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Bradbury Shares the Starlight With Mars

The Planetary Society honors the author, newly turned 83, with a Mt. Wilson viewing of the Red Planet in an unusual close-up.

August 25, 2003|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

It was a rare celestial event. The 83rd birthday of famed science fiction writer Ray Bradbury coincided with Mars' closest approach to Earth in nearly 60,000 years.

To celebrate, members of the Planetary Society came up with a novel idea: They held a birthday celebration for the author at the society's Pasadena headquarters on Saturday. Afterward, they trucked three busloads of guests to the Mt. Wilson Observatory for a glimpse of the Red Planet through the facility's massive 60-inch telescope.

One by one, until the wee hours of Sunday morning, the 150 guests climbed a narrow stairwell into the telescope's dome and then a second set of eight stairs to a tiny eyepiece attached to the truck-sized scope.

To the naked eye, Mars was already the brightest object in the sky, a big white dot sitting over the shimmering lights of the San Gabriel Valley.

At 2:51 a.m. on Wednesday, the fourth planet from the sun will be almost 35 million miles from Earth, according to NASA; the point on Earth that will actually be closest is near Tahiti. Mars will not again be so near to Earth until Aug. 28, 2287.

Through the telescope, the planet took on a life of its own. In fact, Mars looked like the moon and resembled a big, white or butterscotch-colored ping pong ball.

Its southern polar ice cap was easily identified. Those who looked carefully could see one of its two moons, Deimos or Phobos. A deep canyon stretched across its middle, evidence that surface water probably once flowed there.

"Man, I thought that was cool," gushed Chris Wyatt, 28, of Tarzana, who calls himself a science fiction addict. "I thought it might be a letdown because the line is so long, but you can see everything. I mean that's another planet!"

The telescope was finished in 1908 and was the world's largest before Mt. Wilson's 100-inch telescope was completed in 1917. In those days, members of the public were often invited to look through the 60-inch telescope.

But the popular program ended after the United States entered World War II, because of security concerns. Exactly what the concerns were remains unclear.

Until recently, the old telescope was used mostly for research. But in recent years, many astronomers have gravitated to other, more technically advanced, facilities.

The observatory, owned by the Carnegie Institution of Washington, now rents the telescope to groups or individuals. It costs $450 for half an evening or $900 for the whole night. The price includes a telescope operator and a docent to interpret the night sky.

Bradbury didn't make the trip up Mt. Wilson, but soaked in the praise from the stage in Pasadena.

"Sometimes you got the facts wrong, but you never got the idea wrong," Louis Friedman, a co-founder of the Planetary Society, which promotes study and exploration of the universe, said of the author. "We observe Mars and dream of the day we are the Martians," Friedman added.

The theme of the night was that science often relies on science fiction to seize the public's imagination about the heavens. Bradbury has been among the most prolific and critically lauded authors in the genre, writing more than 30 books and 700 short stories, including "The Martian Chronicles," "Fahrenheit 451" and "Dandelion Wine." And he's still at it. The author said he still dictates stories for two hours each morning. In the past week, he has finished two short stories and a play. "I often wonder what most writers do with their time," he said.

In one of the more touching moments of the evening, the actress Nichelle Nichols -- who played the communications officer Lt. Uhura in the original "Star Trek" television program and movie series -- declared Bradbury an official member of the Starship Enterprise.

"This gives me so much pride," she said while decorating Bradbury with a set of wings from the Enterprise.

The film director Peter Hyams, whose adaptation of Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" will be released next year, read a long list of tributes to Bradbury from the likes of directors George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron and former astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Cameron recalled the "silver rockets" of his youth and thanked Bradbury for sparking his dreams about what, and who, awaits humanity in the future.

Bradbury told the group, "I dream that some night, 100 years from now, a boy on Mars will be reading with a flashlight under the covers and he'll look out at the Mars landscape that is bleak."

Then, Bradbury said, the boy will turn his attention back to "The Martian Chronicles," and the creatures and people in that book will make the planet come alive for the boy.

"That," said Bradbury, "is the reason I'm here tonight."

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