Steve Lee: Making Mars Real
Recent explorations of Mars are providing insights into the past, present, and future not only of the Red Planet, but of Earth as well. Steve Lee is a scientist whose interest in Mars led him to become part of the team that developed the traveling exhibition Marsquest, which opened in 2000.
From the time I was in elementary school, I was interested in airplanes, astronomy, space exploration, and rocks. I probably read every science fiction, astronomy, and "space" book in my public and school libraries. I was also fascinated with the way things work, so I built and flew many model rockets and gas-powered model airplanes. While I was getting my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering mechanics, I did an independent study of Mars and got seriously bitten by the planetary geology bug! The Viking missions were arriving at Mars just after my senior year in college ended, so after finishing my engineering studies I continued in graduate school and eventually received a master’s degree in earth and planetary sciences and a Ph.D. in planetary geology. I've been studying Mars professionally since 1984.
Today I'm a research associate at the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP). Most of my job involves research on the surface and atmosphere of Mars from spacecraft. I've been involved with the use of the Hubble Space Telescope for Mars observations since 1990, and am a member of the camera team for the Mars Climate Orbiter.
On Presenting Science to a Broad Audience
As the science content coordinator for the MarsQuest exhibition, I’m responsible for making sure that the science discussed is up-to-date and accurate. This is my first involvement in a broad public education/outreach effort, and MarsQuest has provided me with a great learning experience. As a scientist, I'm accustomed to giving "the full nine yards" of background when I state a scientific fact. With this project, I've been learning to "cut to the chase" and to greatly distill all of the details for presentation. Here our goal is not to turn visitors into planetary scientists, but to educate them about Mars and Mars exploration while instilling in them some of the excitement of this endeavor.
The Role of Scientific Research in Developing MarsQuest
One of the unique aspects of MarsQuest is the involvement of a number of scientists who are active participants in the current and planned missions to Mars. This gives us the opportunity to incorporate the most up-to-date findings from these missions into the exhibition. The hardest part is selecting which few of the hundreds of "important things to know about Mars" we can present in the exhibition. We don't want to oversimplify what we know about Mars, but also don't want to deluge visitors with facts too numerous to readily take away with them. I think the exhibition’s site-based design, in which we will portray five distinct areas of Mars (canyons, volcanoes, flood channels, polar caps, and craters) helps focus the content of the exhibition. Each of these areas will convey the planet’s similarities to Earth along with their uniquely Martian aspects, and will illustrate some important processes shaping the evolution of both planets.
|A visitor makes comparisons between Earth and Mars at an exhibit prototype.
The Goal of MarsQuest: A Scientist’s Perspective
I would like visitors to come away with the feeling that Mars is a real place that is strikingly similar to Earth, but in many ways very alien. I hope MarsQuest will give visitors the feeling that the ongoing exploration of Mars is exciting and worthwhile while making them feel that they are part of it. I'd also like visitors to appreciate the scientific process involved in this explorationthat ten years from now, we will have answered many questions about Mars, but that these new answers will likely have uncovered just as many new questions.