On August 4 and 5 The Planetary Society, the largest space exploration advocacy group on Earth -- and as far as we know in the solar system -- will be putting on Planetfest 2012 at the Pasadena Convention Center. It's a celebration of the historic landing on Mars of Curiosity, NASA's latest roving science laboratory. If all goes well, Curiosity will land by Mount Sharp in the Gale Crater at approximately 10:31 p.m. PST on Sunday and begin two years of scientific detective work hoping to find evidence of past microbial life, or at least the environment for it. Such evidence would greatly add to our understanding of the potential for life on Mars.
Thousands of space enthusiasts will be there to watch a live feed from JPL/NASA and get a play-by-play narration during the spacecraft's descent and landing, plus a peek at the first images returned from the mission. But there will be plenty to do during the two days previous to the landing, with 30 scientific experts and dozen of artists and performers putting on events.
You will be able to touch a piece of Mars that came to Earth as a meteorite, see a full-size mockup of Curiosity, attend a space-themed art show, get hands-on with science activities for kids -- and who isn't a kid these days? -- such as the intriguing-sounding dirty comets workstation, and go through a room full of presentation and displays about the future of space.
You can buy tickets to Planetfest 2012 (Sat 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m./Sun 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. +) on the the Planetary Society website (prices range from free for children under $8 to $67 for a non-member adult for both days), and you'll also want to check out the full schedule. But below you'll find what sounds like the must-see events.
10:10 a.m. - INTRODUCTION TO MARS. This looks like it will be a great way to get to know the planet Curiosity will be exploring. Jim Bell of The Planetary Society will give an overview of the Red Planet, followed by Ray Arvidson of Washington University, who will talk about ancient water-rich environments, the possible indications that microbial life once existed on Mars, followed by Rosaly Lopes of JPL, who will fill everyone in on Martian volcanoes.
11:05 a.m. - WHY THE SUDDEN ACTIVITY IN SPACE? One of our finest science fiction novelists (The Uplift series and his newest, the well received Existence), not to mention a wide-ranging scientist working in astronautics, astronomy, and optics among other areas, David Brin, will answer his intriguing question. Given his background and the range of his intelligence it is safe to assume the answer will be just as intriguing.
11:05 a.m. (time subject to change) - SALLY RIDE TRIBUTE. A sad and unfortunate late addition to the schedule. Ride, the first American woman in space -- and the third Earth woman -- died July 23 of pancreatic cancer. Her two trips into space, totaling 343 hours, made her a natural role model for girls and women interested in science and space, but she did not leave it at that. As the co-founder of Sally Ride Science, she worked to create entertaining science programs and publications for upper elementary and middle school students, with a particular focus on girls. Without taking eyes away from the future of space exploration, it will be important to stop and celebrate the life, accomplishments, and contributions of this woman who worked hard to assure that future.
1:05 p.m. - WHY CREATE SPACE ART? A moment away from hard science and hard technology for the inspiration that can only come from artists of imagination sharing their visions. Space artists Don Davis, Rick Sternbach, Aldo Spadoni, Jon Ramer, and Robert Kline will be talking about, and hopefully showing, exactly why space art is important.
1:35 p.m. - YOUR PLACE IN SPACE. A presentation from the CEO of the Planetary Society, William Sanford Nye. Or. as you might know him, Bill Nye the Science Guy. Who wouldn't want this science educator, TV host, actor, and comedian to put us in our place? "To entertain" means, essentially, to hold one's attention. It's a good bet the Science Guy will do just that.
3:10 p.m. - NEW VISIONS FOR HUMANS IN SPACE. This presentation from George Whitesides of Virgin Galactic and David Giger of SpaceX, both commercial space companies, looks to give us a real peek into the future. Science fiction predicted the commercial entry into, maybe even domination of, space years ago, it being an obviously inevitable reality. Now is a good time to hear of that reality and see where commercial, profit-making interests might lead us.
4:10 p.m. - TRIBUTE TO RAY BRADBURY. Bradbury, one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th Century, died on June 5. Because of a series of Mars stories he wrote, many gathered into one of his most popular books, "The Martian Chronicles," his name will always mean Mars to many of his fans, especially those who went into space science. Co-founder and past Executive Director of the Planetary Society, Louis Friedman, leads a tribute and remembrance of Bradbury, who was also a dear friend of Friedman's. There will be a video of Bradbury reading his poetry at JPL, and Star Trek actor and a member of the Planetary Society Board of Advisors, Robert Picardo will be on hand to read some more of the poetry of Ray Bradbury.
4:35 p.m. - THE BRADBURY IMPERATIVE: WE MUST EXPLORE. The title alone is enough to put this on the must-see list. That it is a presentation by the great space journalist, Andrew Chaikin, who has documented so well the history of our entry into space, is a very big added value.
But all this is, of course, is just a lead up to the main event: the landing of Curiosity, after seven minutes of terror, via an unprecedented "sky crane" method developed and engineered by JPL just for this mission. The live feed from JPL/NASA starts at 9 p.m., with a lot of content being presented by Planetary Society experts until the landing at 10:31. The feed will end at 11 p.m., but will restart when NASA convenes their press conference to report on details of landing.
If you can't make Planetfest, you can watch the landing online in a live stream from JPL/NASA.
Steven Paul Leiva's newest novel, "Traveling in Space," is available from Blüroof Press in print and digital editions at Amazon.com and Bluroof.us. In 2010 he created and organized Ray Bradbury Week, a week-long series of events in honor of Bradbury's 90th birthday. During Planetfest 2012 you will find him hanging out at the Blüroof Press booth.