Did it just happen that as Jodie Foster's "Contact" is revving to open, a mission to Mars is grabbing the headlines? All three of the majors working the weekend are leading with the story of how yesterday, the Mars lander's communications problems with the rover vehicle it will deploy were solved.
There being no way into this story other than through the briefings and access provided by the mission's organizer, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Mars pieces in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times are relentlessly similar. Still, here and there individual touches emerge. The LAT has the news that the engineers were able to solve Pathfinder's initial problems in part because they had, before the landing, replicated them in a 30-by-50-foot sandbox. And the NYT captures an example of what apparently goes for rocket scientist humor. The paper mentions a mysterious object in the landing area that scientists are anxious to investigate with the rover, and quotes mission team member Dr. Peter Smith as saying that it "appeared to be something long, dark and shaped a little like a couch. 'Someone suggested that was a homeless person out there,' the scientist joked." I guess destitute people are pretty funny when you're federally subsidized.
Meanwhile, back on earth, the Post fronts an interesting piece revealing that "the last great oil rush of the 20th century--targeted at a potential $4 trillion patch in Central Asia's Caspian Sea region--has lured a prestigious group of U.S. prospectors: former high-ranking government officials bent on winning a stake in the bonanza for themselves or their companies." The article's subhead mentions lobbying by former Reagan and Bush national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, former Bush chief of staff John Sununu, former Bush Secretary of State James Baker, and former Clinton Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen. The body of the piece also reveals the similar activities of former Bush Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney and former Carter national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. It's not clear why the latter two were left out of the bold type. This is tricky because it's also not clear whether in Washington it's bad to be prominent in articles like this. After all, being certified by the Post as working on something big could be great for business.
The piece mentions that Scowcroft has already made $130,000 from Pennzoil in connection with the Caspian site. Of course, for him, money has nothing to do with it. He tells the Post he's on the case "because the United States has big interests out there." Incidentally, Scowcroft is fresh from a $50,000 one-day paper profit as a result of Lockheed's announcement last week of its intention to purchase Northrop, where (a few Web keystrokes quickly revealed) he is a director holding shares and options worth more than a quarter of a million dollars.
The LAT also has a scoop on the front today--the revelation that the Pentagon and CIA have worked up a plan for nabbing former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karaszic to bring him up on international war crimes charges. The paper states that President Clinton hasn't approved the plan yet, but that he's not ruling it out either.
Remember that study a while back that concluded that 65 percent of teenaged mothers were impregnated by adult men? It prompted much discussion of a theretofore-unnoticed problem. Well, today's NYT's "Week in Review" section brings the news that the study was wrong. Seems that the investigators neglected to mention "that 62 percent of the teen-age mothers were 18 or 19 years old and, therefore, like the fathers of their babies, adults." Never mind.