Friday, August 10, 2012

Take a road trip to Mars!

Curiosity's panoramic image of its current position (sol 5). On the left of this image, part of the rover's power supply is visible. To the right of the power supply can be seen the pointy low-gain antenna and side of the paddle-shaped high-gain antenna for communications directly to Earth. The rim of Gale Crater is the lighter colored band across the horizon.  NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Curiosity’s” successful trip to and landing on Mars has inspired me to follow the cool-looking rover’s adventure and I would like to share what I learn on my Friday blog. If you are a teacher, I invite you to follow my blog and share with your students what Curiosity is doing and what she’s discovering as well as information about Mars and class activities. This would be a wonderful and exciting way to raise interest in science and engineering!

Visit other nonfiction blogs today at NONFICTION MONDAY, hosted by Nonfiction Detectives.

And what a better way to begin than following the fascinating explorations of the “never-give-up” rovers Spirit and Opportunity ? The twin rovers preceded Curiosity to Mars and their journey has been a rollercoaster, up with excitement, down with serious trouble, but above all a tribute to patience and perseverance on Earth and on Mars.

I am delighted to have Alexandra Siy today visiting my blog. (How do you pronounce 'Siy') She has outstanding, award-winning books about science for children including “Cars on Mars. Roving the RedPlanet.” 

I wanted to ask Alexandra about her own journey to Mars, so to speak, as she researched and wrote about Spirit and Opportunity.
Thank you, Alexandra, for sharing behind the scenes insights into what it took to write this fascinating book!

* When and how did you decide to write about the first two Mars rovers?

In the summer of 2003 Spirit and Opportunity were on their way to Mars. It was the perfect time for an encounter with a spacecraft from Earth because the planets were closer than they’d been in 60,000 years. I was camping on an island in the Adirondack wilderness and saw The Red Planet (and it was very red) in the night sky. I felt a strong connection to our nearest neighbor in the solar system, and wondered what it would be like be an explorer there. I realized I could explore Mars along with the rovers by writing a book about them.

* Why was it important for you to write about them?

I wanted to go along on the Mars road trip. I was a little kid when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. It was an extraordinary event, one that I remember vividly. The Mars rovers are like the Apollo Moon mission for today’s kids—but unlike going to the Moon and back, which takes about a week, going to Mars and exploring the planet takes years. There is a mountain of information and hundreds of thousands of images available from NASA. Children can experience the excitement and drama of the Mars missions in a book that has been carefully researched and designed. 

* What was the hardest thing to accomplish? (getting interviews or other sources, finding a kid-friendly angle, deciding how to organize and present the enormous amount of information, finding a publisher, other?)

My publisher accepted my proposal several years before I wrote the book. The mission was supposed to last about 90 days, but the rovers kept on going for years. I kept asking my editor for an extension because the rovers were discovering new things everyday. Finally, after three years, we decided it was time to tell the story of Spirit and Opportunity. I had just moved from Alaska to New York. My cross continental journey became inspiration for the book. I was really struggling to find a great title…and when “Cars on Mars” popped into my head, I instantly had the format for organizing the book in a kid friendly way. This was a “far-out” road trip, and road trips are fun, exciting, and really cool. I listened to road trip music while looking at the images from Mars. I felt like I was along for the ride! I ate road trip snacks, and even felt a little “carsick” after staring at Martian landscapes for hours and hours…I really felt like I was on Mars. I hope kids who read my book get that feeling of being on Mars with Spirit and Opportunity.

* Did you have the opportunity to talk to some of the people who made this possible?

I talked with Jim Bell, the scientist who creates the color panoramic images. He wrote a fabulous coffee table book called Postcards from Mars. 
I also talked to Steve Squyres, the principal investigator for the mission, whose book Roving Mars provided me with an inside look at the mission. Steve is quoted throughout my book. These quotes were from NASA press releases. Steve always had great quotes that fit perfectly into what I was trying to say. I also visited Honeybee Labs in NYC, which is the company that designs and builds the RAT (rock abrasion tool). I watched while one of the engineers controlled the operation of the RAT from computers in their offices.

*What was your favorite part of writing Cars on Mars?
I loved writing this book. While I was writing, my imagination took me to Mars. Everyday I looked forward to going into my office to write. I felt like I was leaving Earth behind and entering an unknown place. When I was finished writing the book I still didn’t have chapter titles. They were just numbered. I had to come up with titles, but I couldn’t think of anything that sounded good. Then, I reminded myself that I had been on a road trip. (When you need help on a road trip you go on Google to “Get Directions.”) Get Directions became the heading for the table of contents page, and I wrote all the chapter titles as actual directions describing what was going on in each chapter. I loved how everything came together in the end.

5. Could you give us a hint of you current writing projects? Where will you take us next?
Currently I am finishing a book about spiders called Spiderbook. Spiders are fascinating, and so is the fact that a lot of people are afraid of them. This title will be illustrated with electron micrographs (in the same style of my recent book BUG SHOTS: TheGood the Bad, and the Bugly). 
When I’m finished with Spiderbook this fall, I plan to write about my exploration of the ancient bristlecone forests in the Great Basin. This was an extraordinary adventure of discovery. Imagine trees that are still thriving at 5,000 years old! These are the oldest living organisms on the planet and have stories to tell…I want to write these stories, I want to give the trees a voice. I’m also working on another outer space adventure featuring spaceships and awesome space photography (but I will keep that book title a secret for now). And of course, I’d love to write a book about Curiosity on Mars. I guess that sounds like a sequel!

6.  What's your message to young readers who are considering science as their field of study?

Alexandra looking for bristlecones to tell her their story.
(© A. Siy)

Well, I hope my books inspire children to want to learn about the world. That’s what science is all about. Some people say science is difficult and boring…I don’t get this! Science is endlessly exciting. There is art in science (just look at the images sent to Earth by Spirit and Opportunity, and now Curiosity). I would tell my readers to not only read, but also to become observers of the world. I would tell them to look closely at phenomena in nature and to ask questions. New discoveries are being made all the time—scientists are both critical and creative thinkers. They are also artists.
Thank you!
Thank you, Alexandra, for your inspiration, hard work and fascinating books. I wish you much success. I can’t wait to know the stories a 5,000 year old tree has to tell! WOW! This will be truly traveling back in time.
Visit Alexandra’swebsite for more information about her books, her school visits, and other projects. Did you know she’s also a wonderful photographer? 

And now, what is going on with Curiosity?
This full-resolution self-portrait shows the deck of NASA's Curiosity rover from the rover's Navigation cameras. The back of the rover can be seen at the top left of the image, and two of the rover's right side wheels can be seen on the left. See those little black dots on top? They are 1 cm  (0.4 inches) long pebbles that fell on it during landing. So far, they are not a problem. NASA/JPL-Caltech
As you are reading this post, Curiosity stays put on a desert-like Martian landscape (it’s so cool I am writing this, and it’s nonfiction!). Three hundred and so million miles away on Earth (where you are sitting) scientists and engineers have sent new software to Curiosity’s computers and are in the process of checking all instruments are go. This will take a few days. In the mean time, Curiosity is not shy with her camera keeping NASA people busy putting together hundreds of images that reveal a not so ‘alien’ landscape.

For the classroom:
If you are on Mars, a day, or the time it takes the planet to complete is full rotation or spin around its axis, is called a “sol”. One sol is about 39 minutes longer than a day on earth. Today is sol 5 of Curiosity’s mission.

Cool stuff: some of the scientists and engineers of the Mars mission wear a watch specially made to be on Mars time. Some of them wear two watches on their wrists: one on Mars time and the other on Earth time. No excuse to be late anywhere!

Visit other science blogs today at NONFICTION MONDAY. Hosted by Nonfiction Detectives.


  1. Awesome post! thanks for sharing the Mars road trip - and great conversation with Alexandra. I love her books!

  2. Ana,

    This a fabulous and very timely post. With so much great information, I will need to come back to absorb it all.

  3. WOW, what an amazing post! Like Roberta, I'm still busy digesting and savoring. Thanks so much!

  4. Ana,
    Thanks so much for the interview and sharing my work with your readers! I can't wait to read more of your nonfiction posts. Check out iNK ( for more nonfiction authors and their books!
    Alexandra Siy (

  5. Thank you all for your comments and especially to Alexandra for sharing her experiences with the writing process and for taking us to Mars!

  6. I love all the Mars titles here, definitely timely what with all the space shuttle photographs that have been circulating around. Thank you for sharing so many great nonfiction titles.