John Pazmino 
 2003 December 3
    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 
    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 
    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.