John Pazmino
 NYSkies Astronomy Inc
 2008 May 27
    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 
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 
    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 
    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. 
    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.