Carl Sagan, who told the story of Vishniac’s life best in Episode Five of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage entitled “Blues for a Red Planet,” originally broadcast in October 1980: “When [science] permits us to see the far side of a new horizon, we remember those who paved the way, seeing for them also.” In his memory of the “remarkable microbiologist,” he described the “gentle and dedicated man” who chose to stick with the Viking project despite what must have been a crushing disappointment.
Sagan then read from Vishniac’s last journal entry: “Station 202 retrieved, 2230 hours. Soil temperature: -10 degrees. Air temperature: -16 degrees.” Sagan added with emotion, “It had been a typical summer temperature … for Mars.” Wolf Vishniac—decades before any initiatives to put humans on Mars had begun—was the first human to “walk on Mars.” A crater on Mars now bears his name, a fitting tribute to this pioneering explorer.