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A Weekend Trip to Mars

Sounds picked up by the Mars Polar Lander will be beamed to Planetfest '99.


Listen up: Mars is calling. On Friday, if all goes well, the first-ever Mars Microphone, traveling aboard the Mars Polar Lander, will begin beaming audible tidbits back to Earth from the surface of the planet millions of miles away.

Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin will be among the first to get a report on how the landing went, thanks to a live satellite link from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to the Pasadena Center, where Aldrin is co-chairing Planetfest '99. The public will be able to listen in there too--and hear the first signals from the microphone on either Saturday or Sunday.

Aldrin will be joined at the three-day Planetary Society convention by former astronaut Sally Ride, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and a potpourri of space experts, science-fiction writers and film and television actors.

Planetfest showcases the latest advancements in technology and serves as a social event for anyone connected to or interested in space exploration, adventure travel or science fiction. Timed to coincide with certain planetary encounters, the last convention was in 1997, during the Pathfinder mission.

There are plenty of activities for all ages. The Space Emporium offers items from astronomical art to pieces of meteorites for the space enthusiasts on your Christmas list. Kids can build an edible moon rover and other crafts, and a film festival will feature old science-fiction flicks as well as current documentaries and episodes of Carl Sagan's "Cosmos." JPL exhibits will offer a window into the past, present and future in space.

Aldrin, 69, was a pioneer space explorer. Most of the world knows him as the real-life American hero who in the 1960s rode one of the first manned rockets into space and then, along with Neil Armstrong, shuffled and skipped his way across the moon's surface on July 20, 1969.

Today, Aldrin still lectures across the country about his exploits in space--but at this point, that's probably just a ploy. Aldrin, in the twilight of his career, is on a mission.

"I'm trying to get ordinary people and adventure travelers into space," said Aldrin, adding that he is up-to-date on state-of-the-art technology and heads his own company, Starcraft Enterprises, in West Los Angeles.

Space Travel Option for Ordinary People

"I have a big-picture awareness because I've stayed very close to the opportunities for the space program," he said. One method of putting the average Joe or Joanne in space is the "cycler," a spacecraft system developed by Starcraft for transporting passengers around the Earth and moon.

Someday soon, average people--doctors, lawyers, teachers and merchants--will see moon orbits as an option in travel brochures, if Aldrin has his way. The technology for a heavens-bound Holiday Inn is a little more than a decade away, he insists. The money, however, is not. He and other space travel advocates have a difficult time getting their ideas financed, he said, because business and politics are "short-term-focused worlds--and they don't hire visionaries."

Aldrin had visionary leanings even before he entered the space program. After graduating from West Point in 1951 and flying fighter missions in the Korean War, he earned a doctorate in astronautics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While there, he developed techniques that were used on NASA missions, including the first docking with Russian cosmonauts.

"I created some new thinking in rendezvous techniques while I was at MIT, before I became an astronaut," Aldrin said. "And then I saw to it that those were useful to the space program. I created contributions that I think in a small way helped to enable humans to land on the moon."

Fate enabled Aldrin to be one of those making a giant leap for mankind. Selected for astronaut training in 1963, he was the backup pilot for Apollo VIII, man's first flight around the moon. In 1969, he was right behind Armstrong, who was the first to set foot on the moon's surface.

"I was born after Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic," he said. "I witnessed World War II, then I got involved in the Korean War and the evolution of jet aircraft and supersonic flight, and then rocket flight. I came along at a very opportune time."

Still Enthusiastic About Exploration

Since those heady days of space discoveries, public and government support of the space program has been sporadic. Aldrin's enthusiasm, however, has never waned.

"Since then I've sort of tried to make things even better by making the rockets reusable," he said. "What I have tried to do is to bring creativity and new thinking to make changes."

As opportunities for adventure travel grow, so will opportunities for space exploration in general, Aldrin believes. "We'll be making the rockets more reliable and safer," he said.

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