Mars and Beyond gives deep peek into UA space program

October 21, 2011

By Teya Vitu



Space science has abounded at the University of Arizona since the earliest days of the Space Age at the very start of the 1960s.

The Phoenix Mars Explorer is the star attraction at "Mars and Beyond."

Now the public can see UA’s full space story at a new “Mars and Beyond: The Search for Life on Other Planets” exhibition that opens Oct. 22 at the Rialto Exhibition Center, 300 E. Congress.

“Mars and Beyond” follows King Tut, Titanic and Bodies at the Rialto Exhibition Center, which accidentally has become a full-time science center for co-owner Don Martin.

News accounts of UA’s deep involvement in the Phoenix Mars Lander and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Mars have seeped into local community throughout the 2000s. But, as the exhibition name indicates, Mars may be a UA trump card, but the university’s Lunar & Planetary Laboratory has had deep involvement across the solar system for 50 years.

“We’ve been on every mission to the planets that NASA has had,” said Joaquin Ruiz, dean of UA’s College of Science and the primary force behind bringing the UA’s space story Downtown.

“Mars and Beyond” is a tour of each of the planets, the moon, asteroids, and the UA has lent its replicas of the Phoenix Mars Lander and HiRISE camera.

“A lot of people hear about these missions but they don’t understand what we’re doing there,” said Bill Plant, associate director of UA Science: Flandrau and UA’s liaison for “Mars and Beyond” “Here they can see the spacecraft.”

The full-size Phoenix Mars Lander gives an up close look at all its delicacy. A series of instruments sit upon an exposed platform, none more precarious than the surface stereophonic imager (stereo camera), perched atop a spindly trestle.

An early exhibit stop is a moon decorated with flags denoting the Apollo landing sites.

“A lot of people don’t know UA was the place where the first map of the moon was created,” Plant said. “Those maps were used by Apollo astronauts. The UA team that worked with Apollo looked at data from Ranger 7 to find a place for them to land on the moon.”

The exhibition also briefly addresses OSIRIS REx, UA’s current mission just in its earliest stages to create the technology to retrieve material from an asteroid and bring it back to Earth.

Asteroids are also the focus at the Catalina Sky Survey section, which Plant decorated with a Tyrannosaurus Rex skull.

“There were big impacts on Earth that had profound effects on the ecosystem,” Plant said. “That’s the importance of looking at near-Earth objects. One of the things we’re doing at the UA is the Catalina Sky Survey on top of Mount Lemmon. We are looking at dangerous asteroids flying near the Earth.”

Joaquin Ruiz, the UA’s charismatic executive dean of the Colleges of Letters, Arts and Sciences, couldn’t be more pleased than punch to showcase UA space sciences Downtown, or to put it in his own words: “It must makes my blood boil in a good way.”

UA’s collaboration with Don Martin’s Science Downtown continues the university nascent commitment to Downtown, launched just a few months ago as the architecture and behavioral sciences schools and UA Bookstores occupied the Roy Place Building at Stone Avenue and Pennington Street.

The HiRISE space camera is on display at "Mars and Beyond."

Ruiz is passionate about sharing UA sciences with the public and wants to transform the Tucson region into a ecotourism powerhouse.

“The university should be engaged in the community,” Ruiz said. “One of the things the community needs is a revitalization of Downtown. This is a portal for people to come to the university and see what we’re doing. We hope the next step is for people to go to Flandrau.”

As with many Downtown improvements in the past two years, Fletcher McCusker, chief executive at Providence Service Corp., is the man who sparked this exhibition when he saw the Phoenix Mars Lander at UA.

“Fletecher called me and said we should bring the Mars Lander Downtown,” Ruiz recalled. “I said ‘You’re missing the boat.’”

Ruiz expanded McCusker’s simple Phoenix Mars Lander idea to telling UA’s entire planetary story.

Just as Martin was staging the short-term Tut exhibit in February, the Mars idea was formulating and Martin saw it as the perfect vehicle for the Rialto Building’s long-term future.

He established Science Downtown, a non-profit that is staging “Mars and Beyond” and will be the staging entity for future science exhibtions. The three board members are three of Downtown’s revitalization powerhouses: Martin, McCusker and Kevin Madden at Madden Media, who is responsible for convincing McCusker to move Providence to Downtown.

Martin did not acquire the Rialto Building with the ambition of creating a science center. He figured the space would be a restaurant and bar.

“Bodies and Titanic just came into town,” Martin said. “Tut just fell into my lap.”

The national Premier Exhibitions that had brought “Titanic” and “Bodies: The Exhibition” to the Rialto. Martin established his own exhibition staging company, Rialto Art & Antiquities, to put on Tut, but he created Science Downtown as a nonprofit to allow for the UA relationship.

Nearly all the major UA space scientists were directly involved with “Mars and Beyond.”

“I’ve never hung around scientists before. They are cool guys,” said Martin, who can now recite the speed at which the earth revolves, orbit around the sun and the speed that the sun orbits the galaxy.”

Bodies, Titanic and Tut could be seen as a test run for the Rialto Block as a science center, and this Mars exhibition center could well see the Rialto Exhibition Center moving into maturity. Martin anticipates continuing UA science exhibitions following Mars and even other science exhibitions.

Unlike science centers across the country that cost hundreds of millions of dollars and often enough are isolated in their communities, Science Downtown costs a fraction of that, plus adds the charm of a historic building, and is the heart of Tucson’s entertainment district, next door to the Rialto Theatre and across from Hotel Congress.

“This is so synergistic,” Martin said. “Having this space is going to make us extremely unique.”

“Mars and Beyond” is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Fridays and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays. The exhibition is closed Tuesdays and Wednesday.”

Admission is $18 for adults, $10 for children, $14 for seniors, college students and military, and free for members and the disabled.