STRIKING WATER AND STRIKING OUT ----------------------------- John Pazmino NYSkies Astronomy Inc www.nyskies.org email@example.com 2008 May 27
Introduction ---------- NASA's Phoenix mission to Mars began its descent to the planet's surface in late afternoon of 25 May 2008. It safely touched down at about 19:30, checked itself out, and started sending back test images all thru the night of the 25th. Hayden Planetarium put on a special show to celebrate the Phoenix landing during the day of Monday the 26th. The festivities were free after entering the Museum by its normal admission. NYSkies made this a special social event for its supporters and for members of National Space Society. Members could meet in front of the Planetarium at 10:30, enter as a group, and then disperse into the show. We would gather again for lunch in the cellar cafeteria.
No early arrivals --------------- I waited outside the Planetarium until opening hour of 11:00. The day was exquisitely springlike, with dazzling Sun and cool breezes It wasn't required to see the Phoenix show with the NYSkies social. People could come at any time during the day and, hopefully, meet us in the Planetarium. . As it fell out, there were no early arrivals at 10:30. Regular Museum visitors came and went, but none specially for NYSkies. I entered at quite 11:00 and ambled to the lower floor of the Planetarium. The first thing that hit me was the complete absence of any welcoming signs or crew to bring visitors to the Phoenix event. While picking up my admission ticket, I asked for a program or schedule of activities. There was none. I was told to just go inside and see what's going on! There were on the counter flyers for a Museum cultural trip later in June. Visitors simply entered the floor like on any other ordinary day. The immediate first sign of a special event was a set of folding chairs facing the large video screen on the east wall. There was no indication what these were for. Visitors stepped around them, thinking they were for some private setting. Planetarium crew was testing the audio equipment. Some official- looking people milled around. There was no PA announcement about the show, which by now was not yet started.
What's going on? -------------- I wandered around and fell onto four Mars-related exhibits around the floor. None had any signs or other attraction to them. They were crewed by Museum docents, who looked, well, neglected. The displays were a explanation of the Mars rovers at the mockup of a rover in one corner of the floor, a children's clay-modeling of Mars, feeling various soils of possible presence on Mars, and playing with robot racing cars. All four were widely dispersed from each other with no casual dialog among them. There seemed to no organized program for the visitors to pace thru. As i watched, visitors wandered by one display, the docent queried for interest, and some did stop and interact. But there was nothing about the displays that coordinated them into a theme day for the Phoenix mission. Each acted like a stand-alone exhibit, an extra goodie, set out for entertaining visitors.
Did Phoenix fail? --------------- By now, getting toward noon, I was starting to think that maybe something happened to Phoenix that called off the show. Perhaps, after the initial checkout, the probe died in the early morning hours while I was sleeping? I asked one of the official folk. No, the lander is doing well and in a few minutes we're showing a video about it. You can take a seat. This was noted only because I inquired. There was still no general word let out on the floor.
First announcement ---------------- I went for lunch in the cellar cafeteria. During my lunch came the first general announcement about the Phoenix show. The Museum's PA alerted that at 1PM there is a NASA presentation in the Hall of the Universe. That's the formal name of the ground floor under the Hayden Sphere. There was sufficient time to finish a leisurely lunch and return to the Planetarium. Visitors started to sit when the preamble of the video began to play on the screen. It was a NASA video, made before the landing. It described some of the problems and contingencies of the landing and the potential findings during the probe's stay on Mars. It was done up in a mishmash of oldstyle and metric speak. 'The lander slows to about 900 miles an hour, then deploys its parachute a kilometer above the surface.' The audience did look bored and some even left during the screening. A JPL planetary geologist and the Museum's Denton Abel narrated a brief slide show following the video. This was interesting, with good give-&-take with the audience. Here sprang up a major difficulty. The floor was so brilliantly lighted by daylight pouring into the Planetarium thru its glass walls that the slides were tough to see. The two narrators had to skip around to get a glare-free view of the screen before describing the image. There was only a weak laser pointer, that blended nicely into the red soil of the Martian ground. And, there was some lack of attention by the projectionist, who missed many calls for the next slide. This slideshow lasted about a half hour, after which there was dead time to hang out.
Good news from Phoenix -------------------- At 2PM there wa an other presentation, one not barked out over the Museum PA. This was a live press conference, moderated by the JPL geologist and Denton Abel. Visitors learned about this show only by being there to hear it begin. This time there were many empty seats. The screen, still tough to decipher in the daylight, displayed some of the initial images from Phoenix. They were of the lander's feet, nearby landscape, tundra polygonal cracks, small rocks. The one stunning view was taken by Mars Recon Orbiter of the Phoenix coming down by parachute! It looked like an animation but it was in fact the real McCoy. MRO was flying near the landing site to capture Phoenix on its way to the ground.. More Q&A followed with Abel and the geologist with good banter from the thin audience.
Mars rover exhibit ---------------- Some time ago the Planetarium acquired a mockup of a Mars rover, which it put on display in one corner of the ground floor with a caption board. This was the prop for an accompanying computer display for the Phoenix lander. The docent manipulated the Phoenix website to bring up various pictures to illustrate his discourse. He also compared the Phoenix with the rover in size and function. This exhibit attracted the grownup visitors, who did engage in mature banter with the docent. The website looks good, with lots of background information about Mars and the mission, plus some of the first images captured by Phoenix. These were far better rendered on the computer screen than on the large video screen. The computer was on a wagon, assembled into a portable Internet station. The display screen was on poles to raise it above head level The docent could stand in front to work the computer without blocking the audience's view.
Mars clay model ------------- This display was crewed by two docents to instruct children in making a clay model of Mars. On the table were pans. One pan had red clay; a second, sand. The kid took up a small hunk of clay, balled it in the hands, then rolled it in the sand. The sand stuck to the clay to resemble the deserts of Mars. The docent then put what looked like white paint on top of the ball for the polar cap. The entire process took about a half minute per child. Traffic was quite erratic being that the table had nothing to attract attention to the visitors passing by. Right away I noticed a messy situation. The child admired the model, then put it in his pocket! When he gets home, there'll be some laundry chore to do. When I pointed this out to the docents, they seemed unconcerned. Once the child takes his model from the table, it's his to keep.
Soils of Mars ----------- This table had several trays of various dirts and sands. The visitor ran his hand thru each to feel the distinction between them. The two attending docents explained what each was made of: quartz, beach sand, iron oxide rust, topsoil, and so on. They also explained where on Mars each kind may be found, plus the ones unlikely to exist on Mars. Most of the visitors who took in this exhibit were children. Grownups didn't cotton to soiling their hands. They had a box of tissues and wet-wipes for their own hands, but didn't offer them to the visitors. When a visitor asked, they did give one to him. Here I saw a major safety hazard. As the visitors left the table, they dusted off their hands. Sand and dirt fell on the floor in front of the table onto the stone floor. The floor quickly became slippery under foot! I showed this to the docents. They were surprised to hear about the risk of slip and fall, but they promptly wiped up the floor with the tissues and wet cloths. When I returned to the table later, the docents acquired a small broom and pan to sweep the floor. A similar, less severe, dusting problem grew at the clay Mars model table. The docents there, caught on to it and cleaned the floor.
Robots on Mars ------------ This exhibit had at least a small innocent sign but the table at first seemed roped off from approach! I myself passed it up for being some kind of console for the video shows, there being a crew working laptops on a table. On a second swingby I saw visitors milling around and toy cars spinning on the floor. The rope still seemed complete. Then I saw a small gap at one end where people were squeezing in or out. The operators here offered essentially no discourse or explanation. They just let the children play with the cars. It was not even clear what purpose the computers served, to remotely control the cars or preplan their action. Kids seemed pretty blase' about the cars. I'm sure they see plenty of these in toy shops and likely have their own models at home to play with.
The docents --------- I was pleased to find that the docents crewing the exhibits were generally well tutored in their table, models, props. A couple were wisely about Mars in general to answer questions from visitors. On the other hand, they seemed to operate in isolation from the rest of the Phoenix show and other exhibits. The exhibits were spaced far apart so they were not within easy sight of each other, making it inconvenient for a one to send visitors to an other. In one instance a docent thought there was a certain other display but didn't know where it was. I offered assistance, which was graciously welcomed. At one table, the docents asked me about magnetism on Mars. I explained that Mars has no global magnetic field but it, from earlier spaceprobe inspections, has weak local magnetic areas in its soil. However, I didn't know the details. Later, during the Q&A of the NASA telecast, magnetism was discussed that could answer the docent's questions. I went back to this exhibit and asked if the docent went to the telecast and took in the dialog about Mars magnetism. The docent didn't. More over, the docent wasn't aware of the video, for the overall noise thruout the Planetarium and the out-of-the-way location of the table! This person also heard no announcements from the floor about the telecast and missed it. One docent tried to explain spectrometry of Mars rocks. While the person was sincere and well meaning, the explanation was quite out of kilter. The docent know nothing of what spectrometry is used for or how it works and knew nothing about the spectrometers on the Rovers or Phoenix. All the doeents apologized for having no handouts or litterature about their displays or Mars. A couple had press photos of Mars and Phoenix, which they referred to in their dealings with the visitors. Other docents lacked these. I left a supply of solar system scale handouts from NYSkies, that I chanced to have with me, perhaps 30 copies. Each table had a few, which the docents were glad to keep one or two and hand out the rest. On the whole, it seemed to me that each table was set up without coordination with the others and that the docents were not briefed or instructed as a unit before the show.
Black Hole Room ------------- On the west wall of the ground floor is a small theater for showing assorted short videos. It's called the Black Hole Room because the original intent was to give shows about, erm, blackholes. I stepped in for a look-see. Yep, there was s clip about the discovery of blackholes and an other about the Messenger spaceprobe to Mercury. This room could easily have been showing films about Mars and previous explorations of it. There sure are a lot of these, by NASA, ESA, aerospace industry, and private firms. Any film in this room was hard to hear and concentrate on as a general rule. There is no sound-abatement between it and the outside floor. Noise and audio from other parts of the Planetarium flood into the Black Hole Room, distracting attention from the show in there. The lack of even a curtain, to block ambient light, also sucks attention away from the show. There is only an open doorway with no way to even temporarily stem in the influx of light.
Opportunity missed? ----------------- The event had to involve JPL, who managed the Phoenix project until it proved out after landing, The probe is now under control of Lunar and Planetary Lab at University of Arizona. JPL supplied the video feed for its press conference and an on-site narrator. I have no idea what coordination it had with the other exhibits around the floor. None were stated to be JPL displays and all were crewed by Museum docents. JPL may have missed a chance to bring in its very own support and colleagues. JPL operates a Solar System Ambassador corps and a Night Sky Network affiliation, both with a good presence in New York. Thus, JPL has in hailing distance of the Planetarium a 'crew' it could have availed of for assorted interpretative programs during the Phoenix show. JPL could have, for example, ship in litterature, props, models. It would tutor its SSAs and NSN affiliates to operate them a day or two in advance. Then the SSAs and NSN team would supplement the formal JPL presentation during the show. SSAs and NSN crews could be floaters on the floor to work the visitors with Q&A and refer them to the littearture and exhibits tables. In turn JPL could let word out that its SAA and NSN are available services else where in the City. And, this be important, such team could clue the visitors to an ongoing space and astronomy presence in the City. A table to highlight the indigenous space and astronomy profession would have been a very welcome focus.
The Planetarium? --------------- This entire affair could just as well been staged in any ample public space, like a hotel exhibit hall. Nothing about the Phoenix show specificly involved the Planetarium. Except for the docents, there ws no obvious presence from the Planetarium. No major Planetarium official greeted the audience or took part in the dialog with the audience. The person announcing the two seated shows seemed to be a lower-level employee. Dr Abel functioned like an other outside speaker In a setting away from the Planetarium, the docents could easily be supplanted by Solar System Ambassadors and Night Sky Network affiliates. Dr Abel at the other site would be an external speaker.
Conclusion -------- I have to say that this was among the lousiest examples of promotion for space exploration I attended! The advertised period was 11AM thru 4PM, way too long for the amount of activity. Noon to 3PM would have been plenty of time to take in the two seated shows and cruise the exhibits. Altho no one met me before the show, I ran into several NYSkiers during the show. They either were elsewhere in the Museum or they came later in the day. The lack of handouts, guide, program, or direction signs made for a vacuous visit with no focus or order. No one offered or mentioned handouts, like maps, press releases, pictures, fact sheets. There were no souvenir tokens or trinkets, like buttons, patches, decals. The docents were as much as flower pots, not at all integrated into the presentation and seemingly unaware of each other. The ones I spoke with missed the seated shows, not hearing any reminders or having a printed schedule. Not even the Planetarium book store promoted the show. It could have set out books and gadgets about Mars. None of the clerks reminded visitors to stop at the exhibits or presentations. Visitors who chanced to come to the Planetarium on that Monday of May 26th probably never realized there was any special event in progress so fantastic as the first results from a spacecraft sitting on Mars.