Godfather to Viking and a Fair Number of Engineers
Project scientist Gerry Soffen called Israel Taback the "father
of the Mars Viking Lander," parentage that Taback rejected with his
usual wry wit.
"He thought I was because I was responsible for most of the
atmosphere surrounding the lander," Taback said. "Remember, there
were over 150 Martin (Marietta) people and over 150 Langley people
involved -- all talented, outstanding people. It didn't need a
"More of a godfather."
That was a role Taback – who passed away on August 30 --
could play naturally and did, from days when Langley was the
National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics laboratory and he
helped shepherd the X-15's instrumentation through its supersonic
He carried the role through the transition into NASA, when he
was chief engineer of one of the first of the new agency's
projects, the Lunar Orbiter, which still ranks among NASA's most
successful missions. Five Lunar Orbiters circled the moon, three
taking pictures of places where Apollo could land, two mapping 99
percent of the lunar surface.
Then Taback went on to become deputy project manager for Mars
Viking, in charge of building the lander that provided information
that has been used for more than 30 years and will be used when
NASA sends astronauts there, scheduled 22 years hence.
"I had the extraordinary opportunity to work under Iz's
leadership for more than a decade," said Tom Young, who eventually
became director at Goddard Space Flight Center before becoming an
aerospace industry executive. "It's hard to imagine what a special
thing it is for a young engineer to have that opportunity. Iz is
clearly the best systems engineer I've ever known."
Said Fil Cuddihy, who assisted Taback on the technical side of
Mars Viking: "I think Iz was just a wise mentor to everybody who
had the privilege of working with him. He taught us all."
Small and slight of stature, Taback could teach so well because
he had a natural curiosity and the kind of amazing intellect that
made him challenge himself by doing things like working out the
value of "pi" to 19 decimal places – in his head. For the
curious, it's 3.1415926535897932385.
"I never spent a day in eight years without learning something
after talking to Iz," said Gus Guastaferro, who worked on the
business side of Mars Viking before leaving Langley for private
business. "It was like going to school.
"He would ask the question I wouldn't ask. He would say,
'Fundamentally, that doesn't make sense to me. Explain it to me
again,' and I would say, 'I'm glad he asked that because I didn't
have the courage to ask it.' I wouldn't want my group to think I
As much as anything, it was Taback issuing a Socratic
"He knew the answer," Guastaferro said. "He wanted to see what
you were made of. He was testing you, not in a cruel sense and not
in an aggressive sense, but in a way of letting you pass muster so
he could gain confidence in what you were trying to sell him."
If it was "no sale," well, Taback had ways of dealing with that,
"I hadn't been working with NASA long and we had an outside
contractor come in and make a presentation to Iz," Cuddihy said.
"Iz gently poked and probed, and the guy didn't pay any attention.
He had an agenda that he was going to sell.
"Finally, Iz said, 'well, you may be right,' and the guy went on
with his presentation. What he didn't know was 'well, you may be
right' was Iz saying, 'I'm done with you.' "
Norm Crabill, who worked with Taback on Lunar Orbiter and Mars
Viking, talked of a Taback technique that disarmed some.
"When you had a product and you gave it to an engineer and they
went off and did all of these big computer programs, Iz would say,
'let's see if this is right,' " Crabill remembered. "He would go to
a blackboard, even without a slide rule, and he would get an
approximate answer. 'Yeah, that's right,' he would say, because the
engineer's answer agrees with his approximate answer."
Young remembers sessions with Taback and a blackboard.
"Iz taught us that when you have a difficult technical problem,
you don't solve it with meetings," Young said. "You don't solve it
with consultants. You solve it by going back to basic principles.
When Iz Taback would pick up a piece of chalk and go to a
blackboard and say, 'let's go back to basic principles,' it was
like watching a great master at work."
What the engineers came to realize was that Taback could do some
of the quick calculations because he had already queried them about
their methods. It was part of his management style.
"It was 'management by walking around,' " Guastaferro said. "He
would walk around the Viking office and say, 'what are you doing?'
He'd look at your in-basket and see it piling up because that was
the days before e-mail. He would grab it and throw it in the
garbage. He would say, 'you don't need that. Get around and talk to
the people.' "
The young engineers would, of course, retrieve the contents of
their in-basket, but then they would walk over to somebody else, to
talk through problems.
There was some question as to whether Taback ever became
comfortable with a computer. A chalkboard or a pencil and paper was
more to his liking.
When Taback passed away, he was working on a car rack for his
new adult tricycle. Two pages of penciled notes, sketches and
engineering formulas were worked out, an 88-year-old man seeming to
punctuate a 66-year career of engineering with one more design.
(ANN thanks NASA's Jim Hodges for the story...)