50 years ago: A lull in space exploration?

One of many events: Mariner 9, the first spacecraft to orbit Mars, was revealing a “new Mars” in early 1972.


In the first months of the third year of the 1970s, eleven years since the flight of Yuri Gagarin, two years since the Apollo 13 accident spelled the demise of the moon program, less than a year since the crew of Soyuz 11 died returning from a triumphant stay aboard the world’s first space station, space exploration appeared in a deep lull.  Or so it may seem fifty years later.  As is often the case, memory deceives.


The year opened with President Richard Nixon approving the Space Shuttle program, estimated to cost $5.5 billion through six years of development, the first flight projected for 1978.

That same month, Mariner 9, the first craft to enter Mars orbit on November 13, 1971, its camera’s useless until a great planet-wide dust storm dissipated, revealed a new Mars, far different than the “moon-like” planet surmised after earlier Mariner fly-bys.  The fly-bys unfortunately only photographed heavily craters highlands in the southern hemisphere.   Mariner 9 was revealing a new Mars of giant extinct volcanoes and a great rift valley, long enough that it would span a continent on Earth, soon to be named Vallis Marineris in honor of the spacecraft.   And it was lifting the veil on even more mysterious sights, such as channels that appeared to be dry river beds.  Dried rivers on Mars?  Impossible!

On February 14, the Soviet Union launched Luna 20, which would land on the western flank of Apollonius C a week later and return soil samples to earth.  Just six days after Luna landed on the moon, the United States on February 27 launched Pioneer 11.  Many people of the 21st Century probably assume the Voyager probes launched were the first to fly by Jupiter and Saturn.  Not so.  The 570-lb. Pioneer 11, and its twin Pioneer 12, built by NASA’s Ames Research Center, were the the first to do so.  

The inner solar system was not left out of the embrace of those months.  On March 27, the Soviet Union launched Venera 8, which entered orbit in June and landed in July, transmitting data from the surface for 50 minutes.

And on April 16, the penultimate Apollo flight, Apollo 16, left earth for three days in the highlands of the moon.

Nineteen-seventy-two.   A lull in the exploration of space?  Anything but! 

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