Science Today


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A Deeper Look at a Landmark Mission

When the Mars Perseverance rover launched on July 30 as a part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, the Science Center and space enthusiasts around the globe were thrilled at the potential discoveries that the mission would uncover. The Perseverance is designed to seek out signs of ancient life and help us better understand the geology of Mars. Prior to this landmark launch, three local NASA Solar System Ambassadors reached out to the Science Center to help us explore the science behind the mission.

Chris Heffner, Lindsey LaFore and John Mackin are Solar System Ambassadors (SSAs) who have partnered with the Science Center for several years, presenting about space science and NASA missions. All passionate space devotees, the three were thrilled and honored to join NASA’s SSA Program. “[The] Solar System Ambassadors program is a public engagement effort that works with motivated volunteers across the nation to communicate the science and excitement of NASA’s space exploration missions and discoveries with the people in their communities,” says Mackin. “As an 11-year-old, I watched the first moon landing and became fascinated with space and space travel. I took my first astronomy course on Saturdays at the Saint Louis Science Center,” he recalls. Although he dreamed of becoming an astronaut, Mackin was disqualified because he wore glasses and eventually taught science and engineering, but he never stopped following NASA’s endeavors. After retirement, becoming a SSA helped him share his enthusiasm for space with others.

Heffner and LaFore, who happen to be father and daughter, both have professional backgrounds in STEAM fields and share a lifelong fascination with astronomy. LaFore says that her father taught her astronomy, “so it has always been a family interest!” After retiring from neurosurgery, Heffner decided to concentrate on astronomy. “For me, looking through the telescope at Mars makes it an actual place I can visit. Two years ago, [Lindsey] asked me to apply along with her to become Solar System Ambassadors… we were thrilled to both be selected.” The two now conduct public education programs together, working with places like the Science Center to educate the public about space exploration.

The Perseverance rover.
Image: NASA.

Since the launch, and as we count down to Perseverance’s Mars landing in February 2021, Heffner, LaFore and Mackin have worked with the Science Center developing videos and information for a dedicated Perseverance Landing webpage, including do-at-home activities, a video blog and providing updates on the progress of Perseverance, Mars facts and even a Mars weather report. “The Mars 2020 Perseverance rover is the most capable rover we have built to send to another planet,” Mackin states. With new capabilities, Perseverance will collect rock and sediment samples in a search for past microbial life, then store these samples for retrieval by a future Mars mission. When asked what the most exciting thing was about the Perseverance mission, LaFore replies, “The search for life on another planet in our solar system is exciting to me!”