The Day ICV and NASA crossed paths

Back in 2011, ICV volunteer Danielle was running a school holiday program in Nullagine, WA, when NASA rolled in preparing for a mission to Mars. 

Read her story of the chance encounter. 

One day during the first week, several NASA 4WDs drove into the caravan park where we were staying. I approached one scientist while he was chopping vegetables for dinner and cornered others wherever I could. They were all really approachable, enthusiastic and passionate.

Both NASA and The Mars Society were in Nullagine preparing for a future Mars expedition. The team was studying stromatolites, layered rock structures formed by the trapping of sediment by blue-green algae.

These stromatolites are 3.5 billion years old, the oldest life on Earth, and can give clues for determining the presence of life on Mars. Ancient Mars was warmer and wetter than it is today and may have been habitable. If there was ever life on ancient Mars, it may have been something like Earth's early life. Thus examining the Pilbara's fossil record can give scientists a better understanding of what they may be looking for on Mars.

Also, given the similarities between the environment of the Nullagine region and the surface of Mars, they were testing out a spacesuit for the expedition, to determine whether an explorer in the suit would be able to distinguish the fossils from ordinary nearby rocks.

NASA has a large focus on education, so the team was really interested in the school holiday program. They suggested our group accompany them out into the field the next day, so we set up an excursion for the kids to come out and watch the spacesuit trial. The team also offered to put on a presentation for the next night.

The next day we rounded the kids up and drove off to the NASA site, 60 km away along the Marble Bar Highway. The site wasn’t visible from the dirt highway, but we were assured there was ‘a pile of rocks on the right-hand side of the road’. 

There were piles of rocks just about everywhere, but luckily NASA is sensible, and they had drawn an arrow for us. The kids had a ball watching NASA try out the spacesuit, and the NASA team were fascinated by the kids, particularly their ability to walk around Spinifex barefooted.

That night NASA put on the presentation outside under the stars, and several members of the community showed up. The presentation was tailored well for the kids, who were particularly interested in animations of the space rover. We heard from several prominent scientists including our ‘Alien Expert’, planetary scientist Dr Chris McKay. The visit from NASA was really special. The kids and our program have now become part of the Mars expedition story.


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