Bringing Outer Space to Cyberspace: Phoenix Mission Blogs Drew Millions

The 'Martian Dream Prompt' blog eulogizes families left back home on Earth.
Nov. 19, 2008
Carla Bitter
Carla Bitter
EPO team members, left to right, Chelsea Hodson, Kenny Fine, Jacob Egan, Carla Bitter (wearing ears from a Halloween costume), Sanlyn Buxner and Melissa Lamberton.
EPO team members, left to right, Chelsea Hodson, Kenny Fine, Jacob Egan, Carla Bitter (wearing ears from a Halloween costume), Sanlyn Buxner and Melissa Lamberton.

For the past 26 months, the education and public outreach manager for the Phoenix Mission has shared her excitement for science and engineering aspects of the UA-led Mars mission with literally millions of schoolchildren, teachers, museum-goers and the worldwide public, including "captive audiences on aircraft and in elevators."

The real numbers won't be in for a few weeks yet, but by conservative estimates, Phoenix education and public outreach reached between 50 million and 60 million people in just the past year alone. For those efforts, Carla Bitter has received congratulations from NASA Headquarters Mars program administrators for running by far the most successful education and public outreach, or EPO, program in Mars mission history.

Bitter credits the stunning success to "being given a blank check for creativity by my boss (Phoenix Mission Principal Investigator Peter Smith), utilizing the incredible talent of a very young staff who tried all kinds of things that would never cross my middle-aged EPO mind, and by taking huge advantage of Web-based technologies at a time when more people are accessing data online than ever before," she said.

Bitter's own enthusiasm and experience undoubtedly added to the success. She got her early education in the Bethlehem, Pa., public school system, went to West Virginia University for a bachelor's degree in anthropology, worked in the United States and Great Britain as a field archaeologist and in science museum education and management, and received her master's degree in biology from the University of Maryland, College Park. She was education programs manager for the UA's Sustainability of Semi-Arid Hydrology and Riparian Areas program, or SAHRA, before joining the Mars mission team.

Among the outreach efforts has been a hugely popular collection of blogs written by various people involved with the mission, including Bitter.

"I really enjoy the first-person narrative of blogs. One fan told us that having blogs is like being included as the '12th man' on the mission," Bitter said. "I am stunned that the Phoenix blogs have been read by millions of people."

Her blog, "Interstellar Storyteller," offers insights into communicating real science in real time right here on Earth about the daily happenings on Mars.

Arguably one of the best entries is Bitter's "Martian Dream Prompt." The complete text follows.

"I wrote it sitting in a Starbucks on a Washington, D.C., street corner near NASA headquarters last August as surface operations were ending," Bitter recalled. "We were all going back to our respective homes, and I thought my travels had ended. The blog is an ode to my little one, and a reminder that while Mars is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it all seems very grand, there are incredible sacrifices that people make personally that no one ever sees."

 

Martian Dream Prompt
By Carla Bitter

August 28, 2008

My little girl is suddenly not so little any more. I gazed at her one August afternoon from my "Mom's on Mars" stupor that has become my way of life during the Mission's Surface Operations phase and I noticed things that were new. Blooming in my absence, here has emerged a robust little flower, a ripe and juicy peach of a kid who let the Red Planet claim her mommy and who, in turn, has developed an undeniable identity and voice all her own. This is not to say that mother and child went down without a fight. While I was held hostage to ever-greater Mission demands, 14-hour workdays that led to weeks, then months and ultimately years of a hectic national travel schedule, she grumbled, then growled, than ROARED her displeasure in a way that a one and only child, a beloved child, can.

The romantic rituals of parenthood that I hold so dear, bath time, jammie time, great books cuddled up in bed, leisurely breakfasts together, slowly but surely broke apart in my absence. She hated to talk to me on the phone, as if this act cemented the knowledge that I wasn't there and I came to regard this as a form of torture, my bad karma, that this was my fate at the hands of the God of War. I had to choose between dreams, and perhaps I had not chosen sagely.

Why do I have to choose between dreams? I was a child of the 1970s, the women's liberation movement and had been thoroughly drenched in the "bring home the bacon/fry it up in the pan" media of having it all. As woman, I have concluded that I indeed can "have it all," probably just not all at once. Nor do I want it all at once. I have come to regard the Playtex 18-Hour Bra campaign as my early harbinger of doom, and believe it was meant as a serious subliminal warning to every little girl who was daring to dream. What the heck were you doing fully clothed for 18 hours a day!??????

Since I am a solution-driven person, none of this was acceptable, so we invented the Dream Prompt. Any child of public school is probably familiar with writing prompts, those lines your desperate teachers write on the blackboard to jump-start little noggins on what they pray will be an explosion of imagination and writing from which to assess spelling, grammar, punctuation, form and so on. We developed the Dream Prompt, which can be done cozily and lazily in person at lights-out time in bed, or before on the road phone call "I love yous" and it is a quick moment of shared intimacy no matter where your Martian Mommy ended up that night. Plus you get to hear the results the next morning, as sure as you get the downlink from the spacecraft.

My daughter occasionally becomes disenchanted with my dream prompts, which generally involve giant, edible rooms full of candy, opening gift-wrapped boxes overflowing with puppies, climbing high into a tree to discover a nest of enchanted pixies, and of course my many dreams of exploring beneath the seas of the Earth with our mighty, mother-daughter mermaid tails. So she invents her own or, better still, offers a Dream Prompt, a sweet thought for sleep, for her restless and weary mommy. The best of these hybrids came from a favorite mission colleague who offered a prompt of sprouting powerful wings and flying over a variety of mythical landscapes. My daughter quickly assimilated his lavish suggestion and burst out of bed the next morning to tell me her dream of flying at the back of the V formation of geese. She wasn't the leader because of course she was just learning how to fly. Maybe tonight! The Dream Prompt is the fun, gooey filling that can keep Mission parents hearts aligned with their faraway children, no matter that the mind is on Mars and the body somewhere else altogether.

My desire to honor the Martian Moms among us on Phoenix is strong and it is impossible to express my true admiration for the women on our team who continue to provide inspiration and live inside their dream. I thank our newest mother, who led our Science Team like NASA's own Planetary Sacagawea with an infant at her breast and an infinite catalog of Martian atmospheres, landscapes, dreams and strategies in her brilliant head. She set aside her hard-won Antarctic analog mission in favor of the baby girl swimming around in her body, and watched as her adventure unfolded in the hands of her colleagues.

I thank our deputy science lead, the mother of toddler twins, who set aside her desire after years of dedication to the mission to live in the moment of her other dream, those of her hard-won twin toddler daughters. I honor our adoptive mother, who engineered our systems and simultaneously engineered the stable environment for an emotionally disabled child. My deepest praise goes to our veteran mother of five, an excellent scientist who continues to live with one foot on each planet, to our single mothers who occasionally defy gravity itself, to our emerging mothers who innocently ask, "How hard is it to work on a mission and be a good mother?" and to the extraordinary parents left behind to balance the daily details, ecstasies and agonies of their spouses' dreams. Which brings me to the fathers.

I have been won over by our new fathers, who have proudly shared their babies and toddlers, kissed them goodbye and turned back to send the commands to the spacecraft, to the old fathers who have had to deal via cell phone with their teen wrecking the car minutes before their press conference, to the father who shared his heartbreak at having to put his precious toddler son back into his crib, despite his warmth and sweet scent, because he absolutely had to sleep in preparation of a 16-hour tactical shift, and to our fairy godmothers and godfathers, our brilliant scientists and engineers who knew their life's dream did not involve being a parent at all, but who listen, and watch and care nonetheless.

For all of us, I offer a Martian Dream Prompt: At the end of the Mission, may our sweetest dreams be of coming home.