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Mars Enthusiasts Celebrate Close Approach of Red Planet, Birthday of Sci-Fi Writer - 2003-08-25

Wednesday, August 27, Mars will reach its closest point to earth in nearly 60,000 years. Mars enthusiasts gathered to celebrate in Pasadena, California, over the weekend. They also celebrated the 83rd birthday of one of the greatest Mars enthusiasts of the era.

Writer Ray Bradbury, the author of Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, has inspired many with the excitement of space travel.

Louis Friedman is executive director of the Planetary Society, which hosted the joint celebration of the close encounter and the author's birthday. He counts himself among those inspired by the writer and other artists. "Imagining exploration, whether it's voyages like Star Trek or scientific discoveries about the planets themselves, or just motivating us for these great achievements and scientific discoveries on other worlds," he says.

Ray Bradbury has written more than 30 books and hundreds of short stories, and Louis Friedman told him he was always on the right track in his science fiction writing. "Sometimes you got the facts wrong, but you never got the idea wrong. We [scientists] never get the facts wrong. We never get the ideas right, either," he says.

Mr. Friedman says that recent fiction has also incorporated scientific discoveries. He says both writers and scientists are awaiting results of probes now approaching the Red Planet. "We have five spacecraft on their way to Mars right now. Two are already there, and next January, these five will arrive. There'll be seven total there. Basically the whole world is going to be getting discoveries about Mars through the rest of this year and into next year. It's going to be a great time to be learning a whole lot more about this planet, and it relates to the fundamental question that we care about: what is life, what is our destiny?"

Bruce Betts, director of projects for the Planetary Society, is coordinating a series of events called Mars Watch 2003. It will culminate in Planetfest, a celebration of thousands in Pasadena, California, when the first of two Mars rovers reaches the planet next January. "There are about 250 events around the world over the next few weeks that people can participate in," he says. "They can hear lectures, go to star parties. And they can also participate in some of the things we'll be doing officially with the Mars exploration rover mission."

The Planetary Society has included a digital disc with the names of four million Mars enthusiasts on the twin rovers now heading for Mars. People can follow the progress of the missions on the society's web site at

Scientists say the current Mars missions, sponsored by the U.S. space agency NASA and the Japanese and European space agencies, should answer some questions. Louis Friedman says there is clear evidence of ice on Mars, but he says it is not clear whether water has ever existed on the surface. "We have a lot to learn about where the water is trapped and what the significance of water has been in the evolution of Mars. Scientists have a saying of what they're doing, which is "follow the water." They're looking for evidence of this," he says.

Ray Bradbury says he would like to see some of the world's resources spent on answering such questions instead of fighting wars. He says the coming months should open an exciting new chapter in the story of discovery, which may one day bring the human race together. "For God's sake, I hope the landings on Mars in the next six months are successful, and we start going back to the moon and then a manned landing on Mars. And the night we land on Mars with real people, the whole world will go wild, like a soccer match," he says.

The writer envisions a time 100 years from now when a young reader living on Mars is inspired by his Martian Chronicles, reading it by flashlight under the bed covers, as humans begin to colonize other planets.