By Joe Bargmann
Sunday, September 28, 2008

Two of the most important men in the future of space exploration share an extreme passion for golf. Coincidence?

Maybe. But watch the trajectory of a white ball launched from the titanium face of a driver into an infinite sky. Consider the intricacies of remotely guiding a tiny vessel across complex surface topography to a target no more than inches in diameter. Imagine the ego, the competitive fire, that must be required to believe you can send humans into the frozen void of space and return them safely to Earth, or discover life on another planet. Or hit a ball 500 yards over lake and forest, hill and dale, and land it in a tiny cup.

Still think it's a coincidence?

When Popular Mechanics recognized Burt Rutan with a Breakthrough Award in 2006, lauding him as the "final frontiersman" for the design and development of the first suborbital spaceship for tourists, the magazine invited Rutan to be the keynote speaker at the awards ceremony in New York. He accepted, on one condition: He would need to get in a round of golf while he was in the Big Apple.

The magazine editors -- who knew I was a golf nut -- asked me if I could arrange for Rutan to play at New Jersey's famed Baltusrol Golf Club. The imposing 6-foot-3 Rutan showed up at the notoriously fusty club outfitted in tartan-plaid plus fours, a matching tam o'shanter, a long-sleeved golf shirt, knee socks and suspenders. My first glimpse of him on the practice putting green will be with me forever.

Early this year, I learned that Peter Smith, the principal investigator and driving force behind NASA's astoundingly successful Phoenix Mission to explore Mars via remote-controlled robots, was also a golf enthusiast. I did a quick calculation: Rutan, space flight pioneer + Smith, nation's leading Mars authority + golf, male-bonding session = irresistible story.

As it turned out, the two men had a passing knowledge of each other but had never met. Smith, 60, knew Rutan, 65, as the aviation pioneer who, as a former Air Force test-flight engineer, struck out on his own in 1974 to become the most famous American aircraft designer, period. Rutan had been fascinated by the possibility of manned flights to the Red Planet since he was a kid, and he knew of Smith's Phoenix project, but didn't know Smith by name. "I should have," Rutan says. "He's doing hero work."

When I e-mailed Rutan to ask him whether he'd like to play golf with Smith, he pronounced the idea "outstanding!" This is one of Rutan's favorite words. He uses it with a range of inflections, from a low, pensive whisper to a startling exclamation. From the tenor of his e-mail (wildly enthusiastic), this particular "outstanding" leaned toward startling exclamation.

Smith was exhausted after months of riding herd on the Phoenix project, but he wasn't about to pass up a chance to play golf with Rutan. "I'm up for that," Smith said, recalling the "absolute thrill" of watching on TV as Rutan's first suborbital craft shot into space. "There was a lot of showmanship and technical genius involved," says Smith. "I thought, 'Any guy who can make that happen, I've got to meet him.' "

In Tucson, two days before the combatants would take up their forged steel and titanium weapons 500 miles away in the high desert near Palm Springs, Calif., Smith is holding court in his house, a futuristic-looking corrugated metal structure he describes as "a spaceship that crashed in the middle of the desert." He is even more physically imposing than Rutan -- an inch taller at 6-foot-4 and not an ounce less than 250 pounds. Smith has worked since 1978 at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. An optical and imaging expert, Smith designed the cameras for the 1996 Mars Pathfinder Mission, among others -- both successful and disastrous. But his big personality, combined with his burrowing intellect, led him to increasingly broader, managerial roles, until his proposal for the $420 million Phoenix program got the green light in 2003.

He has just sucked down his third flute of Perrier-Jouet Champagne Grand Brut, two hours after announcing at a news conference that the Phoenix project had confirmed the existence of water ice on Mars. The implications are huge, the discovery a scientific first, and Smith is feeling flush with pride. "Confirming that water's there is nothing -- nothing," he says, leaning to pour more bubbly for his wife, Dana, a retired nurse and practicing painter and ceramics sculptor. "We're really just getting started." The next steps: proving that Mars has sustained life (and possibly still can), conducting more elaborate robotic missions, and then, perhaps, sending manned missions and colonizing the planet somewhere down the road.

Let's drink to our conquest of Mars!

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