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Selected Articles from the
April 2000 Odyssey

Editor: Craig E. Ward

NSS To Mars!
(via Pasadena)

By Steve Bartlett

Mars as seen by the Hubble Space
NASA photograph.

OASIS members and their guests gathered for a group viewing of the new film Mission to Mars on March 11 in Pasadena. The group passed out NSS-provided viewers guides on the film to hundreds of filmgoers and passersby and provided useful information on the Red Planet to the general public. Over a dozen space activists and interested folk ranging in age from two to fify came out to the United Artists Theater for three hours of talking, laughing, and educating people on space activities currently taking place.

The film guides included interviews with the cast and crew of the film, background science material on Mars, a historical timeline of Mars exploration, and a short filmography of celluloid Martian adventures.

Mission to Mars explores the first voyage to Mars, its disasterous discovery on the planet’s surface, and a subsequent rescue mission. The film was directed by Brian DePalma and features Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, and Jerry O’Connell. Overall, reviews of Mission to Mars were mixed: the special effects, costumes, and art direction were considered excellent, while the story, direction, and technical accuracy left a good deal to be desired. Astute viewers will recognize elements from several science fiction films (e.g., 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Abyss, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T.) Several real life astronauts helped in creating the film, including Story Musgrave, who has a small on-screen role.

After watching the film, the OASIS group went out to dinner for more conversation on the merits of the film and its place in the realm of space development.

For more information on future missions to Mars, visit the NASA/JPL Mars Exporation Program web site.

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Touching Mars

By Robert Gounley

I was 12 years old when astronauts first walked on the Moon. With so much of my life still before me, this was an intoxicating hint of what might be possible for me. Like millions of other star-struck viewers that night, I pledged that someday I would reach down to pick up a piece of another world.

The dream has been good for me. While I’ve yet to kick Moondust off my boots, the goal has given me a rich circle of friends and acquaintances. It also led me to some wonderful experiences poking at other worlds via computers and interplanetary radio transmissions. This, however, is the vicarious thrill of a football coach who, while being near the scene of the action, can only serve in an advisory capacity.

The vision of making contact with another planet lingers. It came back to me the day I held a rock from Mars in my hand.

This milestone came unexpectedly. Ten years ago, amateur geologist Bob Verish wandered the Mojave Desert looking for specimens. Two rocks stood out. They were each the size of a small potato and covered with a dark, glassy skin that showed signs of weathering. At the time, they made no special impression. If Bob thought about it at all, they probably reminded him of the steel mill slag found most everywhere around his hometown of Pittsburgh. He tossed them into his bag as a curiosity to be classified later.

Ten years passed and rocks collected on several rock-hunting trips were becoming a nest for vermin. It was time to classify them and toss the extraneous ones. By now, Bob had learned a lot more about geology. Now he could see that the odd rocks were not from the local desert at all. They bore clear signs of being meteors.

Excitedly, he took his discovery over to UCLA for closer examination. There, scientists confirmed their extra-terrestrial origin and broke off a small sample for isotopic analysis. What they found was a wish come true – nuclear spectra showed they probably had once been part of the planet Mars. For untold millions of years a planetary chunk had wandered the solar system only the hit Earth’s atmosphere and break into the two samples Bob found somewhere in the Mojave. Before this, only 13 Mars meteorites had ever been classified.

Scanning my morning’s email, I saw a message from JPL’s Astronomy Club. Bob Verish was visiting the Lab right now. He brought one of his specimens and was showing it to anyone interested. Unfortunately, he had to leave shortly.

I dropped everything and ran to the conference room where he was displaying his find. All around him were graphs and charts showing proposed plans for the robotic retrieval and return of rocks from Mars. Here, TODAY, a sample had been delivered far ahead of schedule.

About a dozen scientists and engineers had gathered in the middle of the room. The Mars rock was being passed about in blue-velvet cloth intended to keep oils in our fingertips from harming it. Without knowing what it was, I could easily have guessed it was only a fragment left over from a construction site. However, closer examination revealed streaks radiating from a point on the glassy surface. This was the leading edge that bore the brunt of atmospheric heating during entry.

Exposure to desert sun and rain had eroded bits of the crust. Where it had chipped, a lighter gray surface with dark flecks showed through. The gray showed only a little ruddiness and gave no obvious clue about being from a red planet.

Someone asked if I would like to hold it. A few moments later it was in my hand. Through a hand-magnifier, the individual grains stood out like boulders. Geology is not my hobby and mineral structure is a mystery to me. All I knew is that I held a stone from somewhere very far away.

Others were waiting, so I handed the meteorite along. It would have been easy to close my eyes and imagine myself on Mars, using the gloves of my spacesuit to pass a promising specimen over to a colleague. Whether others had those same thoughts, I do not know.

Picking up a random sample of Mars was exciting, but scientifically it falls far short of the ideal. In geology, like real estate, location matters. Without knowing the exact spot on Mars where the sample came from, it is difficult to put its formation in context. Traveling through space as it did, any traces of water would be long gone, leaving us to puzzle whether it ever had any. To understand Mars we need to go there and take away carefully selected pieces.

Still, it’s good to know that something you’re looking for can sometimes be right there at your feet.

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