MARSAPLOOZA! ---------- John Pazmino NYSkies firstname.lastname@example.org 2003 December 3
Introduction ---------- You likely know me for making new words, but this one comes from NASA! Not that it's any more legit than my own, but that's where it came from. Marsapalooza (marr-za-pa-LOO-za) is a five-city road show from NASA's Jet Propulsion Labs to psyche up the public for their Mars Exploration Rovers. The two craft are due at Mars in January 2004. The show runs for one day in each city, starting in New York on December 2nd, Washington, Chicago, Denver, and on December 8th in Los Angeles. There are a couple travel days in there somewhere. In New York, Marsapalooza was held in the Hayden Planetarium on 2 December 2003 from 10:30 EST to about 12:30. It was staged for school classes and special astronomy and space delegates. I was honored to carry the NYSkies flag at New York's Marsapalooza engagement.
The kids pour in -------------- On arrival, the main floor of the Planetarium, under the Hayden Sphere, was rapidly filling up with schoolkids, about 200 in all. New York kids being what they are, I litterally had to turn off my hearing aid to withstand the shouts and yells. The hall was closed to regular visitors for the duration of Marsapalooza. The kids were of middle school age, grades 5 thru 8. Some wore civvies; others, 'assembly day' outfits or uniforms. They ranged over many nationalities and ethnicities. I never figured out or otherwise learned how the classes were selected for Marsapalooza.
A spinning start -------------- After mustering up I and the other delegates were let loose with the children to sit on stools, chairs, or the caption rings of the planetarium exhibits. I found what looked like an spiffy stool with an extra large orange seat. It was really part of the exhibit about the Sun and it span around! The seat was out of level just enough to insist on rotating me to its low point no matter how I shifted my weight. I got off and gave it a good spin. It eventually winded down to the low point on its own and stopped. Thereafter I only gently librated to and fro. It ended up being a poor seat in the hall, with the stage off to my left. I relinquished my revolving perch for chairs placed in a more direct view of the stage.
Marsapalooza opens ---------------- Dr Neil Tyson, Planetarium director, opened Marsapalooza by presenting the M-team from JPL. Each of its six members had a major part in designing, building, testing the rovers. He then recessed the classes to one of two space-related activities. Some how before coming to Marsapalooza the classes were divvied up between an egg-drop contest and a photoelectric car race. There had to be some preparation well before Marsapalooza because the classes at the egg-drop trials had with them the capsules complete with the egg inside.
Egg-drop contest -------------- This was a fun demonstration to simulate landing the rover on Mars intact and unharmed. The capsules were taken to the second floor balcony, about 4 meters above the main floor. I suppose, but don't know for sure, there were guidelines for making the capsule, like limits on materials, size, mass, tools. All the capsules were more or less hand-size and generally light in mass. After the required countdown, from 5 to 0, the Marapalooza crew dropped each capsule in turn and then collected them all for examination. Later in the program the winners were announced and given some extra souvenirs as prizes. Dr Tyson had a few words about eggs. How would a cheat be found, one putting a hard-boiled egg in the capsule? Some kids offered that shaking the egg would let you hear the liquid of a raw egg. A silent egg was hard-boiled with solid gook inside. Neil explained the spin test. A raw (or soft-boiled) egg can't spin well because the liquid interior eats up the rotational energy. A hard-boiled egg spins as one solid unit. The Marsapalooza team cautioned the kids not to actually break open the eggs; they were sitting for many days at room temperature. The designs were clever. Papier-mache', bubble-wrap, ghost poopoo, marsmellows[!], loose cotton. Several capsules didn't survive; they flattened or broke on hitting the ground.
Electric car race --------------- I missed the car race but did inspect the vehicles after they were gathered back by the Marsapalooza crew. They were provided by Marsapalooza and very simply built. A tiny electric motor, two small solar cells, fixed-axle wheels, thin soft plastic body shell. Each team in this contest was given a car which it placed at the start line west of the planetarium bookshop. The finish line was near the stairs leading to street level. The trick was to propel the car with battery powered spotlights! The kids chicken walked next to their cars while trying to get strong light on the solar cells. Since I missed the actual race, I don't know how well this phase of Marapalooza went. I heard that the winners got their prizes on the spot.
Pep talk ------ All of this play was leading to the main feature. Tyson gave some history of Mars space flights and laid out some of the major questions about the planet which the present set of missions hopes to study. He included good mention about the ESA and Japan missions. One sobering statistic he reminded the room about is that some 2/3 of all Mars flights up until now ended in failure. Either they never made it to Mars or they broke down at or soon after arrival. Tyson emphasized that the first Mars human voyage would be, at the earliest, 25 years from now. Sone of the young men and women sitting in the hall right now could be in that first crew.
The M-team -------- I didn't catch all the crew names and titles for the M-team, but all members are involved with the Mars Exploration Rovers in some substantial way. Each person gave a ten or fifteen minute chatty talk about the specific role in the rover project. These included slides, videos, sample artifacts. The team passed around pieces of the airbag hide, a silicon-like rubber bonded to heavy gauze. And also blankets used to conserve internal heat in the rover. This was like the mylar of space blankets used by campers. They held up and played with a smaller version of the droge chute, rover wheel, and the 'rat', rock abrasion tool. This last is a rock grinding module about the size of a soda can and is made by Honeybee company right here on Manhattan. The skits were more or less in time sequence, from the planning of rover components, to fabrication, assembly, testing, exercising the completed machine, simulating the entry into Mars atmosphere, deployment on the Mars ground. The team stressed the endless trials and tests and scenarios they performed on the rovers to help insure they will work. One interesting aspect of the rovers, which are named Spirit and Opportunity, is that they are substantially autonymous operators. They are not real remote control machines at all. By making the rovers exercise in terrain hopefully similar to that on Mars, its onboard artificial intelligence 'learns' how to recognize obstacles, danger spots, and to select and examine samples. If there is a situation not in their repertoire, the rovers are supposed to stop, secure, and take pictures. By studying the pictures radioed to Earth, JPL can figure out what instructions to give the rover to get it into familiar territory. Then the rover is released to continue on its own. The reason for this internal manoeuvering system is that the lighttime from Mars is 10 to 20 minutes each way (20-40 for round trip) during the life of the mission. That's far too long a signal delay to guide the craft by eye-&-hand.
Grownup participation ------------------- Most of the grownups were chaperones and teachers for the classes. They didn't directly get into the egg-drop or car race, but they must have helped the children prepare for Marsapalooza before their visit with various school projects. On the whole all were interested in space travel, Mars, astronomy, science. None seemed to be specially knowledgeable, not as well as the middle of the line NYSkier. Because of all the action and the M-team talks, I didn't get much interaction with others. I had brief chats here and there, mainly to answer a question or clarify some feature of the Mars show. To those showing substantial avidity, I gave NYC Events, PazMiniBits, and SpaceWalk. I prepared these by stapling them into sets, so I can hand all three items at once. By the way, SpaceWalk is the monthly skywatching column I do for the National Space Society's New York Chapter. That's why maybe you hadn't seen it in NYSkies. I bring printouts to meetings and events like Marsapalooza.
Questions & answers ----------------- The Q&A ran on for almost a halfhour. The kids evidently studied up on Mars before coming to Marsapalooza! The questions on the whole were awfully grownup in content and logic. Several, due to the paucity of recent good Mars surface inspection, stumped the M-team and Dr Tyson. The questions fell into four categories: liquid or frozen water on Mars, chances of and likely kinds of life on Mars, technical aspects of the rovers, and getting into a space career. To the last, the M-team stressed to the pupils the importance of staying in school and learning all the math and science it offers
Winding down ---------- When the M-team finished, Neil Tyson made a few closing remarks, then released the kids. They roared and cheered! The M-team handed out souvenir photos to the students as they swarmed around the members. Some of the team had time to autograph the pictures. About 20 minutes more of free-flowing Q&A, picture taking, hand shaking, followed. Then, by 13:30 it was time to call it quits. The teachers started collecting their pupils. Marsapalooza crew began stuffing their gear into trunks and tubs. They had to get everything packed away for the trip to WAshington DC. The very next morning, this morning of the 3rd, they have to open day 2 of Marsapalooza at United States Naval Observatory. Within fifteen minutes the hall was mostly empty. Regular Museum visitors were allowed in. I took lunch, examined the new meteorite hall, browsed in the planetarium bookshop, and then went to work.