For almost four years Viking I has been sending home reports from the planet Mars, and may continue its weekly transmissions for another 10 years. There is just one hitch. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has no money to pay the costs of evaluating the flood of information coming from Mars. The Agency can only collect the data and store it.
But financial aid may be on the way. Under the leadership of Eric Burgess, a space researcher and reporter, the San Francisco section of the American Astronautical Society has set up the Viking Fund, with the goal of collecting $1 million in public contributions by July 20. The target date is the anniversary of the Mars Landing.
Money contributed to the Viking Fund would be disbursed on a regular basis to NASA to finance evaluation of the Mars data. It is hoped the fund will be dedicated in a ceremony in Washington sometime in late July.
Ben Bova, Executive editor of Omni magazine and a longtime writer of science fiction, who is an active supporter of the fund drive, said in a visit here that "space has a very real constituency in this country" and that he expected the Viking Fund to be a success because of the deep public interest he has found nearly everywhere. Young people, he finds, are especially interested.
Congress, he said, is too involved now with other problems to pay any real attention to the needs of NASA, and less interest in space is found in Washington than anywhere else in the nation.
The time seems to have come, according to Mr. Bova, for the expenses of space study to be paid by direct public contributions. The Space Science Institute, he noted, is already funding some research projects.
Mr. Bova said that interest in space now is being shared "by dozens of private groups" around the country. This is why, he added, the fund could become a springboard for future joint private/government funding of space research, since NASA's charter provided for acceptance of private donations.
The fund establishes a nongovernment approach to space projects that perhaps could even lead eventually to private operation of the space shuttle, in Mr. Bova's opinion.
Because the matter of expenses of any such group is always a sore spot, Mr. Bova emphasized that the Viking Fund is keeping costs to a minimum because of the volunteer help from many pace enthusiasts working to promote the fund's goal.