Visits from Gen. Colin Powell and Dr. Mark Adler, JPL/NASA
木曜日, 7月 21, 2005
What a great (and really interesting) evening I just had!
But first I will tell you about yesterday. Okay, so we hear that General Powell is coming to visit the US Pavilion at 3, so we shut down. I got stationed in Wheatfield, which is by the entrance, so I may have been the first guide to see him as he came in with his entourage, looking very much (but not exactly) like he looks on TV. It's really something to see a public figure in person. I learned a long time ago at this pavilion that VIPs are just normal people, and it's what other people think about them that make them VIPs. General Powell was much like everyone else, and I mean that in a good way.
One thing that was negative about the visit was the problem with many other VIPs: it's the way everyone else acts around them. Other people who are higher ranking than you but still "nobody" compared to the VIP will start getting very...well...yeah. I guess you can probably imagine it even if you've never been in this situation. But I don't mean to get into that or complain too much. I'm only mentioning it for comparitive purposes: that is, General Powell was not a snooty VIP. No, he was really, really cool. Now here is someone who clearly earned and deserves the respect he's given. And beyond that, he treated us guides like worthwhile people and acknowledged us and thanked us for the good work we are doing. There were constantly camera flashes going in his face; he completely ignored it. I guess you get used to things like that. We all watched the main show with him (all the guides assembled in there, except me and a couple other people who were stationed earlier in the pavilion and we followed the entourage in). Then we went out into the Post-Show where he got a little tour.
After that, his delegation was scheduled to go see the Toyota Pavilion and the Canada Pavilion, so they had to leave in a hurry. A lot of guides were irked here because they didn't schedule group picture time in before they left, and that's why a lot of people came out—even people on Team A and it was their day off. A very, very big deal was made of this visit. This was at 3:30 p.m. But then we found out that if we stayed until 5:45, they would come back and we could have a chance to get in a picture with General Powell. A lot of guides didn't care and went home. I was not one of those guides. So yes, I now am in a group picture with Colin Powell. Pretty cool.
But the best part was when, after the picture, he just turned around and started sort of chatting with the group as a whole, talking to us and telling us a story which was—and I thought this said a lot about him—not even about himself but about the Japanese friend who was with him, and how he had heard so many horrible things about Americans growing up during the War, but when he first encountered an American soldier, that soldier smiled and gave him a Hershey's chocolate bar. And now he is a great friend of the United States. It was even more touching hearing the General tell it, naturally. And he was telling us this story just standing around conversationally, and his Japanese friend (whose name I do not recall) and he were standing arm in arm. If Colin Powell ever runs for president (as people often say he should), I'd consider voting for him even though he aligns himself with the wrong (heh) party. Of course I'd have to consider the issues at the time, but from what I've seen before of him, he has good priorities, and then from what I saw just briefly in person, it seems he's sincerely a Good Guy. By that I mean the kind of person that many people (being too cynical and jaded) think politicians never are. It's really reassuring to know that people go into politics because they genuinely care about making the world better.
And then I have an even more exciting story to tell you!
Guess who I met today. (Well, technically, I met him yesterday, and chatted briefly in the VIP room while waiting for the 5:45 meeting with Colin Powell. But today was the bigger deal. But anyway!)
Dr. Mark Adler, former head of the Mars Exploration Rover project at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and now current Pre-Project Manager of the Mars Sample Return program. That's right: this is the guy who came up with the Mars Rovers in the first place. Once the Rovers landed on Mars, he was basically the Earthbound captain of Spirit. He got to tell it where to go and such.
So I first met him briefly yesterday, when Sanober told me he was upstairs and introduced me to him as "our Mars Rover expert," and I said I was not at all, that I just had a great interest in it. I was kind of quiet during that first talk because I didn't know what I ought to ask; it was just really cool to hear someone who actually works at JPL talking about Mars! He was explaning pretty simple stuff that I already knew a bit about, like theories on whether Mars has plate techtonics and such. But then they had reservations to the Global House (where one of our moon rocks is on display—and by "our" I mean "America's") and he left. (Digression: I still get a kick out of all the people who come in to our pavilion looking for the moon rock. We had one in our pavilion at the Osaka 1970 Expo, but then, that was while the Apollo Program was still going on. Once I told a Japanese guest that we didn't have a moon rock in our pavilion, and they said "It must be in the Russian one," and hurried off. "HEY! They didn't make it to the moon!")
Anyway. Today I was working Ops, so while I was in the back working on the hourly schedule, I also read a bit of JPL's website because Dr. Adler was going to be giving a talk at 4 p.m. in our pavilion. I wanted to brush up on the background stuff so I would get even more out of the presentation. Well, as I was doing that, Dr. Adler and his partner happen to walk by, and they say hi and stopped to chat briefly. It came up that since I have this great interest in this stuff, I have been thinking I'd like to be a science writer. He and his wife both mentioned that hey, they need writers —they've got to have good communicators! And he gave me his business card. So now I have the business card of someone who works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory sitting on my desk. Cool!
Later on, Michelle put up a note (which came to my attention first, since I was Ops) saying that the first guide to volunteer to go up to the North Gate and hand out tickets to people on the guest list for the talk would then get invited afterward to a dinner with Dr. Adler. Guess who the first to volunteer was. I'm sure Michelle knew I'd do it myself#8212;I am the person here who has been super-excited about the Mars Rovers from the start. I mean, I gave a presentation about it to the other guides myself, not required for class, during our pre-Expo training. Several people said that I deserved to just be invited to the dinner, and I appreciated that sentiment. Heh. It's not like I haven't done tons of stuff above and beyond the call of duty to help people with the Mars exhibits already—they could have just invited me and then asked me to go hand out the tickets anyway; I would have done it. But Michelle then said that she didn't want to make me do it because she was afraid I'd worry about missing part of the talk itself. And it's true, I was a little concerned about that, because the North Gate is a bit of a walk from our Pavilion. In the end, though, Jillian and Connie, two of the Pavilion staff, came and picked me up in their car and thanked me for helping out.
It was kind of awkward standing there at the gate. I had a HUGE US Pavilion umbrella in one hand (these things are seriously the biggest umbrellas I've ever seen; they gave it to me today to block the sun, as it was, I think, over 95 degrees Fahrenheit today—ugh! I was all sweaty and yucky after just a few minutes); then with the other hand I had to keep a big US Pavilion sign from blowing away in the slight hot breeze. The official Expo security guard who was standing nearby kind of laughed at me, heh. (I felt bad for them, having to wear their guard uniforms in that weather.)
So then at 3:50 they came and brought me back to the Pavilion, and I didn't miss any of the talk! Not a lot of guides stayed; mostly it was just the team that was on shift in the afternoon, but I stayed, of course! (And I know everyone has different interests, but part of me still just says, "how could you people not stay for this?! This is SO INTERESTING!" ;-) Well, I'm glad I was able to see it, anyway! I kept telling everyone how exciting it was to get to see this talk, too, and people laughed at me. But hey, it was!)
The talk was in large part stuff I already knew, but that's really beside the point. There were lots of details to fill in, and come on, reading something off the Internet is nothing compared to hearing someone who actually made it happen tell you about it. We saw a video of the team on the days that Spirit and later Opportunity landed successfully—it was so cool to see their reactions. It was truly moving—that's not an exaggeration. And he talked about hematite (a rock that only forms in the presence of water, which I tell people about in Japanese in our Post-Show) and lots of other stuff about the geology of water on Mars including some details I had never heard before. And there was a bit about future missions too.
There was a question and answer session at the end. I'm usually quiet through those, and then usually regret not having asked a question after the fact. I was sitting quietly through this one too until I realized, "Hey, wait! I'm the Mars Rover Queen at this Pavilion. I can't just sit here and not ask about any of the things I'm thinking about!" The trouble was, which topic do I ask about? After some careful consideration, I chose to ask whether they thought they'd find life elsewhere in the Solar System, or whether Mars was what they considered their best shot. I already knew the basic answer to this, but I wanted to hear what he said, because I knew he'd give way more details than those I already knew. I was hoping he'd talk about Europa, a moon of Jupiter on which they know there is an ocean of liquid water. Well. He did talk about Europa, and went into quite some detail about it. It's very cool when you ask a question and the person giving the talk has lots to say about it.
After the talk there was a reception in the Post-Show (which is mostly made up of JPL materials—our Mars Rover model and our pictures from the Rovers and Cassini-Huygens, the mission to Saturn) and then it was time to go to dinner. I wasn't sure who else was going and I thought it might be a big event with lots of important people and that I and any other guides who might be going would have to sit quietly in the corner. (Okay, not really that bad, but you get what I mean. ;-) It turned out that along with Dr. Adler and his partner, Ms. St. James, it was just Michelle, Jan (the guy who put together our Post-Show; he went to JPL several times in person. He's really cool), and then mentor guides Rich and Kathy, and then me. That is to say, it was a pretty small group. We went to a French restaurant in Hoshigaoka. (Which, incidentally, means "Star Hill." I've always liked the name of that subway stop.)
Kathy, Rich and I had lots to say. On the drive there, and then when we got there, we asked questions about various NASA-related things. When discussing the main objective of the Mars Exploration Program (and space exploration in general) I said something about how it was probably a given that people who worked at JPL believed there was life on other planets and he said that yes, basically it was; and I made a joke about the SETI screensaver (of course he had stuff to say about SETI) and asked about Drake's equation and he had stuff to say about that too, of course. It was just amazingly fun and interesting to be talking to someone who actually ran one of the Mars Rovers, someone actually from JPL, about all of this! Wow!!! I asked whether he thought we would ever send human beings get to Mars, or send a mission to Europa, within this lifetime; he said it's an issue of funding.
Of course the group talked about other stuff too besides just Dr. Adler's work—stuff like Harry Potter (which Ms. St. James had made sure she got just before they got on the plane to Japan! And I told her I intended to become the next J.K. Rowling and then use my fortune to fund a mission to Mars) and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, travelling in Europe, World's Fairs, and that sort of thing. And I must say, Ms. St. James was such a cool person, too! She was really sweet and friendly. She actually noted from earlier (before they knew I was someone they'd be having dinner with) that I wanted to be a science writer, because she later mentioned the Planetary Society and their magazine and then said—"that's something you should be reading, by the way!" How cool! Yeah...she's really nice. They were both really cool and friendly and interesting (well, obviously)! For all I know she's actually Dr. St. James too—I wouldn't be surprised—but this didn't come up.
I got kind of tired during the dinner because I haven't gotten a lot of sleep lately, but it was funny at one point, when I had become quiet and was just listening to everyone else, when the conversation went back to Mars and Martian time. (Dr. Adler had mentioned that because a sol—that is, a Martian day—is just slightly longer than our days, about 24 hours and 40 minutes. This is a coincidence; some planets have much much longer days.) Anyway, he was the one in charge of Spirit's exploration (which is on the opposite side of the planet from Opportunity, so they're in different time zones, so the two teams work on opposite shifts). And that meant every day they started work 40 minutes later, so at times, for a while, they'd be working all night and sleeping all day. So he said at one point, Christmas I think it was, they all got Martian watches—that is, watches that operated 40 minutes slower per day. Kathy laughed at that point and said the way I perked up suddenly, she said clearly I was thinking "how can I get one of those?!" Because clearly I need a watch on Martian time. And also clearly I am not being facetious. Ms. St. James added that the face of the watch was a picture of Mars, and I laughed and said that was just how I had pictured it. I then spoke up again and asked what they thought would happen if, say, the 2008 Phoenix lander DOES find a fossil of a small microorganism when it drills into the underground ice near the Martian North Pole. Dr. Adler said it would be a huge thing but that for huge things you need huge evidence (not a direct quote, but that's the gist of it) and that people would demand proof—he talked about how the 1996 meteorite found in Antarctica that was thought to have life from Mars on it didn't end up able to stand up to all the questions about it, so it wasn't considered evidence of life. So yeah, we're going to need some BIG proof of something like this. And that's where the Mars Sample Return mission will come in! I think the presentation said that was scheduled for 2016. A lot of people who visit our pavilion think we've already brought back Martian rocks, but that'll be really challenging to do. But he is already the Pre-Project Manager for this very mission. I am really looking forward to seeing these things happen. (Dear US Government: Don't cut NASA's funding!)
Heh, so yeah, it was funny when Kathy said I perked up suddenly at the note of the Mars watch—because I really hadn't been zoning out, but I'm not very good at small talk and tend to be quiet much of the time. But when it comes to something I'm in which I'm particularly interested, I don't have any trouble. ;-) So the conversation did keep finding its way back to Mars (heh) and suddenly I would have lots to say, and Dr. Adler always seemed glad to talk about what he did, too. He mentioned that a problem with other JPL people was that whenever they got together outside of work, they talked about...work. Because they love their jobs so much, he said. Which is really cool. Kind of funny too though, the way he put it.
And speaking of talking about work, we also got to tell him about OUR work, which was fun! Dr. Adler and Ms. St. James both seemed genuinely interested in it, which was very nice—we had fun telling stories about the Japanese guests' reactions to the NASA stuff. I mentioned that I'd been asked if we actually went to the moon and that while I can rattle off the arguments in English (or refer them to BadAstronomy.com, which of course was a site Dr. Adler knew about), the best I can do in Japanese is to say "we really did go to the Moon. I promise," and about how people sometimes believe us (adults sooner than kids) when we say that speck on the picture of Endurance Crater in the Post-Show is a Martian, and they get scared and say NASA is keeping secrets. (The speck is actually a flaw in the print made for the Expo, but it looks like a glowing white vaguely-humanoid-shaped lump in the distance.) They seemed to find these stories amusing. Michelle told them that I had once been asked if I worked for NASA, which was really sweet of her to point out, despite just being a fluffy comment from a Japanese guest who probably didn't know much about space herself. Oh, and they also laughed when I said my friend (Rana) and I got really excited the day Spirit landed in January 2004, and then when Opportunity did 21 days later too—and how I put off doing my Japanese homework so I could print the first pictures from Mars, with the intention of putting them up on my dorm room door—but that I was out of red ink so they turned out green and that just wasn't right. Dr. Adler laughed and said that Mars did tend to use up a lot of red ink.
So to sum it all up: this was really, really cool. I just had to record all these details because it's not every day that I get to have dinner with a leader of the NASA/JPL Mars Exploration Program. This is the coolest thing I have gotten to experience at the Expo by far (and that's saying something). The one thing I wanted most out of the Expo was to meet someone from NASA—guess I can check that off my list now! And I got to go to an expensive dinner with them and everything! And talk about space stuff! Which was super-interesting!
All right. Time for sleep now. It's 12:30 a.m., and I must get up in 6 hours. I'm about ready for a boring day now, if only so my brain doesn't overload.