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How a 9/11 memorial got to Mars

NASA / JPL-Caltech / Cornell

A photo taken by the Spirit rover in 2004 shows the U.S. flag on a cable shield that was fashioned out of aluminum from New York's World Trade Center.

Ten years after the 9/11 terror attacks, pieces of the World Trade Center serve as a shining red-white-and-blue tributes on the Red Planet.

The two aluminum shields were fashioned out of metal salvaged from the fallen towers and dispatched to Mars on NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers in 2003. The shields are emblazoned with a U.S. flag and designed to protect cables on the rovers' rock abrasion tools, or RATs.

The tributes were made possible by rover science team member Stephen Gorevan, the founder and chairman of Honeybee Robotics. Gorevan's company — which has its offices in Lower Manhattan, less than a mile from Ground Zero — built the grinding tools for NASA's use.

"It's gratifying knowing that a piece of the World Trade Center is up there on Mars," Gorevan said in a NASA news release issued today. "That shield on Mars, to me, contrasts the destructive nature of the attackers with the ingenuity and hopeful attitude of Americans."

Gorevan was riding his bike to work when the first plane hit on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Mostly, what comes back to me even today is the sound of the engines before the first plane struck the tower," he recalled. "Just before crashing into the tower, I could hear the engines being revved up as if those behind the controls wanted to ensure the maximum destruction. I stopped and stared for a few minutes and realized I felt totally helpless, and I left the scene and went to my office nearby, where my colleagues told me a second plane had struck. We watched the rest of the sad events of that day from the roof of our facility."

Steve Kondos, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who was working closely with the Honeybee team, suggested including something on the Mars rovers as a 9/11 memorial. (The Spirit rover also carried a memorial plaque dedicated to the victims of the Columbia tragedy.) Gorevan checked with his contacts, and on Dec. 1, 2001, Honeybee received a parcel from the New York mayor's office, containing a twisted plate of aluminum and a note: "Here is debris from Tower 1 and Tower 2."

Honeybee engineer Tom Myrick hand-delivered the metal to a machine shop in Texas that was working on other RAT components, and the scrap was turned into the credit card-sized shields. Myrick added the flags to the shields and had them installed on the rovers for launch.

No one on the rover team on at Honeybee spoke publicly about the 9/11 connection until months after the rovers landed on Mars in 2004. "It was intended to be a quiet tribute," The New York Times quoted Gorevan as saying in November 2004. "Enough time has passed. We want the families to know."

Now the 9/11 connection is a well-established part of the lore surrounding the Mars rovers. Spirit froze in place last year in Gusev Crater during the Martian winter, but Opportunity is still going strong at Endeavour Crater, and researchers are planning to use the flag-festooned RAT on some intriguing rocks next month.

"One day, both rovers will be silent," NASA said in the news release. "In the cold, dry environments where they have worked on Mars, the onboard memorials to the victims of the Sept. 11 attack could remain in good condition for millions of years."

Will the descendants of the World Trade Center victims have an opportunity someday to visit those memorials on Mars? What do you think? Feel free to add your comments and your tributes below.

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