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The Adler Planetarium and the Mars Polar Lander:
An overflow crowd
An Eyewitness Account
By Jim Plaxco, Mars Society, Schaumburg IL chapter

It's December 3, 1999 just after 2:00pm CST and the crowd is in jovial spirits. It is just past touchdown time and now it's just a question of waiting until the first radio signal is received from the Mars Polar Lander. An overflow crowd spills out into the entrance ways to the Adler Planetarium's Demonstration Area where a wall-sized screen displays a live feed from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. This is Mars-central in Chicago for the Mars Polar Lander event. The local press, including two TV stations, are on hand to get expert commentary and speak with those attending the event.

Also on hand are volunteers from the Mars Society. Staffing the Mars Society information table are Chicago chapter members Tim Cerka and Brian Williams.

Mars Society Table Mars Society volunteers
left to right:
Jim Plaxco,
Brian Williams,
Tim Cerka

Diana Challis and Lucy Fortson, both of the Adler Planetarium, and myself are providing a running commentary of events as they occur. The arrival of NASA Administrator Dan Goldin is noted and the audience reacts with smiles and jokes to the "breaking out of the peanuts," a JPL tradition. The staff of the Adler quickly produces their own bowl of nuts for the audience to share.

As the minutes tick by, the sense of anticipation heightens. The mood of the room is a reflection of the mood at Mission Control. We are all on the edge of our seats by the time the clock ticks over to the appointed time for the reception of the first radio signals from the lander. As the signal became more and more overdue, the unifying mood of the room breaks and people begin to get up and leave. While some retain their optimism, others take something of an "oh well" attitude. When the end of the first communications window is announced, the room empties. Few stay for the second window of opportunity. The lull gives us all a chance to go for some food and drink.

The crowd for the second communications window is visibly thinner and the overflow is gone. One TV station remains on-hand just in case anything happens. The mood of those in attendance is less attentive and less unified than that of the initial crowd. The second session ends as the first: no word from the lander. So ends the vigil at the Adler for a radio signal sent from 150 million miles away by a small lander.

Chicago Public School Students Later that evening, I have the opportunity to address a group of teens from some of the local Chicago schools. The theme for my presentation is "Why Mars?" This, for me, becomes the highlight of the day as these youngsters ask insightful questions and show a real curiosity for the subject.

Following my talk, Diana Challis (Adler Planetarium) gives a presentation on the question of water on Mars. Then Mars Society member and volunteer Tim Cerka delivers a short talk on MPL communications. His is the last presentation of the day.

After eating a quick supper, Tim, Brian and myself are taken on a short tour of some of the new exhibits by Diana Challis. We arrive back at the Demonstration Area just in time to play "audience" for a cameraman who has just shown up from another local TV station.

Thus ends the day of activities at the Adler. It's now almost 8:00pm. If I hurry, I can get home in time to play with the children before their bedtime.

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