I was a Principal Investigator on the lander camera team. The first landing of Viking 1 was early in the morning, about seven o’clock. This was prime time for the morning shows. Our team was divided into two parts; uplink, which was choosing the pictures, laying out the sequences, getting the computer programs written so we could get the pictures we need; and then the downlink guys. I was head of uplink.
We were very busy, as you might imagine. It took in those days two weeks to develop the load to go up to the spacecraft. So we had to pre-program for two weeks, without even knowing what the surface was going to look like, the sequences. I had to see those pictures immediately to begin to modify for two weeks ahead.
So I was eagerly waiting to in my area to get these first pictures, and Tim Mutch came in and he said, “Hey, MBC wants somebody for the Today Show, and I want you to do it.”
I said, “I’ve got plenty to do.”
He said, “Come on, this is important.”
So I had to go over to that TV place. We had successfully landed; we knew we were down. The first thing that happened was our number two camera was supposed to come up—it was a slow-scan camera. Nothing like what you see now where the pictures just come down, boom, boom, boom. It was a facsimile camera, so it did one scan at a time in the vertical and slowly it would rotate.
My God, this panorama began to come in front of me, and there were rocks all over the place, and I didn’t know what to say. I was just dumbfounded by the beauty. The camera guy kept saying, “Dr. Binder, say something!” and I would say something and I would look at these pictures. That was just exciting—not that I was on TV but that first picture from the surface of Mars was just unbelievable. Those were the good old days.
We had a lot of data from the Viking mission. I was a guest investigator on the orbiter imaging team for the Viking mission, so I was studying this from the point of view of a geomorphologist and a geologist. This was leading to a lot of ideas about what it might be that had operated in the past on Mars to create the conditions that allowed flowing water, and particularly rather condensed flows of water in the form of these giant floods that made the Martian outflow channels.
As a geomorphologist I’m interested in the surface form and processes that operate on a planet. Images are absolutely essential to interpreting that. But of course the images that were initially just a visual range of perception have now been augmented by images that are showing us spectral properties. For example, with Venus we had images that were showing us radar reflectances. These are all images, but they may not be as easily interpreted by the general public as a regular picture-type image.
I find immense scientific value in them, and it’s quite a long story as to how that works. One would have to understand how it is that we do science with images. But a brief statement of that is that the images relate to a larger context, the features of interest. We see them in relationship to other features in a sort of spatial relationship that has to do with their causes and their overall pattern.
So as geomorphologists we use that understanding to get further understanding on how the planet works, and particularly the surface of the planet. We combine that with other information, of course, but images—that’s essential.
Science is not an individual activity where we do things that just inform ourselves. Science is a community activity, because that community is what validates or thinks about the relationships of what we have discovered to what other scientists have discovered. So I benefit from seeing what they do; they benefit from seeing what I do, and it’s all part of an endless quest for the truth of things.
No one is going to be critical of you even if you make a mistake. If you’re similarly dedicated to that process and you’re honestly engaged in doing it, you’re all part of the same spirit of investigation. Even though you might be using somewhat different tools and methods and even somewhat different ways of thinking about things, you all come together in a common spirit of searching for just how it is remarkable things like the surfaces of planets came to be the way they are.