Martian Engagement

Well I said in Monday’s Rock Out that I would explain why suddenly I am excited about the Phoenix Mars Mission. And yes, the reason has everything to do with Community Engagement.

Let’s start by getting this confession right out in front: There is no less likely candidate for being blown-out-of-the-water engaged with space exploration than me. While I see its value re: what we learn and apply to technology here on earth, as well as what we learn about our own planet and the likelihood that we are not alone in this vast universe, truly I do not care much more than that.

But an old friend and colleague, Sara Hammond, recently landed the job of Public Affairs Director for the Mars Project.

And so, knowing that Dimitri is a self-described science geek, Sara and I arranged for lunch and a tour. We included Dimitri’s 24 year old son, who inherited his passion for science from his dad.

Between Sara’s travel schedule and my travel schedule, the first date we could find for lunch was May 7 – three weeks from the date the Phoenix Mars Lander was due to land on Mars. Dimitri and his son were beside themselves as Sara launched into stories.

Here’s more of my own confession: I had no clue what they were talking about. Living in Tucson, where the project has been incubating, one cannot open the paper without knowing that something is going on that has to do with Mars. But truly, that last sentence is exactly what I knew – something was going on that had to do with Mars. I had no idea what, I had no idea when.

And I didn’t care. At all.

Space and science stuff is just not on my radar. At all.

So finally, about 15 minutes into lunch, I had to confess. “Ok, I know I am living in a hole, but what’s going on?”

And it was then I learned that in just 3 weeks, my alma mater was going to be the center of a project to find out if there might have been (or might still be) life on Mars.

Ok, I’m mildly interested, mostly because hey – it’s my alma mater, and it’s here in hometown Tucson, and Dimitri and his son and Sara were so excited. But really, not so much. I was there because I knew Dimitri would love talking with Sara, and I knew that without me, it wouldn’t have happened.

In other words, picture your average citizen, apathetic about whatever issue your organization is promoting, and that was me. I was politely listening, but knew I would forget it all the moment we left.

And then came the tour.

Let’s back up a bit, so I can tell you about Sara. When I met Sara, she was a writer in the business section of our local newspaper. A journalism major in college, she left the paper several years ago to work for a large private corporation, doing public relations.

She was not a scientist, not by a long shot. She was, in essence, just like me – there because that was where life had taken her, but not because she loved science and was called to it. And so she had to learn ALL of it before she could be their director of Public Affairs.

That meant she learned about the project NOT as a scientist, but as a lay person. And because of that, she was able to engage someone who also was not a scientist, to make it relevant. She was able to make me care, because she had learned to care herself.

First, she showed us an exact-to-scale model of the Phoenix – the spacecraft that would land on Mars in just 3 weeks. And it was impressive, but not for the reason you might think.

It was impressive because my couch is bigger than that spacecraft. The solar reflectors on each side of the Phoenix (no electricity – use the sun!) are each the size of my coffee table. No kidding.

The Mars Lander could fit in my living room. With room to spare. A lot of room to spare.

I was startled, but not engaged yet.

I learned that this couch-sized machine was going to dig up soil samples and analyze them right there, sending data back to earth. It was going to send photos back. It was going to touch, smell, see, and taste Mars. I was gaining some information, learning what the big fuss was all about – what the spacecraft would actually do. “That’s cool,” I thought, but certainly not, “WOW – that is AMAZING!”

Then we went into a room where there was an exact duplicate of the Phoenix. Not a replica, but an exact duplicate. And there were people testing it, to make sure it worked. Why? Because if something went wrong with the real spacecraft, millions of miles away, they could test their “fix” here on earth first – giving commands to the Phoenix’s sister, to see what would work or not.

They even had weights on all the movable parts, to simulate the gravity on Mars, so they could see what their commands would really do when they were giving commands to the actual Phoenix, up on Mars.

Ok, that was more cool – still not amazing, but closer. Clearly they were thinking of everything, including talking to the Phoenix, finding out what was wrong, and then giving it commands to fix itself.

I was beginning to get engaged. These were not “space” things, but human things! The thought process, the creativity, the problem-solving – it was engaging!

And then, we walked into the command room.

In that room, scientists from around the world would sit at computers, looking at the data the spacecraft had sent them the day before. Then they would gather around a big table, and discuss what they had learned. They would decide what they wanted to learn the next day, and go back to those computers, and give the Phoenix its assignment for tomorrow.

And they would always be keeping an eye on the clock. Like the clocks one might see in a hotel lobby, noting the time in Paris and Hong Kong and New York, the clock at the Mars Project is set for the only thing they care about – Martian time.

And that’s when they had me. They were going to be talking to the spacecraft NOW, and it would hear them NOW, and it would respond and do what they wanted – right then and there!

At its closest, Mars is about 35 million miles away. And these guys would be handing out its assignment tonight, for it to work on tomorrow when it wakes up.

They are text-messaging Mars. In real time. And Mars is texting back.

This had nothing to do with Mars. It had everything to do with what we as a species are capable of. Curiosity. Ingenuity. Creativity. Going where we can’t see, predicting and aiming and extrapolating to the best of our ability as we go.

I am now born again to the Mars Project. When the Phoenix was about to land, I was checking my news feeds like a kid waiting for Santa. I called Dimitri. “It landed! It made it!”

I cared. I was bought in, 100%.

I was engaged.

How can your organization turn apathetic citizens into engaged advocates? Tune in to Part 2 – sign up for the feed to be notified when it’s posted.

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