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Saturday, December 4, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Earthlings' Party Fades When Mars Fails To Show -- 300 School Kids, Others Gather For Nonevent

Seattle Times Science Reporter

It was like a party to which the iceman refused to come.

Some 300 fidgety school kids and fans of the red planet turned out yesterday for MarsFest '99, hoping to catch a new glimpse of Mars soon after the Polar Lander touched down.

"The aliens are coming and they are US!" extolled a special edition of "Mini Sojourner," the newsletter of the local chapters of the National Space Society and the Mars Society.

But viewers saw only remarkably sharp images of engineers in Pasadena, Calif., biting their lips and slowly realizing they had lost contact with another NASA space vehicle.

"I'm confused and depressed," said Chris Vancil, coordinator of the Mars Society Puget Sound event.

Disappointed MarsFest guests he could handle, he said, but without the Lander sending new data about the Martian surface - including data about atmospheric conditions, ice and water - a hoped-for manned flight to Mars could be further off.

Other people watching the NASA broadcast of the landing operation were more philosophical.

"I think they'll work the problem out," said Keith Enevoldsen, a Boeing computer programmer from Seattle. "Real science is like this. It's not packaged up for TV. It's the real thing."

Enevoldsen was one of the first to arrive at the Museum of Flight's William M. Allen Theater, where viewers could see engineers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on a 15-foot-tall television screen.

"I want one of these in my living room - so what if it's bigger than my living room," said Randy Rumley, an engineer and editor of "Mini Sojourner."

By noon, the theater was standing-room-only in the back and, for scores of children up front, hands-and-knees room only. Their chaperones had to say "Shhhh!" a lot, but the children were remarkably well-behaved, considering they were watching men with headsets say things like, "We have a potential bogey with erratic vectoring and an unorthodox entry angle."

Actually, that's what the radar operator said in "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery." The JPL engineers mostly talked in numbers, although there was a pretty exciting moment when Daniel Goldin, NASA administrator, passed around a jar of nuts.

"I tell you that jar's going pretty far," said one viewer.

"I must be pretty much near empty by now," said another.

"I wonder if they're salted or unsalted," said a third.

The chatter stopped when the moment arrived to look for a signal from the Lander. The crowd grew quiet and waited. And waited. And waited.

Finally, the engineers on TV got up to stretch their legs, and some 50 third- and fourth-graders from West Seattle's Pathfinder School filed out of the theater.

"We can't wait forever for that," said one teacher.

Christopher Clow, a Linden 11-year-old watching with his father, Charlie, stayed behind awhile. A space buff since he saw "Apollo 13" in 1995, he thinks of the Lander mission as "a clear yellow brick road to a manned Mars mission."

"With this," he said of the radio problem, "there's a lot of suspense in it."

Eric Sorensen's phone message number is 206-464-8253. His e-mail address is esorensen@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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