"Wearing Many Hats"

John Moreau - January 3, 1997
Arizona State University, Phoenix

    Whenever the general public or the media call or come to our department for the latest information on the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) or Mars Pathfinder missions, they always end up here at the Space Photography Laboratory (SPL). Our name is kind of deceiving; we are a laboratory -- graduate students as well as postdoctoral researchers use our facilities all the time -- but we also function as a library and a "museum" of sorts.

As one of 17 NASA Regional Planetary Image Facilities in the world, our job is to store the data returned by spacecraft. These data are available for everyone to use in the facility. Since these data are essentially space history in the making, we also serve as a type of archive, or museum. Data sets are preserved using archive-quality materials and equipment like acid-free papers and special transparent sleeves for hard-copy photographs and temperature and humidity control systems for the entire lab.

When the data from the Mars missions are returned and distributed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, they will end up here, just like data from the Viking missions in the 1970s. We've already begun to collect whatever information we can about both missions, as well as the failure of Mars 96, to make available to the public and the press, and especially to teachers and students who visit often.

On November 7 professors and staff, as well as a reporter from a local newspaper, came to the SPL and gathered around our TV in anticipation of the MGS launch. We were all disappointed by the "scrubbed" launch the day before and were hoping that this one would be successful. I had set up the VCR to record the launch as well as the press conference that would follow. Then I had to go to my planetary geology class, so I would not be able to see it "live" like everyone else. When I came back, I learned that the launch was successful. The reporter asked questions of some of our research professionals about the logistics of Mars exploration.

Because Mars Pathfinder launched in the middle of the night, we didn't have an audience crowding into the lab to watch as with MGS. But we still recorded the launch to be played back upon request the next day. We probably played it for people at least a dozen times the next day.

Lately, I've been trying to learn as much as I can as quickly as I can about both missions -- the instruments flying on both spacecraft, the logistics of orbital entry for MGS and aerobraking for Pathfinder, what experiments the rover Sojourner will carry out on the surface of Mars, and more -- in order to be able to talk about both missions to teachers and classes that visit the SPL. We've probably had about 10 classes of roughly 30 kids between third and eighth grade come in since the MGS launch. They always have lots of good questions about the missions and about Martian geology and meteorology in general. Sometimes, these questions are tough! I do my best to answer them and encourage them to learn more on their own, by using the Internet for example. It's great to watch them get more excited about science through what they learn here from us.

Adults are enthusiastic about Mars exploration, too. On December 14 we held our second annual Open House. About 50 teachers from around the state came to participate in an all-day workshop/open house on planetary geology, which included information on missions to Mars, both past and present. We gave away a Mars globe and the Viking 20th Anniversary Multimedia CD-ROM as door prizes. It was a fun event but it was hard work! I began organizing it, with the help of others in September, but we all wished we had more time! The teachers seemed very appreciative and enthusiastic, however, and the work was well worth it. Hopefully, they will take information and activities back to their classes to teach them more about space exploration.

I'm at work right now while writing this. Not all of my job consists of public education/outreach though. As a librarian here, I have to make sure that data sets are easy to find and organized, that missing images, documentation or maps are accounted for or replaced, that the entire SPL collection is documented and located in places that are logical and consistent (i.e. easy to find) and that lab "materials" (from paper to data sets to computers) are available for researchers.

Today I'm working on a continuing project to catalog all of our books and nonserial publications for entry into a database that I'm creating in Filemaker Pro. Currently, we have no established system for finding books by subject. Imagine going into your local library and asking for a book on craters and being told that the book was "somewhere on those shelves, mixed in randomly with hundreds of other books on many different topics"! Although we have fewer books and publications than a public or school library, we still have a lot and that's kind of what it's like! So, I've decided to organize this collection into a database where you can search by a topic and find exactly which books we have and where they are located. When this is done, people should be able to access it via the Web from their homes or classrooms. This will take some time!

Before I start this for today, I'll check the Web for updates on both Mars missions (we post the latest news in the hall for everyone to see) and also update out information on the Galileo mission. We are creating a "digital catalog" of press-release images from the Galileo science teams as soon as they become available. The more information and images I can get on current missions, the better I can inform visitors to the SPL about what's going on in space science.

I think I wear many different hats around here: student, librarian, public-relations specialist, teacher, archivist, lab assistant, sometimes planetary geologist (I've been asked to help "do science" once or twice on Galileo). The job is definitely never boring! Well, got to get back to work! Happy New Year!

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