James S. Martin Jr., 81, engineer for NASA who led Mars spacecraft project

April 20, 2002|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

James S. Martin Jr., a NASA engineer who led the Viking project that landed two spacecraft on Mars in 1976, died April 14 at his son's home in Crofton, from cancer of the esophagus. The former Rising Sun resident was 81.

Friends and colleagues remembered Mr. Martin as a commanding presence and a natural leader who expected and got more from his people than they were trained to do. In the process, he won their devotion and became a mentor to many.

"If you were to write a specification for a leader, he would be it," said Angelo "Gus" Guastaferro, a retired vice president of Lockheed Space Systems, who worked for Mr. Martin on the Viking project. "He put a lot of pressure on people, but he was a joy to work for."

The twin Viking spacecraft were launched in 1975, and arrived in Mars' orbit in June and August 1976, and later dispatched landers that touched down safely in July and September 1976. They were the first spacecraft from Earth to land safely on another planet.

The last surviving Viking lander stopped transmitting in November 1982.

The project's success required Mr. Martin to coordinate the work of 750 people in several NASA centers, in industry and academia. When troubles arose, Mr. Guastaferro said, "he never slew the messenger; he always praised the guy who brought the problems up." His work won him NASA's Distinguished Service Medal in 1977.

Speaking in July on the 25th anniversary of the Viking landings, Tom Young, the Viking project's mission director and later president of Martin Marietta, called Mr. Martin "the epitome of leadership. ... He knew what it took to make a project successful. He had the strength and the integrity to do those things that were necessary to make it work."

Viking data aided the development of later Mars missions, including the successful Mars Pathfinder landing in 1997; the Mars Global Surveyor in 1997; and the 2001 Mars Odyssey mission. Mr. Martin remained a consultant to NASA on each of those projects.

"He was able, against tremendous odds and obstacles, to succeed with perhaps the most ambitious space mission ever attempted," said Ed Weiler, associate NASA administrator for space science.

Mr. Martin was born in Washington, D.C., in 1920, and grew up in Springfield, Ill., graduating from Springfield High School in 1938.

He earned his bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Michigan in 1942. Years later, he completed a management program at Harvard University's Graduate School of Business.

After graduating from Michigan, Mr. Martin became a technical engineer at Republic Aviation Corp. in Farmingdale, N.Y., helping to develop jet fighters. He became manager of Republic's space systems program.

In 1964, he joined NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., as assistant manager for the Lunar Orbiter program, which provided detailed images of the moon's surface vital to the manned Apollo landings that began in 1969.

Mr. Martin's work on the Lunar Orbiter won him NASA's Exceptional Service Medal in 1967.

He left NASA in 1976 and became vice president of advanced programs and planning at Martin Marietta Aerospace, now Lockheed Martin Corp., in Bethesda.

He retired in 1985, but in 2000, NASA called him out of retirement to help restructure the space agency's Mars program after the 1999 failures of the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander missions.

Mr. Martin was a fellow of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics. He was a golfer, and enjoyed deep-sea and Chesapeake Bay fishing.

At Mr. Martin's request, his body was cremated, and no services will be held.

He is survived by his wife, the former Frieda Rexroth, who lives in Crofton; two sons, Neil F. Martin of Crofton, an aerospace engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, and James S. Martin 3rd of Louisville, Colo; two daughters, Lori Stamm of Baltimore and Margot Duncan of Clemmons, N.C.; a sister, Ann Pearson of Springfield, Ill.; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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