In Remembrance: Our Man on Mars

The announcer calmly read the weather report for the Red Planet:

"Light winds from the east in the late afternoon, changing to light winds from the southwest after midnight. Maximum wind, 15 miles per hour. Temperatures from minus 122 degrees to minus 22 degrees Farenheit. Pressure steady at 7.70 millibars."

Scientists and technicians were absolutely giddy. Here was proof positive that their precious package not only had landed on Mars in one piece, but that at least part of it was working to perfection. High-fives and cheers filled a roomful of jubilant faces.

The world rejoiced with NASA about this year’s boffo mission to Mars. But the scene played out above happened long before anyone had ever heard of Pathfinder, much less a rock named "Barnacle Bill."

It happened on July 22, 1976, in fact. That’s when the world heard the first weather report ever done for Mars--and at Florida State University, the cheering had special meaning because one of its own was the first Martian weatherman.

In the wake of the spectacularly successful Pathfinder mission this summer, veteran members of the FSU meteorology department fondly recalled the role of the late FSU meteorologist Dr. Seymour L. Hess in the Viking mission to Mars in the mid-70s.

During the development of the Viking project, Hess worked closely with NASA and JPL engineers, and headed the team that designed the craft’s weather instruments. His report on July 22 was delivered roughly one Earth-day after the Viking 1 lander settled onto the Martian plains of Chryse (525 miles southeast of where Pathfinder landed). The report was carried by print and broadcast media around the globe.

For his Viking work Hess received special awards from the American Meteorological Society and from NASA in 1977. In 1978 he was tapped for FSU’s highest honor, a Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professorship. At the time of his death from cancer in 1982 at age 61, his obituary in the New York Times said he was busy analyzing data sent to Earth from Viking 2.

Former meteorology chairman Dr. Jerry Stephens called Hess "a truly fine man and an exceptional teacher and scholar" whose contributions to the Viking program were as fundamental as those he made to Florida State. A native of Brooklyn, New York who trained at the University of Chicago, Hess joined FSU’s fledgling meteorology department in 1950.

"For many years here, we benefited enormously from Seymour’s teaching and research, and I think the Viking program did too," he said. "Certainly the science that went into that program was good enough that we felt confident we could go elsewhere."