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WNYERS NOT THAT STARRY-EYED ABOUT MARS MISSION

If there is life on Mars, it's probably doubled-over laughing by now.

Humanity has reached the surface of the Red Planet -- with a tiny motor vehicle that zips along at a top speed of two feet a minute, presses itself against little rocks called "Barnacle Bill" and "Yogi."

Unimpressive as that might be for any observing Western New Yorkers, Pathfinder and its roving Sojourner robot have triggered a new wave of Earthly enthusiasm -- here and nationally -- that NASA hopes to parlay into a manned mission early next millennium.

Reaction in Buffalo hasn't been quite so starry-eyed.

"There haven't been many inquiries," said Buffalo Museum of Science spokesman Patrick Keyes, adding that some folks have been trying to compare the new Pathfinder images to the Viking mural of Mars already displayed in the museum's planetary galleries.

At Buffalo State College's Ferguson Planetarium, director Arthur Gileow candidly admits inquiries so far have come "just from the news programs."

At the Buffalo Astronomical Association's Beaver Meadows Observatory, in Java, director Neal Dennis is planning a public Mars talk in the future. But excitement among group members centers more on the annual Perseid meteor shower.

While Mars remains highly visible in the night sky, Dennis said, "you can't see much through the telescopes -- just a little red spot." In contrast, the meteors could peak at 100 per hour early Aug. 12 in a show "supposed to be one of the best in years."

After the first flush of excitement -- Fourth of July network news bulletins, magazine covers and the like -- reactions to the $266 million Mars Pathfinder mission are beginning to travel different roads.

The public remains intrigued, visiting Mars mission Internet sites by the millions, but seems to be starting to wonder why all the fuss about a bunch of dust and rocks that look eerily like the American Southwest -- only redder.

Scientists and enthusiasts, though, can't get enough of findings that have, so far, confirmed beliefs that part of the Red Planet was scoured in antiquity by a flood of biblical proportions.

The mission, which costs about $1 per American, is a bargain-basement effort by planetary exploration standards. The cost of televised reality is far cheaper, on a per-viewer basis, than any Hollywood special-effects version could hope to be.

But Pathfinder may be missing the point, one local observer says.

"It's an incredible mission, but are we getting a straight geological interpretation of the planet?" asked Barry DiGregorio, a science and aerospace writer based in Middleport.

"There is no biological interpretation whatsoever," he said. "There's no life-detecting equipment on the mission, even though one of NASA's three stated goals is to find life on other planets."

DiGregorio, author of "Mars: The Living Planet," which hit bookstores last week, also suggests Pathfinder may have brought along life forms from Earth.

"The spacecraft underwent an external sterilization, essentially an alcohol swab, but no heat sterilization or any of the intricate procedures they used for Viking (in 1976)," he said. "A good sterilization would cost $25 million.

"So they went to Mars carrying lots of Earth organisms," he contends. "If Mars didn't have life on it before, it sure does now. The invasion of Mars has begun."

Meanwhile, back on Earth, enthusiasm comes in many forms -- some far different than the excitement of land scientists and space scientists over a "fire hose of data" from Mars.

Mars candy bars reportedly continue a popularity climb that started a year ago with the debates about fossilized microbial life on Mars meteorites, and stores are having a hard time meeting the demand for Mars lander toys.

Since Pathfinder touched down, action on the Red Planet has turned to gold for Mattel Inc., maker of a $5 "Hot Wheels Mars Rover Action Pack" produced under NASA license as part of an effort to find commercial applications for the agency's technology.

The catch is, the mini-rovers haven't landed everywhere yet. A survey of major Buffalo-area stores failed to turn up any of the toys in current stocks.

"Tons of people are asking for them," said a Toys 'R Us employee at an Amherst store. "It's going to be like the 'Elmo' thing."