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Mars Rover Art Car: Bringing Space to the Playa

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Mars Rover Art Car: Bringing Space to the Playa


What does Burning Man and space exploration have in common? Well, any Burner (and likely non-Burners) will tell you that the Playa looks like another world. I have been fortunate enough to travel across the planet with NASA Astrobiologists in search of the driest and saltiest places on Earth. These researchers are specifically looking for the weirdest types of “extremophile” life live in those environments; the idea is that in these Martian ‘analogs’ on Earth, we get an idea of what we should be looking for on the red planet.

My first experience at Burning Man in 2010 was spent in the background, taking in all the new experiences. I felt at home really, except that in this dry, salty desert I had found a different kind of ‘extremophilic community.’ That first experience was eye opening for me, not just from the artistic perspective, but due to the engineering and self-reliance that was necessary. Just like my trips to the far corners of Earth…and not unlike what an astronaut would experience on their way to Mars.

After a few false starts, I finally returned to the Playa with new crew of explorers named the Desert Wizards of Mars. Started by my friend and fellow space explorer “Admiral” Charles White, the Desert Wizards built the Mars Rover Art Car on not just blood, sweat, and tears, but also also on the personal  commitments of local Desert Wizards: Bender, Gary, Jason, Justin, Krista, Mandy, Matt, Miguel, Mike, Pickle, Pat, Rach, Reba, Russell, Shawna, Susan, Tom, and Widget, (and others I may be forgetting), but also the many donors to our KickStarter campaign.

Photo taken at White Sky Ranch of Mars Rover Art Car and Human Spirit in the background. Image credit: Charles White
Author working installing ethernet on the Mars Rover Art Car. Image Credit Charles White

For the 2013 Burn, my primary responsibility was to service internet and video streaming capability of the art car. I also ended up being the Chief Pilot, driving my fellow orange suited ‘rovernauts’. We learned many lessons learned about this experience — many of the same kinds of lessons learned we proscribe for exploration missions: Train multiple teammates multiple skills; always bring extra screws; things like that.

The 2013 Burn was also personally rewarding to me in several big ways. First, I helped mend the official live video stream, a big deal for thousands of viewers who could not otherwise attend the event. Moreover, the Mars Rover Art Car’s video system live streamed the Man Burn from inside the fire circle; a first! It pays to demonstrate awareness of Federal safety rules and responsible behavior to the Bureau of Land Management.

The second big reward was this photo Tom Varden took. You know I framed that one….

The most rewarding experience for my 2013 Burn though is the on-going inspiration I get from knowing Captain Everything, Ms Tina Merrie Newman.

For this #DIYSpaceWeek series of blogs on Makezine, I asked the Admiral and Captain Everything to share with us some of their personal experiences with the Mars Rover Art Car.

Q: What inspired you to make a model of the Mars Rover for Burning Man?

ADMIRAL Charles White: Back in 2008, I was the manager of the JPL Problem Reporting System supporting the Mars Science Laboratory, now known as the Curiosity Rover. I was inspired to build the Mars Rover Art Car for Burning Man 2013 when I attended Yuri’s Night 2008 at NASA Ames Research Center. I worked as a NASA staffer and VIP escort to Anousheh Ansari.

During the event, I got down on the main floor where there was art and scientific displays sandwiched between DJ music dance floors. I met the visitors, who were mostly in their 20’s and 30’s, and they were treating us NASA folks like rock stars.  They asked questions about my job with seemingly genuine interest. I have to admit that their hunger for space exploration, technology, and science blew away my stereotypes of that generation.

CAPTAIN “Tina Merrie” EVERYTHING: While I was getting my BFA in graphic design, I quickly realized that I could not stand just sitting around and clicking with one finger on a computer all day.

It all started with my first glimpse of Burning Man in a series of documentaries called Profiles in Dust. Before I had even gone to the event, I was surrounded by people that were eager to share their experience with the ridiculous artworks. I remember watching the video and seeing things that spit fire, spun, and were made out of metal and flames. All hurdles of expectation, gender profiles, and upbringing became null and void, and that is quite a free place to be.

The next day I enrolled in a metal sculpture program. I was shocked and relieved to see many other women wanting to learn to weld. Honestly, I never finished that master’s degree because I deemed it more valuable to get out and get my hands dirty on projects instead of staying in school another three years.

CW: A couple of years after Yuri’s Night Bay Area 2008, I helped build two art cars for Burning Man 2011: “Charlie the Unicorn Art Car” and the “Shoe Choo”.  I gained a great deal of experience from building those cars that I wanted to use to build something special for Burning Man 2013.

Remembering how much those young folk loved science and dancing, I took a gamble to create an artistic, fun version of the Curiosity Rover.

TM:  In 2012 I was in the middle of a typically tragic art car break down with Charlie the Unicorn en route to the Playa when the Admiral shared his plans for the Mars Rover Art Car. It felt just like he had asked me to the prom!

Q: What was it like to build the Mars Rover Art Car?  How was that experience?

CW: Simply amazing! In September 2012, Tina and I participated with a team of artists and craftspeople from the Los Angeles League of Arts that were going to build a 14 foot tall metal angel called the Human Spirit.

Many of the Desert Wizards of Mars crew post in front of the "Human Spirit" at the 2013 Los Angeles Decompression. Image by Ray Cirino
Many of the Desert Wizards of Mars crew pose in front of the “Human Spirit” at the 2013 Los Angeles Decompression. Image credit: Ray Cirino

My past experiences as an art car maker guided me to lead that project successfully.  When we were done, the team threw up their hands and said, “now what do we do?”

I said, “I’m going to build the Mars Rover Art Car.”

We held a meeting at my house, and the group was very excited regarding the build. We formed a new group called the Desert Wizards of Mars and soon we were turning steel and sawing wood on the old chassis off the former Shoe Choo.

We put out word on Facebook, and in a short time we had over 50 people all volunteering to lending a hand in the construction of the car. The excitement for the project exploded.

TM: At first I was a little worried about how I could complete this task of building and managing a big portion of the art car, but it was “trial by fire.” I hope that more builders get to have this experience. Even if you think you are way out of your league, just take that first step toward what you want to build. You’ll be amazed by what you can create.

Charles White channeling his best Carl Sagan impression as he explains to viewers the Mars Rover Art Car on the Playa
Charles White channeling his best Carl Sagan impression as he explains to viewers the Mars Rover Art Car on the Playa

Q: What was it like out on the Playa?

TM: I’ve never seen so many people appreciate a project based on science and space exploration before. We felt like VIPs when we rolled the Mars Rover out for it’s first tour de force on the Playa. I’ve built many art projects before, but taking the Mars Rover out for her first spin will always stand out in my mind as a highlight of my life to date. I had no idea that so many people were excited to see it be there.

CW: We made Burning Man history. We were the first art car to be placed in front of the inner circle of the Man burn, and we were the first art car to broadcast via the internet from our remote cameras the live event of both the Man burn, and the art structure known as Cradle of MIR.

Q: What is in the future for the Mars Rover Art Car and for the Desert Wizards?

CW: The Mars Rover Art Car has a functional weather station. It has 7 cameras used for navigation, an infrared all weather camera, and a telescope that can see the rings of Saturn. The car also features a unique Rocket Stove that was designed by Ray Cirino. According to Ray, it is the most efficient wood burning rocket stove on the planet. We plan to keep on adding new science instruments including a new robotic arm to take ground samples.

The merging of science and art was such a hit, that it was suggested that we take the Mars Rover Art Car beyond Burning Man and actually take it to schools to inspire younger children to study the science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) subjects.

Q: Why do you want to teach children to play with fire?

TM: While I am a newcomer to making things go “BOOM”, I do understand that there is a science behind pyrotechnics which demands a well structured safety protocol. There are a lot of future pyrotechnicians out there playing on their own that I want to inspire responsibly. My hope is that we can bring the Mars Rover Art Car out to more schools to teach these things. There is no reason not to teach about science, space exploration, collaborative art, and pyrotechnics together. My goal for the Mars Rover Art Car is to inspire an interest in these things while providing education in safety.

Tina Merrie explaining to students the Mars Rover Art Car fire effect operation. Image Credit: Charles White
Mars Rover Art Car Fire Effect. Image Credit Charles White

I also wish I had known when I was younger that there were so many rockstar women builders out there. I was raised to believe that my only options were to be a doctor, lawyer, actress, or a classical fine artist. Because of that mindset, I followed the straight and assumed “normal” educational path, always feeling like I was just working on someone else’s checklist of what to do.

Q: Do you have any words of advice towards those that want to become a builder?

CW: Check social funding sites, or regional Burning Man groups that may be forming up to build something for Burning Man. These are great people to know and they are always looking for helpful people, sometimes regardless of skills.

TM:Yes. No matter what you want to be in your life, even if it’s something completely outlandish like building metal that spits fire, just try and do it safely. If you have an interest, no matter how weird, look around you and find the safe role models. When you see someone doing what you dream of, talk to that person. Never be ashamed of wanting to do what interests you. Learn. Listen. Give new ideas. Work hard. And always take care of your team.

Look for Admiral Jet Burns and Captain Everything at tonight’s Yuri’s Night Los Angeles event at the California Science Center. Look for the orange jumpsuits, you can’t miss them.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

I love exploring harsh geological features in the hunt for strange forms of life. On Earth, Mars, or the moon, the best way would obviously be by motorbike. 

View more articles by Matthew Reyes
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