By Charly SHELTON
“One Saturday in 2007, while that year’s Martian global dust storm was expanding, I was mowing my front lawn, about five miles from Jet Propulsion Laboratory. A neighbor, out for a walk, stopped by to talk. Happens she was the webmaster for JPL’s main public site. We discussed how news might need posting on Sunday or Monday about the storm’s effect on Spirit and Opportunity. Where else but in communities around JPL could this happen: A couple of neighbors out by the sidewalk chat about how the weather might affect their activities the next day, and it’s the weather on Mars?”
Guy Webster has many stories like this. As the JPL media liaison for the Mars missions, he has been an integral part of the information dissemination of everything the public has heard about from Mars for the last 15 years. He wrote news releases, organized news conferences, helped reporters connect with interviewees and found information on all the goings-on from the time of the Spirit and Opportunity launches. After nearly 18 years with JPL, he retired in February.
“I enjoy the online availability of exploring Mars remotely, with new images available to the public virtually every day from NASA missions there,” Webster said. “But these days I’m spending more time exploring on foot, instead of on-screen, hiking trails in the San Gabriel Mountains. The wildflowers and butterflies in the hills and canyons have been marvelous this spring.”
Webster has had a widely varied career over the years. Although he majored in journalism at the University of Minnesota, he also studied archaeology and participated in excavations of prehistoric sites in the United States and Scotland in the 1960s. He worked in a biochemistry lab in Boston for three years in the 1970s, co-authored several research journal reports. This then led him to a 40-year career in journalism as a reporter before joining JPL in July 2000.
“JPL was a second career for me after many years writing for daily newspapers in Arizona,” Webster said. “My first visit to JPL was as a reporter covering the Mars Pathfinder landing in 1997. That was so exciting, I figured JPL would be a great place to work if an opportunity came along.”
After three years of covering the “outer solar system” beat, including the Galileo, Cassini and Voyager missions, Webster transferred to the Mars missions just before the Spirit and Opportunity rovers launched. Since that time, Webster said he has seen Mars become more than some alien world, but a real place.
“I’ve had a front row seat as the engineers and scientists on NASA Mars missions have transformed that distant world into a multitude of real, now-familiar landscapes. Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity teams have succeeded in the first-ever overland expeditions on a foreign planet. That is history-making. The Mars orbiters have revealed details of thousands of square miles and changes occurring on seasonal and multi-year time scales. The importance is not only the advance in understanding our universe. To me, gaining Mars as a real, known world rather than a point of light or the imagined landscapes of Percival Lowell and science-fiction writers gives humans a valuable ‘other’ that can help unify our planet’s people in appreciating Earth and treating it well,” Webster said. “As great as JPL’s Mars achievements have been, the most important work at the lab during my time there was the growth in understanding about processes of change on Earth, accompanied by increased public understanding about threats of human-caused climate change.”
Guy Webster was around at the Von Karman lecture series that JPL hosted during the early 2000s, and welcomed the public to learn about the solar system, ask questions and foster a love of learning. On a personal note, I was one such young attendee, and Guy always stayed around until the end of the lectures to answer my list of questions, no matter how long. He was my first friend at JPL. As an adult, I have been covering the Lab for nearly 10 years in stories about every imaginable topic and Guy always helped me get my list of questions answered, no matter how long, or what department, or who he had to track down.
From all of us at CV Weekly, you will be missed. Thanks for being our friend.