NASA Astrobiology Architect, Dr. Gerald Soffen, Remembered

NASA Astrobiology Architect, Dr. Gerald Soffen, Remembered

NASA Scientist Dr. Gerald Soffen, who led the Viking science team that performed the first experiments on the surface of the planet Mars and a guiding force in NASA’s effort to search for life in the Universe, died Nov. 22 at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, DC. He was 74.

Soffen was instrumental in the establishment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute

A close advisor to NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin, Soffen helped shape NASA’s Astrobiology program, the study of life in the Universe. Soffen also was instrumental in the
establishment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, a virtual organization comprising NASA Centers, universities and research organizations dedicated to studying the origin, evolution, distribution and destiny of life in the universe.

"Dr. Soffen brought a vision and passion to space exploration that was remarkable," said Goldin. "His pioneering work on the Viking Missions paved the way for the creation of our astrobiology effort. Gerry’s lasting legacy to us is he helped usher in a new era of discovery that will bring a new understanding of fundamental life processes on Earth and throughout our Universe."

Soffen served as project scientist of the Viking Mars Project while at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA. Viking 1 landed on Mars on July 20, 1976, with Viking 2 following less than two months later. "We were the first," recalled Dr. Soffen. "It was true pioneering. We had an unknown. We had no idea what the landing was going to be like and when we got down successfully, it was a joy. I was exhausted with pleasure."

Martian weather reports, received daily from more than 200 million miles away, started at Viking l’s meteorology instrument. Mounted atop the extended boom, the meteorology sensors stood about four feet above the surface and measured atmospheric pressure, temperature, wind velocity and wind direction. Photo Credit: NASA.JPL Planetary Photojournal

Soffen joined NASA’s Goddard Soffen joined NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in 1983 where he helped to establish the Mission to Planet Earth program and served as the Project Scientist for the Earth Observing system at its beginning. Soffen formed the University Programs Office at Goddard in 1990, and for the past 10 years he directed activities and programs designed to maintain and broaden the Center’s interaction with the university community.

"Science and students were his loves," said Goddard Space Flight Center Director Al Diaz. "He was one of the finest scientists I had had the pleasure to work with. He was a brilliant researcher, but what made Gerry really special was his lifelong passion for sharing his extraordinary knowledge with young people. The Agency and the nation will continue to benefit enormously from the talented young people he has brought into the scientific community."

In 1993, Soffen created the NASA Academy, a unique summer institute of higher learning whose goal is to help guide future leaders of the space program. Introduced at Goddard, the NASA Academy is also active at the Ames Research Center, CA, and the Dryden Flight Research Center, CA.

The first Martian astrobiology sample was received for analysis from this soil track. The trench (middle right) shows the sand excavated by Viking’s surface sampler.

Soffen was planning the 25th anniversary celebration of the Viking landings in the last few months of his life, said A.G. Price, a former NASA Langley employee who worked with Soffen on the Mars mission and has remained in contact over the years.

"But even then his emphasis was not on the past but on doing something to inspire and excite the youth and the next generation of young leaders and scientists to carry on his dream," Price said. "He cared immensely about others and never tired of pursuing his passion, the search for extraterrestrial life and the understanding of our universe."

"Gerry was a good personal friend and a scientist who had a profound dedication to Astrobiology and space science in general, said Dr. Ed Weiler, Associate Administrator for the Office of Space Science. "He has provided distinguished service to the Office of Space Science, to NASA and to the public. Gerry spent a lot of time working with young students and I know he enjoyed that enormously. We will all miss Gerry a great deal."

Soffen worked for NASA for over 30 years. He began his NASA career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where he managed biological instrument development at the Pasadena-based facility. He also was the Principal Investigator for the proposed Mars Microscope.

He joined NASA’s Langley Research Center as the Project Scientist for the Viking Missions. Twin robot landers launched in 1975, arrived at the Red Planet a year later and made successful touchdowns on the planet’s surface marking the first successful missions to perform unmanned experiments on the surface of the planet. Dr. Soffen was responsible for all of the scientific investigations, directing the activities of more than 70 scientists through the United States.

Later at Langley, Soffen served as the Chief Environmental Scientist, developing theoretical models, laboratory experiments, ground-based measurements and remote sensing by satellite.

In 1978 he was named the Director of Life Sciences at NASA Headquarters where he directed programs to ensure the medical and biological well being of Space Shuttle astronauts, as well as overseeing the Agency’s biomedical, space biology and exobiology programs.

At Goddard, Soffen helped to establish the Mission to Planet Earth program, an unprecedented effort to understand the total Earth system and the effects of natural and human-induced changes on the global environment. He was the first Project Scientist for the Earth Observing System, the centerpiece of the Earth Science program, which has begun to provide a long-term data set of key parameters needed to understand global climate change.

Soffen was born in Cleveland, Ohio on Feb. 7, 1926. He received his Ph.D. in Biology in 1961 from Princeton University. He earned his master’s of science degree from the University of Southern California and bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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