Gerry Soffen

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Dr. Gerald A. Soffen (1926 – 2000) was a renowned NASA scientist who served at Langley Research Center, NASA Headquarters, and Goddard Spaceflight Center. He is principally remembered as Chief Scientist of the Viking Missions, that conducted a search for signs of life on Mars in 1976.

Career summary[edit]

Born in Cleveland, Soffen studied at UCLA and USC before getting his Ph.D. in biology from Princeton.[1] His skill as a science manager was recognized, and NASA appointed him Project Scientist of the twin Viking Mars landers, guiding a team of over 70 scientists as they developed instruments that had the best chance of detecting life, if it existed.

After Viking, Soffen was appointed Director of Life Sciences at NASA HQ, with responsibility for exobiology among other disciplines.

Why pseudoscientists hate Gerry Soffen[edit]

He first showed, then debunked, the original Face on Mars image[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Face on Mars
The "Face" on Mars, as imaged by Viking 1

The image that pseudoscientists and conspiracy theorists love was taken while Viking 1 was still in its site certification orbit, 1513 x 33,000 km. The image was returned on 25 July 1976 and designated 035A72,[2] meaning the 72nd image taken on the 35th orbit. It was Tobias Owen who noticed the face-like mesa.[3]

Gerry Soffen presented the image to the press on 26th July, chuckled, and added "When we took another picture a few hours later, it all went away; it was just a trick, just the way light fell on it." The trouble is, that second picture was never released, and that caused the true believers to doubt that it ever existed. In his highly inaccurate book Ancient Aliens on Mars, former CAD-CAM technician Mike Bara frankly accused Soffen of lying. He also stated that no such picture could possibly have been acquired because by the time the orbiter came around again the area would have been out of range and in darkness.

Bara and his cohorts are, however, in error. They're thinking of an Earth-observing satellite, where the so-called "walk rate" is typically about 22.5° of longitude. The period of a low reconnaissance-type orbit is ~90 min, and (360° x 1.5)/24 = 22.5. However, the situation at Mars in 1976 was very, very different. The Martian day is 24.622 hours — very similar to that of Earth. However, the Viking orbiter's orbit was much higher, and its period was, guess what? 24.66 hours. Almost the same as the rotation rate of the planet it was spinning around, so Cydonia would still have been in sunlight on orbit 36. Now the walk rate calculation is (360° x 24.66)/24.622. = 360.55°. In other words, the walk on Viking 1 was only -0.55°. That works out to only 25.3 km on the ground, at the sub-satellite point. The orbital camera's HFOV (Horizontal Field Of View) was 55 km, so it could surely have re-photographed "Owen Mesa" with relative ease.

In 2013 a critic apprised Mike Bara of these mathematical realities, very politely. His response was "Eat shit and die."[4]

He did not accept that one of the Viking biology experiments found evidence of life[edit]

It's now accepted dogma among "Mars anomalists" that Viking found life, but NASA suppressed the news. Richard Hoagland, naturally, has been screaming about this ever since 1976,[5] when he was accredited to JPL/Viking as a reporter for an airline in-flight magazine.

On an internet radio show, in June 2014, Ufologist and psychologist Robert Morningstar made the same accusation.[6]

Here's the real story: Both the Viking spacecraft landers had identical biology experiments. Each spacecraft carried three separate experiments designed to test for biology in Martian topsoil. The experiments were developed independently by three different Principal Investigators (PIs). The experiments were:

  • Gas Exchange (GEX) PI Vance Oyama, NASA Ames
  • Labeled Release (LR) PI Gilbert Levín, Biospherics, Inc.
  • Pyrolytic Release (PR) PI Norman Horowitz, CalTech

In addition, a gas chromatography mass spectrometer (GCMS) (PI Klaus Biemann, MIT) supported the main biology package by testing for organic molecules.

Results: At both landing sites the results were essentially identical. GEX and PR were unequivocally negative. LR initially showed strongly positive results, with the control (a sterilized sample) showing negative as expected. Subsequent nutrient injections, however, showed no response. The GCMS detected no organic molecules.

Interpretation: Responsibility for interpreting this enigma fell on Gerry Soffen, in collaboration with the Head of Viking Biology, Harold Klein. Their call was thumbs down for Martian biology. From a scientific point of view, looking at the overall picture, an absolutely correct call — but the LR results begged for an explanation. The initial hypothesis that was developed involved a chemical, not biological, reaction involving superoxides in the soil. The mystery began to unravel in the 2000s. In 2009, NASA's Phoenix lander found out that perchlorate salts are abundant in Martian soil, in concentrations of 0.5-1%.[7] Mars has no ozone layer to protect the surface from ultraviolet radiation, so perchlorates could form by action of ultraviolet light from the Sun. Further radiolysis of perchlorate was found to produce hypochlorite, dioxygen and chlorine dioxide, all of which are strong oxidating agents and can mimic biological oxidation, explaining the apparent "consumption of nutrients" in the LR experiment.[8]

Dr. Levín has been protesting this interpretation for more than 40 years. His main point is that the LR experiment detected life as pre-defined by agreed criteria during mission design. He has developed quite persuasive explanations for why the two other experiments and the GCMS gave negative results. As recently as 2012, he (and co-authors) published a review in the International Journal of Aeronautical & Space Sciences, reiterating his claims.[9]

The true believers like Hoagland, Bara and Morningstar seem aware that this is a controversy but they get it wrong. They maintain that there was a deliberate campaign within NASA to conceal Levín's data. That allegation is categorically untrue. Consider these points:

  • The enigmatic results were extensively discussed with the media at the time by Klein and Soffen.
  • No attempt whatsoever has ever been made to suppress publication by Dr Levín of his own interpretation. Mike Bara himself posted on the darkmission blog links to six of Levín's publications on the question.
  • The complete LR data set, including the PI's notebook, is available to anyone on a NASA-sponsored web site.[10]


  1. "NASA — Mars Scientist and Astrobiology Architect, Dr. Gerald Soffen, Dies". 2000-11-24. Retrieved 2011-01-14. 
  2. ASU data page on the image
  3. Some debunkers prefer to call the structure Owen Mesa for this reason.
  4. Another entertaining e-mail exchange with an author "The Emoluments of Mars" blog, 22 November 2013. It would seem that Mr. Bara has some growing up to do.
  5. "NASA's Hiding Current Life on Mars" from Enterprisemission
  6. The Higherside Chats
  9. Bianchiardi et al. (2012). "Complexity Analysis of the Viking Labeled Release Experiments". Int’l J. of Aeronautical & Space Sci. 13 (1): 14-26. ISSN Retrieved 3 March 2015. 
  10. The Viking Lander Labeled Release Data Set -- PDS Geosciences Node