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Flying High

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DOES MARS HAVE LIFE? “OF course,” says First Martian Scott Taggart, 33, the mayor of Mars, Pa. “For those who live here.” But the town’s 1,700 residents are not exactly over the moon about NASA’s startling announcement that some dots on a rock found in Antarctica may be microscopic fossils on a meteor from Mars—and the first-ever signs of life beyond our planet. “We have the original Martians,” declares Larry Cooper, 44, a third-grade teacher at Mars Elementary School. Adds a wounded Mayor Taggart, who doubles as an advertising traffic manager: “NASA hasn’t approached me, and I’ve been wanting to give them samples of our rocks to see what they could find.”

In fact, it’s hard to fathom how NASA could have overlooked Mars, Pa., what with its 2,800-pound flying saucer smack in the middle of town. In June the steel disk even “flew” from the library lawn to a town park. “People don’t understand where it goes or why,” says Bill Swaney, 62, who owns an auto-repair shop (complete with tow truck) and is also the town historian, “but it does.”

Like the Red Planet, the town may not always be visible to the naked eye. But that doesn’t mean its denizens are immune to earthly delights. There’s the local high school football team, called—what else?—the Planets; a bank that boasts “service out of this world”; license plates that read “Welcome to Mars: just a little closer to heaven”; and a travel agent who sends customers “from Mars to Moon [Pa., site of the Pittsburgh International Airport] to the world.”

Martians disagree on how the town got its name. Some say it came from local landowner Samuel Marshall, who with his pal Samuel Parks set up the first post office; others contend that a Mrs. Parks—an amateur astronomer whose first name is lost in all Martian chronicles—anointed it. But there’s no disputing that when the Viking space probe landed on the other Mars in 1976, the town sold its soil, tinted red. at a dollar per Baggie. “We used food coloring,” admits an unrepentant Swaney.

Being a Martian, of course, can bring misunderstandings. “When I call Europe to make a [hotel] reservation, I get hung up on a lot,” says Jim Lascher, 44, the proprietor of Mars Travel. “I have a habit of saying, This is Jim from Mars…,’ but I don’t get the travel part out.” Then there are the jokes. “When you go away and tell people you’re from Mars,” says waitress Kelly Anglen, 17, “they say, ‘How’d you get here? By spaceship?’ It gets old.”

There was also the time that Swaney got a prize for the “longest distance traveled” to a seminar he attended in Pittsburgh. “But afterward,” says Swaney, “this guy comes up to me and says, ‘You know, I come from Venus [Pa.], and that’s a little further away than Mars.’ ”

A geologist revels in the find of a lifetime

AS A 9-YEAR-OLD ON FAMILY vacations, Roberta Score spent hours scouring the shores of Lake Michigan for rocks. “I would insist we take home three or four shopping bags of them,” recalls Score, now 44. “My dad made sure we all got in the car; then he would lift the trunk and leave a bag or two [behind].”

Fortunately, Robert Score, now 73, was at home in Santa Maria, Calif., on Dec. 27,1984, when his younger daughter discovered the 4.5-pound meteorite that some NASA scientists believe holds the first evidence of life beyond Earth: tiny golden particles thought to be fossils of microscopic organisms that once thrived on Mars.

Perhaps harder to believe is the fact that when Score was a teenager growing up in Detroit, science “scared the bejeebers” out of her. As an aspiring dentist at UCLA, she first took geology just to satisfy course requirements; she quickly made it her major. In 1978, Score joined ANSMET (Antarctic Search for Meteorites) as a research assistant at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, working her way up to lab manager. (She now works as a geologist for a private company in Denver that provides logistical support for Antarctic expeditions.)

On the first of her two ANSMET treks to Antarctica, Score made her fateful discovery. Wearing five layers of clothing to protect her from a -30°F windchill factor, she was with five other scientists riding snowmobiles when they came across “a whole garden” of ice pinnacles 12 to 15 feet tall. “It was so spectacular, we just fell apart and were zooming around joyriding,” she recalls. As they headed back to work, Score noticed a rock about the size of a cantaloupe on the blue ice, which, through her tinted sun goggles, appeared to be luminous green. Months later, when the rock haul finally arrived at the Houston lab, she enthused to her colleagues, “Wait until you see this one green rock!” To her surprise, ALH84001, as it is known, was, in fact, a dull gray. That was the one time the rock—one of only 12 on Earth identified as Martian—has disappointed.

At least so far. Says Score: “It will be years and years before there is anything definitive [about life on Mars].” Not for some people. For Olga Kowal, 68, a homemaker, the chunk of Score’s Martian meteorite that she was eyeing last week at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington has settled a 48-year debate. “See, I told you there were extraterrestrials,” she said to her still-dubious husband, Walter, 70. “You never believed me.”