Mars New Year sets stage for mission to Mars
JACKSON TWP — More than 160 “Martians” packed Steamfitters Technology Center on Thursday to kick off the Mars New Year with dinner, drinks and a mission.
“It’s kind of cool stuff, but we’re really doing it for the children and youth,” Gregg Hartung, Mars mayor, said. “It’s to give sort of an incentive to think about STEAM education and that eventually, maybe, they’ll one day be pioneers on the planet Mars.”
The value of science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics, or STEAM, served as a foundation for this party of scientists, politicians and residents. The event featured the student-lead Mars Robotics Association, an art exhibit by local high schools, the 2023 Martian of the Year award and presentations by the very people working to make a mission to Mars a reality.
“And what happened this morning, we had 140 some students at our Countdown Breakfast, which was phenomenal,” Hartung said. “Our guest speaker did an excellent job with them, and they had a ton of questions for her.”
The Countdown Breakfast hosted 11 school districts at Cranberry Township’s Regional Learning Alliance to meet with Tara Ruttley, the Blast Off Dinner’s keynote speaker.
“That was very fun, because you never know with high school students,” Ruttley said. “This group was interested and fascinated and had really, really great questions.”
Ruttley, the former chief scientist at NASA for micro-gravity research, said she posed a question of her own to the students.
“We have a seat to space, and it’s going in two weeks, but you have to tell me ‘yes’ or ‘no’ right now — you want it?” Ruttley said. “How many have thought about that, or how many would say yes and how many would say no?”
Typically, most people in the audience raise their hand, Ruttley said, but the answers at the breakfast surprised her.
“There were quite a number that said no, and what shocked me is that they didn’t want to leave their families,” Ruttley said with a laugh. “That actually warmed my heart, to know that they valued their family that much.”
Artwork by Mars Area High School and Washington High School students lined the halls as guests entered at 5 p.m. for cocktails and appetizers, and the Mars Robotics Association’s machines buzzed over the conversation and laughter.
“It’s special,” Hartung said. “That’s what we started out to be was an educational festival.”
The student exhibition in the building, Hartung said, was part of a competition to create artwork of what they envisioned going to Mars would be like.
“We actually had people from NASA and different places that were into arts actually be the people that voted on this,” Hartung said.
Mars Area High School students won first, second and third place in the competition.
“We’ve had all sorts of participation from students, which is what it’s all about, in terms of STEAM education,” Hartung said. “That’s why we do what we’re doing.”
John Thornton, co-founder of Astrobotic, talked about the Pittsburgh-based company’s Peregrine Mission 1 — the first commercial mission to the moon, and the first American landing on the moon since 1972.
“And the exciting news, literally hot off the presses, you’re the first to hear,” Thornton said, “is that our new launch date, right now, as of just a few minutes ago, is May 4.”
The Peregrine Mission will take off from Florida carrying a diverse array of scientific instruments.
“We’re going to be taking payloads from all over the world,” Thornton said. “There will be six new nations that will touch the surface of the moon for the very first time.“
Ruttley, the keynote speaker, explored how the lessons learned from the International Space Station will send humans back to the moon and onward to Mars.
“Our good old tried and true, trusty Space Station has been up there doing its thing for 20 years,” Ruttley said, “and finally lessons learned get applied to the next step of going to Mars.”
Lessons about how humans interact in low-Earth orbit, Ruttley said, will move on to be tested in the gravity of the moon before continuing to Mars.
“So now, what our plan is for the moon is to go back, where we’re still close enough to home, and try these things that we’ve learned in low-Earth orbit,” Ruttley said. “How can we grow plants on a body that’s three days from Earth, can we grow our own food? Can we access the water ... in ways that we might access the water that’s on Mars? And what about human health and behavior?“
Until those questions can be answered, Ruttley said she was happy to be in the terrestrial borough of Mars.
“It’s a really cool place to be, you guys have a very unique being,” Ruttley said. “I think it’s great — nobody escapes Mars without knowing about Mars”
The Blast Off Dinner also formally honored the 2023 Martian of the Year: Colleen Hinrichsen, STEAM teacher at Mars High School.
“I’m really surprised and humbled,” Hinrichsen said. “But when I did hear the description and they talked about how I teach a lot of students and sometime I don’t think I think about the impact it has on the community or on the world at all.”
Mayor Hartung summarized the event simply.
“It’s not about the town of Mars specifically, our name’s great,” Hartung said. “But unless we use that name to be able to make a difference in people’s lives, what are we?”