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NASA's 'Marsapalooza' Program Inspires Students to Learn about Mars, Science in General - 2003-12-10

Excitement is growing in the scientific community over the landing next month of two rovers on Mars. A team of young scientists and engineers from the space agency NASA has been sharing their excitement with students. The so-called Mars team has staged an event called Marsapalooza in five U.S. cities, and Mike O'Sullivan attended the presentation in Los Angeles.

The American slang term "lollapalooza" describes something extraordinary. It also denotes a travelling music festival that excited young people in the early 1990s. Geoff Haines-Stiles is project director for Passport to Knowledge, which is spreading a different kind of excitement about the Mars mission. The project is partially funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

The twin Mars rovers are movable laboratories about the size of golf carts. They will roam the Martian surface and send back data. They will land three weeks apart, on January 3 and 24.

"So we've done a nine-day five-city whistle stop tour, and we've been hitting airports and going out and talking in schools, and then presenting in public arenas like planetariums and science centers in the evening," says Geoff Haines-Stiles. "And then rushing back to the hotel, sleeping, getting on a plane the next day. And somebody said, sounds like Lollapalooza, the rock music tour, and you should call it Marsapalooza. And that's what we ended up doing."

The youthful NASA team is called the M-Team - the "M" stands for "Mars" - and it has stopped in New York, Washington, Chicago and Denver. Los Angeles is the last stop.

An M-Team member described the action in a large-screen theater, which showed a Delta rocket lifting off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

M Team Leader: Countdown
Mission Control on film: T Minus 10
Students: Nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, blastoff
M-Team leader: And they're off

The demonstration blends video and live action. The team members display a parachute like the ones that will bring the rovers down to the Martian surface. They hold up a drilling arm, like the ones the rovers will use to probe Martian rocks.

According to M-Team member Deborah Bass, a NASA scientist, the students are energized. "Oh, they've been so thrilled and excited, which just fills us up with energy too," she says, adding that the Mars mission may answer important questions.

"I think Mars has just captured the imagination for centuries, based on the fact that we think that there might have been life sometime there," she says. "This red planet and the fact that there could have been water seems to really have inspired humankind for centuries."

Scientists know there is frozen water on the Martian surface. They have seen the planet's polar ice caps. The Mars rovers will analyze rock samples, which may tell us whether the surface once had lakes or oceans.

M-Team members outline the challenges and possibilities. Its members are young and enthusiastic and hope to inspire the students with the excitement of science.

The Martian surface has many hazards, from dust to jagged rocks. Only one-third of the unmanned missions sent there so far have succeeded. But Louis Friedman of the Planetary Society points out that space exploration is worth the risks.

"We don't have to explore. We could all sit at home and do nothing. But the whole ideal of exploring is the adventure and discoveries; you go out and learn things," he says. "Well, that's what you want to teach your kids to do. You want them to go out and learn things. That's what education is about. You want to learn so that you can accomplish great stuff, like going to Mars and going to other worlds."

Two actors from the popular television series Star Trek were on hand in Los Angeles to help build the excitement. Gates McFadden plays Dr. Beverly Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation. She says the science fiction show about a future space fleet also inspires prospective scientists.

"I encounter people who look upon our characters as role models, as people who really are functioning well together, actually collaborating, like we're having collaborations that happen with scientists from different countries right now and astronauts from different countries," she says. "And I think that, truly, the show was an inspiration to people, just as the real NASA is an inspiration to me and to all of us as well."

Actor Robert Picardo, who plays a holographic virtual doctor on Star Trek: Voyager, is another space enthusiast who wants to share his enthusiasm with students. "My dream being here is that one of these kids will be one of the first Mars walkers, and they'll look back in their lifetime at this as a pivotal moment in making their decision to pursue that great goal," he says.

Fourteen-year-old Matthew Douis, one of 400 students at the Los Angeles Marsapalooza, says he may not walk on Mars, but he hopes to work in science and expand the borders of knowledge.

"I really don't want to go to space because I'm one of those people that wants to be home where he is, and not go anywhere," he says. "But I do like the science because it's always creating something new, and that's one of the great pleasures in life."

Alejandra Figueroa, also 14, notes that even before the presentation, she wanted to be a scientist, and now is more determined. "It makes me want that even more because I see how interesting it is and how accessible it is, and how everything is changing now. And I can really do it," she says.

High school student Pablo Cuellar says he has learned an important lesson from the NASA scientists, who say that not all exploration succeeds, but even unsuccessful attempts teach something important for future missions.