Citizen Staff Writer
It’s a monument to two men, yet no human will ever see it in person. It’s too far away – on the surface of Mars. And it’s too tiny – less than one-12th of an inch across. Each line of writing could be obscured with a human hair.
This is one of the most touching tributes to two men from their co-workers. Yet within about a month, the monument will vanish from sight forever.
The monument is a plaque affixed to a science experiment on the Phoenix Mars Lander, a mission led by the University of Arizona.
The lander isn’t expected to be functioning much longer as the Martian winter closes in and covers it with ice, rendering its solar power-generating panels worthless.
Once that happens, there will be no way to see the plaque that memorializes the work and the lives of two young men.
The plaque is attached to a science experiment called Mars Environmental Compatibility Assessment. It’s a bundle of four chemistry labs, each small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, that analyze samples of Martian soil.
Part of the lab is a microscope. One of the ways the microscope was calibrated was by photographing and transmitting an image of the plaque, which memorializes Mitch Shellman and Kurt Lankford.
This is who they were:
• Mitch Shellman worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which was responsible for overseeing building Phoenix and its journey to Mars.
Michael Hecht was the JPL person in charge of MECA. He started working on the tiny chemistry lab in 1997, and that’s where he met Shellman.
Shellman took a circuitous route to the space facility. He was in the Green Berets in Vietnam and, when he returned, took a job as a janitor at an aerospace company in the Los Angeles area.
“He was determined to make something of himself,” said Hecht. Shellman earned an associate’s degree and learned the business side of spaceships by negotiating contracts.
But Shellman wanted to be one of the technical guys building MECA. After more on-the-job training, he was transferred to that division just before Christmas 1998.
Hecht said Shellman never took a day off. In addition to work, he was active in his church, coached soccer and was devoted to his wife and two young children.
In January 1999, Shellman took his family to Florida for the launch of the Mars Polar Lander, which later crashed into Mars instead of landing.
While visiting a nearby wild animal park, Shellman collapsed and died of a heart attack. He was 48.
• Kurt Lankford worked 800 miles from Shellman, but both were immersed in the same science experiment on the UA-led lander.
Lankford worked for Starsys Research Corp. in Boulder, Colo. The small company was hired to build the top of MECA, which is much more complicated than it sounds.
The top of the lab has doors that open to accept Martin soil, then close, inject water, stir the mixture, look for a reaction, add a chemical reagent, then look again for a reaction.
It’s a complicated process happening 230 million miles away. “Kurt pretty much invented it,” said Mark Bailey, MECA program manager at Starsys who was Lankford’s boss.
Scott Tibbitts, founder of Starsys, remembered Lankford as “a very athletic individual” who co-authored a book on backcountry ski trails in Colorado. He went for a run on mountain trails every day on his lunch break.
That’s what Lankford did Sept. 17, 2002. He didn’t return, and a hiker found his body by a trail the next day. He had died of a heart attack.
Like Shellman, Lankford left a wife and two young children. Starsys employees donated money for an education fund for Lankford’s children and the company matched it, raising $50,000.
After Lankford’s funeral, his children made a small paper crane for each Starsys employee. Six years later, many employees still have them on their desks, Tibbitts said.
The plaque on the Mars Lander was Hecht’s idea. It also has the names of six babies born to MECA workers while they prepared for the mission and the name of a retired JPL scientist.
NASA, which was in charge of the Phoenix, didn’t know the tiny plaque was attached and is very sensitive to personal messages sent into space.
“But I wondered,” said Hecht, “how could they complain about dead people and babies?”
Mark Kimble appears at 6:30 p.m. Fridays on the Roundtable segment of “Arizona Illustrated” on KUAT-TV, Channel 6. He may be reached at 573-4662 or email@example.com.
Approximate size of plaque on Mars Lander, 2 mm squareShellman and Lankford