A Cameraman on Mars

If you really want to know the planet, flip through Mike Malin’s photo album.

During ground tests in a clean room last July, Mike Malin holds a color chart used to calibrate one of his Mars-bound cameras. (Malin Space Science Systems)
Air & Space Magazine

Excerpted and abridged from Andrew Chaikin, published by Abrams, October 2008.

In 1958, when eight-year-old Michael Malin was taking trombone lessons, he was informed by his teacher that he would never amount to anything. The boy reacted by practicing three hours a day, seven days a week, until 10 years later, as a high school senior, he was accepted at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School of Music. He turned down Juilliard to study physics at the University of California at Berkeley. “Music was never my career,” Malin explained many years later. “Science was my career.” Still, the obsessive persistence remained. “If you ever want Mike to do something,” fellow Mars scientist Phil Christensen once said, “tell him it can’t be done.”

The one thing Malin had known he wanted to do, since early in his southern California childhood, was space exploration. He’d gone to Berkeley thinking he would be an astrophysicist, but when he saw that some of his professors were studying the first lunar samples, he became captivated by planetary geology. Malin went on to grad school at the California Institute of Technology; his thesis advisor there, Bruce Murray, was a member of the imaging team for Mariner 9, the first spacecraft to orbit Mars. At Christmastime of 1971, when a planet-wide dust storm was clearing and Mariner’s cameras began to reveal a geologic wonderland, Malin was at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, seeing each new image as it came in.

I first met him several years later, during the Viking Mars missions, when he was fresh out of grad school and working at JPL. Compact and intense, his dark eyes framed by horn-rimmed glasses, Malin had a penetrating intelligence combined with a sort of arrogant exuberance. In some ways he was a collection of opposites. There was delight and disdain in him in equal measure. He could be prickly, but laughed easily and loved a good joke. He was both imperious and generous. His interests were those of a Renaissance man—he’d even minored in English at Berkeley—but he brought a laser-like concentration to whatever he was working on. (Years later, Malin would cite focus, rather than intellect, as his strength.) By his own admission he could be brusque and difficult to work for; he also had an elephant’s memory for the slights and injustices he’d sustained. Like many very smart people, he could be frustrated at others’ inability to see things that to him were clearly evident.

After Viking, with no NASA Mars missions under way, Malin increasingly found his attention drawn back to Earth. As a specialist in the geologic discipline called geomorphology, he was trained to deduce the history of a place by analyzing its landforms. So he journeyed to places that could help him understand Mars. He ventured to the slopes of lofty volcanoes, including Hawaii’s Mauna Loa and Washington State’s Mount St. Helens, which he visited less than a month after its 1980 catastrophic explosion. He went to Iceland, where volcanic heat has mingled with glacial ice. He studied the processes of erosion—by water, in the deserts of Utah and Arizona, and by wind, in the dry valleys of Antarctica. And the more he saw, the more he came to believe that the existing views of Mars, from Mariner 9, the Viking orbiters, and the Viking landers, would never tell the whole story.

So in 1984, with NASA planning its first Martian orbiter in years, Malin proposed a camera to capture the unseen Mars lurking in the resolution gap between previous pictures taken from orbit and those taken on the surface. His colleagues promptly rejected the idea, fearing that even a small camera would be too costly, not just in terms of money but in weight, power requirements, and data transmission needs. “They didn’t want a camera,” Malin said. “There was no need to fly a camera. Viking had already taken all the pictures we ever needed of Mars. I, of course, felt that was absurd.” Until geologists were working on Mars, he believed, pictures would remain the key to unraveling the planet’s mysteries. And the only way to get the pictures he wanted was to write the specs for the camera himself.

First, he sought out Ed Danielson of Caltech, who had been helping to design cameras for planetary exploration since Mariner 9. With Danielson’s help Malin put together a small and, in the words of one engineer, “wonderfully unruly” group of scientists, engineers, and even some Caltech undergrads. One member of the team was a young computer ace named Tom Soulanille, who had designed video games under contract to Mattel and, barefoot in cut-off jeans and thrift-shop T-shirts, looked the part of the hacker. With Danielson providing a softspoken voice of experience to keep the young and energetic wizards on track, Malin and his team came up with a groundbreaking design.

For reliability, the camera would have no moving parts, not even a shutter (Malin was mindful of Danielson’s stories of past mishaps, like the stuck filter wheel that robbed Mariner 9 of the ability to take color pictures for most of its mission). Among the leading-edge technologies chosen for the design was a type of electronic light sensor called a charge-coupled device, which had only recently become available for space missions. In particular, Malin’s team zeroed in on the idea of using a single line of CCD detectors—similar to that in a fax machine—to produce a single line of an image. To build up successive lines, they would use the motion of the orbiting spacecraft, rather than turn the array. In this so-called push-broom design, the camera could take pictures covering a swath of Martian ground about two miles wide and up to 10 miles long.

Coupled to a 14-inch-diameter telescope, the camera would snare targets about three meters (10 feet) across—sharp enough, Malin hoped, to show large boulders, or even the Viking landers on the surface. His team had come up with a camera powerful enough to see the hidden Mars, yet small enough and light enough to have only minimal impact on the Mars Observer mission.

But some scientists still resisted. NASA was well aware of the resistance; one high-ranking official told Malin his camera would go to Mars “over my dead body.” And that would have been the end of it, if not for a last-minute intervention by NASA’s associate administrator for space science, Burt Edelson. In early 1986, when Edelson sat down to review the final instrument selection for the new Mars orbiter, he was surprised to see no mention of a camera, and even more surprised to hear that the scientists didn’t want one. Edelson told his chief scientist, “I’m not going to approve of any mission to Mars, or any planet, that doesn’t have a camera onboard…. Go back and put a camera on it.” And so Malin’s team got their ticket to Mars. In September 1992, after six years of 70- to 80-hour weeks struggling to meet the launch window, the Mars Observer Camera—MOC for short—left Earth atop a Titan rocket.

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