Sojourner the robot continues its historic creep across the hardscrabble plains of Mars, analyzing rocks and minerals as it goes.
Meanwhile, 125 million miles back on planet Earth, Thomas Budnick follows the contraption’s exploits with the concern of a prospector fearing for his grubstake.
“It’s claim jumping is what it is,” says Budnick, 50. “I was thinking of filing a lawsuit.”
Budnick has always been light years ahead of his time.
Back in 1987, I broke the news of how the Massachusetts social worker was paying the Spokane County Auditor’s Office to file his mining claims for the planet Mars.
The story orbited the globe. It was difficult to say who appeared more spaced out - Budnick or Spokane County, the only government entity he could find to stamp an official seal on his quest to sew up Martian mineral rights.
“I tried every place in my own state,” said Budnick back then. “Then I moved on to New York and Indiana and Iowa and Illinois and Idaho and California … “Everybody laughed at me.”
William Donahue, the former county auditor, gladly accepted Budnick’s claims, saying his interest was more monetary than planetary. “We like his money,” he told me at the time. “We’ll take anything anybody wants to file as long as there’s a title and a name on it.”
Going where no man has gone before brought Budnick a galaxy of grief. His starry obsessions got him branded a nut case and even fired from his state job. I named my annual dubious achievement awards “The Budnicks” in his honor.
Yes, we all hooted at poor Budnick.
But now the Pathfinder mission beams visions of the Red Planet into our living rooms. Scientists say manned missions to Mars may loom just over the horizon.
To get back to Earth, astronauts might make fuel out of Martian minerals. Will they have to pay a toll to Budnick?
It all depends just how much in outer space he really is.
“He’s gotta put his markers out,” says Al Wood, a NASA spokesman at NASA’s Pasadena-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “My uncle is a mining engineer, and he told me you have to have your area staked out with your information buried in a tin can.”
If he’s done that, agrees Wood, failing to suppress his laughter, the Mars rover could be trespassing and subject to fines.
Budnick sees himself as a latter-day Columbus who has sewn up most of the Martian real estate and even a good chunk of Venus. The documents he files contain carefully plotted sections such as the “second Cydonia Pyramid (Mare Acidalium) Quadrangle MC-4.”
“The age of exploration has just begun,” says Budnick, adding that he bought a red suit to commemorate the Pathfinder’s journey to the Red Planet.
Tracking down a red suit in Ludlow, Mass., took a bit of bold exploration. Budnick says he finally found the garish outfit “stuck in the back room of a Puerto Rican store.”
Not even Budnick believes he’ll live to see any riches from being the first mining magnate of Mars.
He’s lucky enough just to have a job. After being ousted by a humorless boss from the Massachusetts Department of Public Welfare, Budnick says he battled successfully to win a $165,000 settlement.
He’s stuck now in a basement Medicaid office, but is on a mental health leave. In a recent evaluation, psychiatrists contend Budnick suffers from delusions “as evidenced by patient’s belief he has mining claims on Mars and Venus. …”
Although he denies being worthy of a rubber room, Budnick adds that anyone would be affected “when everybody calls you nutty putty and loco.”
So is this Rocket Man missing a sprocket or two?
“Well, we are up there (on Mars),” says his boss, Linda Shapiro, at the Health Enrollment Center. “So maybe he’s in business.”