Soffen, Gerald Alan

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(b. Cleveland, Ohio, 7 February 1926; d. Washington, D.C. 22 November 2000), astrobiology, biochemistry, biology, space science.

Soffen was a thirty-year veteran of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), between 1961 and his death. He is best known for his service as chief scientist of the Viking missions to Mars in 1976. This project took as its centerpiece the search for life on the Red Planet, but found none. In addition, Soffen managed the development of biological instruments for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1960s, the NASA Earth science program in the early 1980s, and served as the director of Life Sciences at NASA Headquarters, where he oversaw the biomedical, space biology, and astrobiology programs.

Early Professional Experiences Gerald Soffen, known to all as “Gerry,” was born on 7 February 1926 in Cleveland, Ohio. Educated in the local public schools, when Soffen completed high school in 1944 he was drafted into the U.S. Army, went to basic training, and then served in George S. Patton’s Third Army in western Europe in late 1944 and early 1945. He saw combat as a rifleman and, as related by longtime friend James Tucker of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland,

he decided he didn't like shooting people, so he became a combat medic. Being a combat medic is very dangerous, because combat medics administer medical attention to wounded soldiers while the battle is still raging. It didn't matter if the wounded soldiers were German or American. That was Gerry Soffen—always trying to help others, even at great risk to himself.” (Tucker Web site)

Soffen was sent with a message to another unit along with two other soldiers just as the war was ending and found themselves surrounded by about fifteen German infantrymen when they rounded a bend in the road. Soffen spoke some German since members of his family had emigrated from Germany, and he persuaded them to surrender despite their larger numbers. He explained that the war was virtually over, that Germany had lost, and that Soviet troops were in the area. He promised that if they surrendered the American army would keep them from the Russians. So he and his comrades returned to their unit to a heroes’ welcome.

When Soffen returned from military service he attended Wayne State University in Detroit for three years and earned a bachelor of arts degree in zoology from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1949. He then worked his way through graduate school, earning a master of science degree in biology from the University of Southern California in 1956 and a PhD in biophysics from Princeton University in 1960. He had gone to Princeton to study with Harold F. Blum, whose book, Time’s Arrow and Evolution, had excited his imagination. Soffen came to believe that evolution was related to the second law of thermodynamics. As later explained in the official NASA history of the Mars exploration program, Blum theorized:

The universe’s supply of energy is slowly diminishing, and all biological forms must adapt to lower, less satisfactory energy sources. Simple organisms present in a more primitive age when the oceans supplied them with a very rich nutrient broth had to develop more specialized and complex mechanisms for gathering energy (nutrients) as the ocean environment became less rich. Evolution is not a random process, since organisms must make orderly changes to survive in a changing world. This process leads to more complex, not simpler, organisms. (1984, p. 58)

Soffen wanted to pursue the search for life beyond Earth, convinced that experience on this planet must be but one small part of a much larger and diverse evolutionary history. At the same time, he participated as a fellow in the U.S. Public Health Survey. From there he journeyed to Washington, D.C., to work on a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health. In 1960 he accepted a position in biochemistry at the New York University Medical School.

While in graduate school, Soffen met Hoshi Irakiri, a second-generation Japanese American born in Salinas, California. One of nine children in the family of a farmer, seven of whom were girls, she spent some of her childhood in Japan but returned to the United States before World War II. She had completed a BA degree in journalism from Park College, Kansas City, Missouri, in 1950, and was studying English literature at the University of Southern California when she met Soffen. They married in 1956. When he began his PhD program at Princeton, she worked as a reporter on the local newspaper. Later, while Soffen pursued his postdoctoral work at New York University, she worked for the weekly Suburbia Today. When the couple lived in California in the 1960s, she worked as an editor for the Japanese-language newspaper, Shin Nichi Bei. She continued to work in various journalistic positions until her death from a drowning in the couple’s pool in 1978.

In a 1990 interview published in Goddard News, Gerry Soffen recalled that he had taken seriously President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 call to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” and his answer was “out of this world.” He moved from New York University to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. At JPL, Soffen held the title of senior scientist but spent most of his time managing biological instrument development, especially his pet project, a Mars Microscope. He viewed it as a possible life detector on the Red Planet. He argued incessantly for it throughout his JPL years, unsuccessfully urging its adoption by the Mariner program that sent four probes to Mars between 1965 and 1971. Soffen viewed the discovery of life on another planet as the critical scientific question of the space program, if not the entire space age, and dedicated himself to furthering that investigation. He also worked on the early Voyager program, a JPL lander for Mars, but it was canceled for budgetary reasons in 1967.

The Viking Program As early as 1964 Soffen had become an exponent of the search for life in the universe, known as exobiology at the time (now usually called astrobiology). He participated in a 1964 summer study at Stanford University that gave the field intellectual respectability and drew bright young scientists to it. The participants were all advocates of the search for extraterrestrial life and they quickly decided that Mars was the most Earthlike of all the planets, and therefore a likely abode of life. The summer study did not endorse a position that argued for advanced life on Mars, as had astronomer Percival Lowell at the turn of the twentieth century, but it noted a

kind of seasonal change one would expect were they due so the presence of organisms absent in the “bright” (desert) areas. In spring, the recession of the ice cap is accompanied by development of a dark collar as its border, and as the spring advances a wave of darkening proceeds through the dark areas toward the equator and, in fact, overshoots it 20° into the opposite hemisphere. (Pittendrigh, et al., 1966, p. 7)

It was also during that 1964 summer study that Soffen first drew the attention of James Martin, the future project director for the Viking program to Mars. He was impressed with the slightly-built and goateed young scientist’s thoughtful perspective, his skills of persuasion, and his ability to keep a notoriously individualistic group of scientists on the same track. Those were the skills necessary in conducting the Viking program and Martin called on Soffen in 1969 to serve as the project’s chief scientist for just those reasons.

Soffen’s hopes of finding something on Mars were dashed by Mariner 4, which reached Mars on 15 July 1965 and took twenty-one close-up pictures. All of these images showed a cratered lunarlike surface. U.S. News and World Report announced that “Mars is dead.” Mariner s 6 and 7, launched in February and March 1969, each passed Mars in August 1969, studying its atmosphere and surface to lay the groundwork for an eventual landing on the planet. Their pictures verified the Moonlike appearance of Mars, but they also found that volcanoes had once been active on the planet, that some of the frost observed seasonally on the poles was made of carbon dioxide and that huge plates indicated considerable tectonic activity in the planet’s past. Suddenly, Mars fascinated scientists, reporters, and the public once again, largely because of the possibility of past life that might have emerged because of the evidence of flowing water.

In 1969 Soffen moved from JPL to NASA’s Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia, where he became chief scientist on the Viking program, a combination Mars orbiter and lander. For him, it was a dream job. He oversaw the process of decision making for the vehicle’s experiments, and by extension the appointment of the science team for the program. He was responsible for all scientific investigations to be accomplished by Viking, and directed the activities of more than seventy scientists from throughout the United States and one foreign country. Under his direction thirteen science teams conducted a wide range of scientific investigations.

Soffen ensured that Viking was specifically designed to find the answer to Mars’s origins and development. Very clearly, the search for signs of life prompted this emphasis on the exploration of Mars. NASA administrator James C. Fletcher, for example, supported the Viking mission because of his belief that life was present in the universe and that greater knowledge of this might probability might be found on Mars. As Fletcher said in 1975:

Although the discoveries we shall make on our neighboring worlds will revolutionize our knowledge of the Universe, and probably transform human society, it is unlikely that we will find intelligent life on the other planets of our Sun. Yet, it is likely we would find it among the stars of the galaxy, and that is reason enough to initiate the quest…. We should begin to listen to other civilizations in the galaxy. It must be full of voices, calling from star to star in a myriad of tongues. Though we are separate from this cosmic conversation by light years, we can certainly listen ten million times further than we can travel.

The Viking mission consisted of two identical spacecraft, a lander and an orbiter. Launched in 1975 from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, Viking 1 spent nearly a year cruising to Mars, placed an orbiter in operation around the planet, and landed on 20 July 1976, on the Chryse Planitia (Golden Plains), with Viking 2 following in September 1976. While one of the most important scientific activities of this project involved an attempt to determine whether there was life on Mars, the scientific data returned militated against the possibility of life. The two landers continuously monitored weather at the landing sites and found both exciting cyclical variations and an exceptionally harsh climate. Atmospheric temperatures at the more southern Viking 1 landing site, for instance, were only as high as +7 degrees Fahrenheit at midday, but the predawn summer temperature was –107 degrees Fahrenheit. And the lowest predawn temperature was –184 degrees Fahrenheit, about the frost point of carbon dioxide.

Although the three biology experiments discovered unexpected and enigmatic chemical activity in the Martian soil, they provided no clear evidence for the presence of living microorganisms in soil near the landing sites. According to Soffen, Mars was self-sterilizing. They concluded that the combination of solar ultraviolet radiation that saturates the surface, the extreme dryness of the soil, and the oxidizing nature of the soil chemistry had prevented the formation of living organisms in the Martian soil. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, the gas chromatograph gas spectrometer found no organic molecules to parts per billion, and life cannot form without organic molecules. The uncertainty of the conclusions from Viking haunted Soffen thereafter, He was known to second guess his judgment; perhaps he should have installed a microscope on the lander. But, he also believed he did the best he could. “I think what we did was ahead of our time. We were young enough not to know that it couldn't be done,” he recalled in 1992.

The failure to find any evidence of life on Mars, past or present, devastated the optimism of Soffen and others involved in exobiology. Collectively, these missions led to the development of two essential reactions. The first was an abandonment by most scientists of the hope that life might exist elsewhere in the solar system. Planetary scientist and JPL director Bruce Murray complained at the time of Viking about the lander being ballyhooed as a definite means of ascertaining whether or not life existed on Mars. The public expected to find it, and so did Soffen and many of the other scientists involved in the project. Murray later argued that “the extraordinarily hostile environment revealed by the Mariner flybys made life there so unlikely that public expectations should not be raised” (1989, p. 61). Murray believed that the legacy of failure to detect life, despite the billions spent and a succession of overoptimistic statements, would spark public disappointment and perhaps a public outrage. Murray was right. The immediate result was that NASA did not return to Mars for two decades. As Soffen commented in 1992, “If somebody back then had given me 100 to 1 odds that we wouldn't go back to Mars for 17 years, I would’ve said, ‘You’re crazy.’”

A second reaction, never accepted by scientists, took hold among the public. Some asserted that a corrupt federal government, and its mandarins of science, had found evidence of life beyond Earth but was keeping it from the public for reasons ranging from stupidity to diabolical plots. Soffen had to respond to these charges repeatedly throughout the remainder of his life. This issue first arose on 25 July 1976 when the Viking 1 orbiter took an image of the Cydonia region of Mars that looked like a human face. All evidence suggests that this was the result of shadows on the hills, and Gerry Soffen said so at a press conference, but some refused to accept this position. The “face” remains a sore point to the present, with Soffen being asked about it many times over the years. Always, he stated it was not the remnant of some ancient civilization but was a natural feature lit oddly in this one image but not in any others. As NASA stated officially in 2001,

The “Face on Mars” has since become a pop icon. It has starred in a Hollywood film, appeared in books, magazines, radio talk shows—even haunted grocery store checkout lines for 25 years! Some people think the Face is bona fide evidence of life on Mars—evidence that NASA would rather hide, say conspiracy theorists. Meanwhile, defenders of the NASA budget wish there was an ancient civilization on Mars.” (“Unmasking the Face on Mars,” 2001)

Without question, during the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1976 Soffen had been in the center in the media. That attention helped to damage Soffen’s reputation among the more staid scientists working with NASA. He was viewed by some as little more than a NASA public relations flak. Soffen overcame this with time, but the immediate result was that some viewed him with suspicion. He transferred to a new position at the Langley Research Center, serving as chief environmental scientist. It was not a bad job, but it was a far cry from working as chief scientist for an $850 million program. To make matters worse, on 28 July 1978 his wife of more than twenty years drowned in their swimming pool. She had been swimming about 10:15 P.M. when Soffen went into the house to answer a telephone call. When he returned he discovered her body in the pool. Later, Soffen would marry another Japanese American, Kazuko, who survived him. Soffen never had any children.

Later Years In 1979 NASA administrator Robert Frosch named Soffen the director of Life Sciences at NASA Headquarters. He moved to Washington, D.C., to direct biomedical programs ensuring the well-being of space shuttle astronauts. Soffen held this position for five years, and then moved to the Goddard Space Flight Center, in suburban Maryland, to help establish the Earth science program, then called Mission to Planet Earth. Goddard had the core of this mission for NASA, and Soffen worked tirelessly to mold a discipline containing numerous scientists of different fields to explore the nuances of the Earth system and the effects of natural and human-induced changes on the global environment. He was quite proud of his accomplishments in this regard. Bonding together into a cohesive program scientists focused on climatology, oceanography, geology, volcanism, biology, and a host of other fields into a cooperative working relationship required superior leadership. “In the past,” said Soffen in 1990,

Earth was studied by looking at its parts: oceanographers studied the oceans, geologists studied the land. But planetologists have a global perspective, and one goal of EOS [the Earth Observing System] is to bring that global perspective to Earth Science and use it to answer the question of how the interacting parts of Earth operate together. (Soffen and Nelson, 1990)

Soffen demonstrated in this regard the skills he had first displayed more than twenty years earlier in leading unruly scientists toward a useful purpose. The NASA Earth science program eventually launched more than ten satellites providing data to this community and had notable successes in helping to understand global climate change.

Soffen formed the University Programs Office at Goddard in 1990, and for the next ten years he directed activities and programs designed to maintain and broaden the center’s interaction with the university community. One of his lasting contributions was the establishment in 1993 of the NASA Academy. This summer institute brought together undergraduates from all over the United States to explain NASA efforts and to recruit future scientists and engineers. He guided this organization until his death and many of its graduates went on to careers in the space agency. In 1995 Soffen returned briefly to NASA Headquarters to develop an Astrobiology Institute, a renewed interest at the space agency. This virtual organization sought to bring together scientists interested in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Soffen developed heart problems several years before his death, and it was myocardial infarction that finally led to his death. On 22 November 2000 he was rushed to the George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., but died soon after his arrival.



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Editor. Visions of Tomorrow: A Focus on National Space Transportation Issues. American Astronautical Society Science and Technology Series, vol. 69. San Diego, CA: Univelt, 1988.

With Mark Nelson, eds. Biological Life Support Technologies—Commercial Opportunities: Proceedings of a Workshop Sponsored by the NASA Office of Commercial Programs and Held at the Biosphere 2 Project Site near Tucson, Arizona, October 30–November 1, 1989. Washington, DC: NASA Office of Management, Scientific and Technical Information Division, 1990

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From Mars to Earth: A Conversation with Gerald Soffen.” Space World, July 1986.

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“Rites Set for Mrs. Soffen, Apparent Drowning Victim.” Daily-Press (Newport News–Hampton, VA), 29 July 1978.

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Roger D. Launius