1976 was a historic year for Americans. A contentious U.S. election was underway between incumbent Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, his Democratic challenger. It was also the year of the bicentennial, as the United States celebrated two centuries since its founding. And like NASA had done less than a decade before by putting men on the moon, in September of that year the space agency would seek to make history again, as the Viking 2 mission went speeding toward the Red Planet in an attempt to place an unmanned lander on Martian soil.
In the humid summer months preceding the successful Viking 2 mission, its predecessor, Viking 1, had already been in orbit around Mars, sending back a constant stream of photographs which NASA scientists planned to use to help them locate a suitable landing site for Viking 2. On July 25th, the usual batch of images were being received and processed, when a peculiar geological feature of the planet began to reveal itself.
One of the photos depicted a sloping prominence, befitted with a number of depressions and rock formations that, casting hard shadows and observed under the sharp contrast of Viking 1’s photography, bore an obvious likeness to a human face.
Some thought little of it, chalking the ghostly visage staring back at the orbiting Viking 1’s cameras as being merely an instance of pareidolia—the natural tendency of the human eye to assemble familiar shapes and images from random features in nature.
Most who observed the area depicted in the photograph probably thought this, in fact. Although it is hard to imagine that there weren’t some, at least—or perhaps even several—who hadn’t cautiously entertained the other possibility: what if there had been a civilization on Mars at one time? And if so, what if this gloomy face befitted upon an odd, polygonal mountain in the Cydonia region, might actually be some remnant of that civilization?
It wasn’t long before NASA determined that the “face” on Mars was, in fact, a natural formation. In their own words, upon releasing the image publicly just days later, the space agency described a “huge rock formation in the center… which resembled a human head.”
The image was, of course, enough to get people talking, whether or not they believed NASA’s determination about the photograph. Many found it impossible to believe that the likeness of the curious features in the photograph to a human face could be pure coincidence. The hope for discovery of life on Mars had already been a source of great anticipation: now an eager public was nearly sold on the idea, but instead of microbes, hoped that within the coming months there would be irrefutable evidence of life on the planet in the form of archaeological traces of a civilization that once lived there.
Interestingly, some scientists were concerned about the emphasis being placed on the search for life on Mars. “There is also a fear that if too much emphasis is placed on the possibility of life and none is then found, as still seems likely, the public will consider the mission a futile failure,” a New York Times article reported on July 22, 1976, just three days before the photos of Cydonia returned to Earth depicting what many believed to be a face.
However, if the famous “face on Mars” had indeed been such, it would raise a number of hard questions. Chief among them is: how could a feature like this—if artificial, as many claimed—have lasted for the untold amounts of time that passed before Viking 1 arrived... especially considering how much it appears to have weathered in the few decades since that time?
While the 1976 photographs remain the most famous ones of the region depicting an alleged face, NASA has released numerous additional photos of the location over the years, captured during ensuing missions (which is interesting in itself, since it shows that there was at least a modicum of interest in the unusual collection of features). However, as we can see in the photos below, NASA’s infamous face didn’t appear to age very well:
Arguably, the more perplexing element to the region where the Martian “face” appears is not the rocky places that form what many liken to eyes, a nose, and a mouth, but the odd, almost geometric shape of the outcrop itself. According to Space.com, “The rocky outcropping that creates the illusion is approximately a mile across and bears a resemblance to buttes or mesas from the American West. It likely formed from a combination of landslides and collected debris.”
Additionally, the differences between the 1976 and 1998 photos are actually greater than those between the first photos, and some of the most recent, in which the face-like details appear to have returned, although only slightly:
Perhaps what is most fascinating about all of this is people’s desire to look for unusual things on barren, alien worlds. Rather than aliens, or simply a desire to believe in them, people’s interpretations of Martian “anomalies” seems to say an awful lot about us.
I’m reminded of a story my grandmother told me once as a child. Often at night, she and her siblings would become very frightened by the sound of loud crashes that came from the back of their family home. Occurring only at night, they would emanate from the back of the home, the portion facing the forest at the edge of their property. Naturally, they began to believe that an animal—or perhaps something else—had been appearing and pounding on the house at night. Several years later, she laughed about how she finally learned that the thick slabs of pine in the walls would creak and pop as they cooled at night, no monsters necessary.
In much the same way that some people interpret random, natural events as evidence of “supernatural” happenings, people seem to both enjoy, and at times even display a need to look for structured things in environments where none should exist. In years since, similar “anomalies” have continued to appear on Mars, which range from odd structures and other alleged “manmade” features, to sightings of Bigfoot.
So let's face it: that famous "face on Mars" was never really a face at all. Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t other “faces” that have been spotted on the Red Planet...