Thursday, August 9, 2012

Mars borough shines amid NASA accomplishment - Pittsburgh Post Gazette

The most recent attempt to discover whether life could exist on Mars -- in the form of the NASA rover robot Curiosity that landed early Monday morning -- cost $2.5 billion and required a journey of 352 million miles.

But if life on Mars contacted us, would we take the call?

That hasn't been Jim Lascher's experience.

As the owner of Mars Travel, Mr. Lascher used to frequently call locations in Europe to make reservations, but introducing himself on the phone proved to be a challenge.

"I never got the 'travel' out before they hung up," he said.

The man is from Mars. That would be Mars, the small borough in Butler County with a population of fewer than 2,000 people.

It may be the case that interest in space travel has waned -- NASA's seventh landing on Mars still was greeted with excitement but far less attention than its mission to the moon in 1969 -- but in Mars, located about 30 minutes north of Pittsburgh, space is still embraced.

"We do get a lot of play out of it," said John Watson, who rents properties in town and serves as president of the Mars Area History & Landmarks Society, Inc.

Mars Area School District is home of the "Fightin' Planets." The Mars Area Public Library uses letterhead featuring a little green guy and two of the book groups it hosts are called "Just Landed In Mars" and "Martians Love to Read Too!" On its website, Mars National Bank boasts that it offers "service out of this world."

Oh, and in the middle of town, there's a spaceship.

"It's like Punxsutawney with their groundhog. We have to do what we can do," said Mr. Lascher, who has worked in Mars for three decades and also owns Mars Realty. He lives in Evans City, just outside of Mars, but drives around in a car with a Martian sticker on the back.

How the town got its name remains a matter of debate among locals, but most people agree that the town was called Marshall at one point after a local postmaster, which then was shortened to Mars.

Mars isn't the only town or street nearby with a space shtick.

There's Moon in Allegheny County, Apollo in Armstrong County, the former Venus diner on Route 8 in Hampton, Mercury Street in West Mifflin, Pluto Road in Ligonier and Saturn Drive in Robinson.

Yet for the next two years, as the rover Curiosity roams the fourth planet from the sun, all eyes will be on Mars.

As NASA explores whether there is life on Mars, it can still be difficult for people outside of Western Pennsylvania to believe there's life in Mars.

Telling people she lives in Mars often sets up a punch line, said Jennifer Ford, the youth services coordinator at the public library.

"There's always some little joke about, 'Oh, the planet Mars. You come from a long way aways,' " she said.

Still, she said, the library has embraced the name, making their motto "a world for everyone" and recently set up a telescope for library users to explore the night sky.

Its name might invite jokes, Mr. Watson said, but it's a great little town, more Mayberry than Mars.

If the NASA rover finds evidence of life on Mars -- and Mr. Lascher, the travel agent, thinks it will -- the Martians of Pennsylvania will be welcoming.

"I'd be glad to book them. If they have got life up there, I'll do tours," he said.

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