The Adler Planetarium and the Mars Polar Lander:
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 volunteers|
left to right:
Diana Challis and Lucy Fortson, both of the Adler Planetarium, and
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.
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.