Bouncing over dusty roads in Eastern Washington this week, a busload of 30 engineers and space scientists pressed their noses to the windows.
Watching passing boulders in the channeled scablands near the Columbia River, many in the group pictured the same scene painted rusty red, 40 million miles away on the surface of Mars.
Twenty-two months from now, they will use what they’re learning this week to land and guide the Mars Pathfinder, a $200-million unmanned craft designed to explore the Red Planet.
“If we want to know what it will look like on Mars, the only place on Earth that comes close to what that will be is in Eastern Washington,” said Vic Baker, a University of Arizona geologist on the tour.
Costing the federal government and other agencies more than $25,000, the weeklong trip sent dozens of researchers and engineers to a barren section of the Northwest usually haunted by rock hounds and geology students.
Monday and Tuesday mornings, members of the group boarded a plane at Moses Lake airport and flew over the region, looking down on long-fingered gullies and streamlined hills that resulted from massive Ice Age floods tearing across Idaho and Washington 15,000 years ago.
In the afternoons, the group, joined by about 15 area science teachers, boarded the bus and roamed the area to examine unusual features or snap photos.
The group included a number of scientists who helped choose Ares Vallis, the site on Mars where Pathfinder will land in July 1997.
“It’s important to come here because our people will need to know what they’re seeing when we get pictures from Pathfinder,” said Donna Shirley, the project manager for Pathfinder and several other Mars missions between 1997 and 2005.
About a third of the scientists and engineers on the tour work for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where Shirley is an administrator.
NASA arranges contracts with Pasadena-based JPL to design spacecraft and plan space missions like the Pathfinder mission. JPL directed the only American landings on Mars, the Viking 1 and Viking 2 missions in 1975.
Also in the tour group is Ruzlan Kuzmin, Russia’s Mars expert and the man who helped choose the landing site for a 1997 Mars mission planned by that country.
While the Viking mission had the goal of finding any life on Mars, Pathfinder has a dual purpose: testing a new landing system using airbags, and closely analyzing Martian soil for the first time ever.
The key tool will be a 2-foot-long device called the Pathfinder rover. It will travel from the main lander, analyze rocks and send data to Earth.
Three JPL engineers brought along a test model of the rover to put it through its paces in terrain that varied from gradual slopes to fields dotted with large boulders.
Monday’s test run broke down after five minutes, when a securing clip came loose and one of the machine’s eight wheels stopped working.
“The final version won’t have this problem,” grumbled JPL Engineer Howard Eisen, searching for a wrench and a piece of metal to reattach the wheel.
Peter Smith, a University of Arizona researcher designing the lander’s stereo camera, walked around a 35-foot-tall boulder, one of hundreds scattered around the remote field about 20 miles south of Coulee City.
“Earlier, coming down the canyon I was having trouble seeing Mars here,” Smith said.
“But now that we’re here on this flood plain, it’s much closer to my idea of an alien landscape. It’s incredible.”
Some in the group already were wearing tour T-shirts that read: “Channeled Scablands 1995 to Ares Vallis 1997.”
When the Eastern Washington trip was announced earlier this year, nearly a thousand people from around the world asked to go.
“This is something a lot of people were dying to take part in,” said Matt Golombek, the Pathfinder’s mission scientist.
“It has geologists from all over the world, plus some of the foremost experts on Mars, all gathered in one place.”
Golombek contends the ultimate goal of Pathfinder is to know more about our own planet:
“It’s more than just going to Mars because it’s there. We’re about to gain information about a world we know very little about.”
If life once existed there, Pathfinder might find the evidence.
“And if not, we’d like to know why not,” he said.
“This is almost a theological question, and that is: Are we alone? Or is life on Earth a cosmic accident?”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: BRINGING MARS HOME Members of the channeled scabland-Mars Pathfinder tour come to Spokane today to conduct a series of workshops and a public open house. About 30 scientists and engineers involved in the project to send an unmanned probe to Mars in 1997 will hold workshops Thursday and Friday to discuss recent findings about the landing site and review some of the systems to be used. They’ll meet at Cavanaugh’s River Inn. For more information, call 326-5577. On Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m., many in the group will gather at Chase Middle School for a Mars Open House to give teachers, students and others a chance to learn more about the project. They’ll showcase various systems to be used on the mission. Using the Internet, the group also will show people on-line images of Mars collected from the 1976 Viking missions. More than previous planetary flights, the Mars Pathfinder mission will coordinate space activities closely with classroom efforts around the world.