Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Venus on Mars


Another year, another orbit around the sun! And one of my favorite annual events is honoring Yuri's first orbit around the Earth. I had the pleasure of spending Yuri's Night at the Chabot Space and Science Center in the Joaquin Park hills, and was further treated to an all-female panel of professionals who each drew upon their particular life expertise to discuss human fascination with planet Mars.

The draw of the evening was MBA Sharon Wright, mother of Bobak "Mohawk Guy" Ferdowsi. Yeah, remember that dude from NASA JPL? The one who became an internet sensation, but was too busy landing a rover on Mars to notice.

Sharon Wright
Very pleased to meet Mohawk Guy's Mom

Overall, the theme was kinda... MARS NEEDS WOMEN! Excuse the devolution into meme, but of course, listening to each speaker, it was difficult not to feel the reality of how "under-represented" women are in STEM fields. We are quite nearly non-existent in Mars analog experiments, efforts to explore Mars, and even in science fiction about Mars over the past few centuries.

Happily, SF State professor Jan Millsapps, who hosted the proceedings, opened with a history of Mars in literature (both observational and creative), and seeks to rectify the lack of XX-Chromosomes with her new novel. "Venus on Mars" follows the Martian discoveries of Wrexie Louise Leonard, real-life secretary to astronomer Percival Lowell in the Victorian era, at a time when women weren't even allowed to look through telescopes.

Chabot Space and Science Center
Venus on Mars

NASA Ames Planetary Scientist Carol Stoker covered the technical challenges to reaching Mars, detailing her long-term work with red planet landers and rovers, and the parameters of our hopes and dreams in extra-terrestrial astrobiology.  In terms of seek life as we know it, or more probably "life as we don't know it", she uttered perhaps my favorite quotable quip of the evening -- that she is "convinced robots or rovers won't find life. We need the hardware between brains and eyes for that."

Filmmaker-Producer Susan Bell and I tweeted Carol's quips, and many other gems from the event (with hashtag #ChabotMars) as part of Susan's Prezi presentation and promotion of NASA Socials, popular space agency events that have covered MSL Curiosity's construction, launch and landing.

Chabot Mars Event

Nadia Drake, WIRED Magazine science reporter, then ran a slideshow about modern Mars exploration, including the fundraising efforts of MarsOne, and the philanthropic Inspiration Mars. Female volunteers for the one-way trip? Send in your audition tape! Married couple for Mars flyby?  Well, commercial companies are determined to reach these milestones with the help of both genders, even if government space agencies are not.

Sharon Wright was last to discuss our fascination with Mars, both as a scientific curiosity and a destination.  Per her arrangements, her son, Bobak Ferdowsi (one of the flight directors of the Curiosity Mars Rover) surprised us briefly via video feed, and provided the finale to the presentations before Q&A.

Venus on Mars Event
Q&A with Sharon Wright & Carol Stoker (NASA Ames)

All in all, a rare and wonderful night for female Mars enthusiasts, and I was gratified to see parents with daughters in tow.  We wrapped the evening by visiting the rooftop telescopes to view three of the four Galilean Moons of the Jovian system, and a beautiful nebula! The perfect ending to Yuri's Night!

To see group photos and slide show highlights of the evening, as well as various space exhibits at Chabot, click on any picture above to visit the Pillownaut Picasa Gallery on Google!