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A Martian tale for Earthlings

An Evanston man helps NASA chronicle the drama of its recent rover missions to Mars

from the Chicago Tribune
by Manya A. Brachear, Tribune staff reporter
October 11, 2004

Ever since the Martian rovers Spirit and Opportunity bumped to a landing on opposite sides of the Red Planet earlier this year, they have beamed more than 50,000 photo images back to Earth.

For Syd Lieberman, a former teacher at Evanston Township High School, the challenge has been to put all those otherworldly pictures into words.

Download a PDF of the cover of the Chicago Tribune from Oct 11, 2004 As the first professional storyteller ever hired by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Lieberman said his job is to document the emotion and drama of the Mars expeditions. But he also wants to teach scientists how to tell their own stories through an innovative approach developed by the space agency and the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tenn.

Best known for spinning Jewish folk tales and Chicago neighborhood yarns, Lieberman will now narrate many Mars museum exhibits across the country.

"The story is about people, their humanity, their involvement in doing this incredible thing," said Lieberman, 60. "With voice, body and words, I have to make that come alive and convey the feeling I got when I talked to [NASA scientists]."

Storytelling is the best way to get beyond the data and statistics and capture the emotional power of a historical moment, said Jimmy Neil Smith, president and founder of the storytelling center. At NASA's expense, the center commissioned Lieberman, a longtime member, to take on the project late last year.

Informal surveys show that people want to know more about what goes on behind the scenes of space missions, said NASA spokeswoman Michelle Viotti.

So, like many corporations that have started spinning yarns to spin their products, the space program met with representatives of the storytelling center to explore the possibilities.

With a budget of $25,000, the project includes the story's creation, recording, classroom activities and initial performances. Lieberman plans to tour some museums for live performances and provide video recordings for others.

"[NASA's] effectiveness depends on their capacity to reach people's hearts and minds to build their support for space science," Smith said. "What were their fears? What was the joy? What was the passion of a project? What does this mean in our lives today to us as human beings on our planet? ... That's where Syd comes in."

A former English instructor, Lieberman began reciting stories full time when he retired from the classroom in 2000. Often commissioned by museums, he has a repertoire that includes evocative talks about the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls or the adventures of World War I fighter pilots.

But in the case of the Mars mission, Lieberman documents a story still unfolding.

"These are the decades in which we are leaving our homeland for the first time and exploring new worlds," said Viotti, NASA's manager for Mars public engagement, a job created to fuel the public's fascination about space exploration. "It's really a civilization endeavor. It's important to have everyone share in that experience and live history as much as possible."

NASA has been launching Mars missions every 26 months when its orbit and Earth's are in their best alignment. About $450 million is allocated each year toward the endeavor.

For two days in December, Lieberman interviewed scientists and engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., about the work that has consumed them.

'Witnessing' their story

"What I was doing in a way was witnessing for these people their story that may have been lost," he said. "I had to give enough science so that people would understand how amazing it is, but not so much that you get lost in it."

Lieberman recorded more than 700 minutes of conversation during that visit. He recorded even more when he returned for two more days in January to watch Spirit's landing. The scientists were eager to share their thoughts and philosophies with him, he said.

About an hour before Spirit began its descent through the Martian atmosphere, Lieberman joined the engineers in front of a giant screen for a front-row seat. The next few minutes were an emotional roller coaster to which Lieberman's listeners are privy.

Pitching his voice high, then low, and narrating breathlessly or ominously, Lieberman illustrates the joy, sadness and tension that gripped scientists during the landing.

At first there was rejoicing, he tells audiences, as the rover's parachute opened. The cheers continued as the heat shield separated, the retrorockets fired and the craft bounced onto Mars' surface. But then, suddenly, Mission Control lost the signal, and a sickening gloom descended on the room.

Seventeen minutes later, the signal returned, and stunning images of the planet's surface filled the screen. Many of those watching burst into tears. Some fell to their knees, Lieberman said.

"Like small children, they pointed and 'oohed' and 'aahed,'" he said. "One said it was like getting a 'postcard from Mars.'"

Lieberman has divided his story, titled "Twelve Wheels on Mars: The 2004 Mars Exploration Rover Mission," into four acts. The first three are based on his conversations with engineers and scientists who described the design and development of the Mars rover vehicles, intricate machines that took years to assemble. The final act details Spirit's landing.

He recounts the probes' troubled launches, both riddled with technical problems. "Over the years, getting to Mars safely has been so unsuccessful that scientists have joked there was a Great Galactic Ghoul protecting the planet," Lieberman says in his account. "It seemed as if the ghoul was working overtime on this mission. Fuses blew. A battery died."

Tough crowd won over

Lieberman returned to Pasadena in July to present his story to a group of scientists and teach them how to tell it themselves. Viotti expected many in his audience to be harsh critics. Instead, she was pleasantly surprised. "I think everyone was mesmerized and really relaxed into the magic of the telling," she said.

Earlier this month, Lieberman told his story at the International Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough. Joining him were some NASA scientists who told their own space tales, following some of the tips they have learned.

Lieberman also recently offered an excerpt to his own Jewish Reconstructionist congregation in Evanston during a service on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. Among other things, the holiday commemorates the birth of the universe.

Lieberman hopes his story inspires others as much as it inspired him.

With that in mind, he concludes his story: "Picture those two little birdlike geologists roaming around the surface of Mars. It makes you smile. We dreamed we could build them and send them there. … Who knows what dreams lie ahead?"