STUDIO CITY, CALIF. — With eyes bugged out wider than the two fried eggs languishing uneaten on his plate, Larry Darling scans photos in the Los Angeles Times.
"I'll tell you why I'm riveted to these pictures coming back from Mars," says the local diner with a kind of "Well, DUH!" disdain: "This is the closest feeling I've ever had that we earthlings may not be alone in the cosmos."
The notion that life forms could reside on Earth's closest planetary neighbor is one of several factors fueling public intrigue in the Pathfinder Mars mission. Not since the summer of 1969, when Neil Armstrong bounced across the lunar landscape, has America been so over the moon about space.
"The sustained interest in this Mars mission is exceeding even the Apollo 11 [first moon landing]," says Bruce Murray, president of the Planetary Society.
Noting that the mission's startling success is already opening doors - and wallets - for future Martian exploration, he adds: "People know that if there is a future for the human race outside earth ... this is it."
Fed by decades of literature, movies, and television - from H.G. Wells's "War of the Worlds" to last season's movie "Mars Attacks" by Tim Burton - earthlings have long nurtured a fascination with the Red Planet. Besides the tales of little green men or stalking robots, science-fiction writers such as Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke have posited the possibility of human colonization of Mars.
"Some of these books have fueled real hope that if humans are ever to have a colony in space, it will be on Mars," says Scott Hyman, a physicist at Sweet Briar College in Roanoke, Va. "My first reaction to all this is [that] maybe I'll get there myself."
Planet of pestilence
Such a reaction is a long way from that of the ancient Phoenicians who believed the blood red dot in the sky brought war, pestilence, and the demand for human sacrifice. The Romans named it Mars for their god of war. In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli saw what he thought were lines which he called "channels." Astronomers later described the features as canals, which led to still more theories that intelligent life was moving water between cities.
Today's fascination is twofold, say both scientists and sociologists. Take the barrage of postcard crisp images of mountains, rocks, and deserts that look like a travel brochure from nearby Arizona. Add cinematic encounters of the fictional kind - such as the screwball mutants that populate Hollywood blockbusters. The result is an American population caught up in a unique pre-millennial collision of fantasy and reality.
"I'm not saying whether there are Martians or extraterrestrials or not," says Juanita Vascon, exiting a local movie theater here after watching "Men in Black." "But I guess I feel more than ever that it's possible."
Still, there are also more primal and practical motives for the continued exploration of Mars, scientists say.
"Mars has carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen, which is what humans are made of," says Mr. Murray, a former director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and now a professor of planetary science at California PolyTechnic Institute. "There's no other place like it in the solar system." There's also no place closer or more "hospitable."
The temperature of Mars frequently rises to a habitable 32 degrees fahrenheit. Although its far-thinner atmosphere doesn't screen cosmic rays and other radiation as well as Earth's, it lacks the crushing density of Venus, the noxious gases of Jupiter, the blistering ice storms of Pluto.
The latest images and analysis of Mars sent home from the pint-sized Sojourner landrover show a landscape littered with rocks and boulders, some made of similar substances to those on Earth. White areas, sediments, and the angles of such rocks indicate the possibility of past water flows and possible flooding. The presence of water is considered a key condition for supporting life.
Besides the data itself, the changes here on Earth are helping spark the current widespread interest in the Red Planet, analysts say. That includes the choice of hundreds of TV channels, some allowing round-the-clock coverage - instead of just three major networks back during the era of Apollo moon landings. The Internet also provides another window for the public to share in the discoveries and excitement simultaneously with scientists.
An Internet hit
NASA and JPL spokesmen say their Web sites have received over 100 million "hits," or visits from Internet subscribers wishing to know more about the Mars mission.
"With the World Wide Web getting these images in real time, there has come a total revolution in the way scientific data is handled," says Brian Stonehill, a media analyst at Pomona College. "In the past, we had to wait until such data was received, looked at, argued over, and then shared with the public. Now we all get to share emotionally in the sense of discovery ... it is one of the brilliant consequences of all this technology."
A three-day festival known as Planetfest drew an unprecedented 3,000 top scientists and public to Pasadena, Calif., to witness the first transmission of images from Mars. Souvenir hawkers were not far behind, selling 1500 miniature Mattel landrovers, landers, and spacecraft in 20 minutes outside of JPL.
Overall, the Mars mission has sparked a new sense of possibility for a space program many feel has become boring and routinized. Countless US space shuttle missions have lost the public imagination, they say, by sticking too comfortably within Earth's own orbit.
By contrast, "the direct knowledge of other worlds brings a wider realm of the universe into human understanding and experience," says Ben Schumacher, a professor of physics at Kenyon College who teaches planetary science.
"Americans see themselves as a nation of explorers and pioneers, it strikes a chord in us," he says. "The transformation from imagination to real experience is at the heart of all exploration. I think Americans are particularly attuned to this."
Because the mission's rover vehicle is of human scale, and the Martian landscape consists of manageable hills and valleys, other scientists say the mission's appeal is in the believable prospect that existence close to our own might be possible there.