Sue Morris and her dog "Pepper" celebrating Mars New Year in 2015. Photo Credit by Bill Ingalls, NASA.

Gregg Hartung doesn’t believe in little green men, but he’s a big fan of Martians.

As the long-time mayor of Mars, Pa., he’s working hard to put the borough on the intergalactic map. For decades, the town has celebrated the kitsch factor of its name (there’s a flying saucer stationed on Pittsburgh Street and the school sports teams are known as the Fightin’ Planets).

Now, Hartung and other borough officials want to go further by building a STEAM-based Mars Discovery Center within the municipal borders.

The borough recently received a $1 million grant from the Pennsylvania Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program that will help fund the proposed Discovery Center and revitalize other parts of the town. Local government officials are searching for the right spot for the facility, which will feature robotics, science labs and educational exhibit areas.

It’s a project that was sparked back in 2014, when this North Hills borough took its first step toward becoming the Roswell of the East by reaching out to NASA.

After a traditional New Year’s Eve celebration fizzled out due to inclement weather, Hartung wondered if the Red Planet’s New Year might fall at a time of year more conducive to outdoor festivities. When a Google search on the topic proved inconclusive, he dialed NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to ask.

It turns out Mars circles the Sun every 687 Earth days. So a June 19, 2015 party was planned. Mars residents and other Earthlings celebrated again in 2017 and 2019. The next Mars’ New Year happens on February 7, 2021.

These successful events are much more than just a champagne toast a midnight. The Mars’ New Year events are three-day, summertime bashes focused on science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. NASA officials, including Chief Scientist Dr. James Green, have attended with interactive exhibits aimed at encouraging kids to pursue careers in STEAM fields. Those students could one day help further the agency’s Mars research.

“We’ve been exploring Mars in a deliberate, systematic way with missions that build on the discoveries of the previous and follow common threads,” says Sarah Marcotte, who is a member of the Jet Propulsion Lab’s Mars Public Engagement team. “As for ties to Mars Borough, that was simply Gregg Hartung picking up the phone and calling us in Pasadena. We found a fun way to collaborate, to celebrate the new year on Mars according to established calendars, and we’ve had three events so far. Dr. Jim Green has been instrumental in the continuing relationship.”

As the relationship and discussions about the Discovery Center have grown, so has NASA’s exploration of the planet Mars.

Last year on Nov. 26, after a seven-month, 300 million-mile journey from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, NASA’s InSight lander touched down on the celestial body. InSight, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, is busy studying the crust, mantle and core of Mars to measure tectonic activity and meteorite impacts, hoping to answer key questions about the formation of rocky planets in our solar system.

Hartung, who has been passionate about space exploration ever since astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon in 1969, keeps abreast of those mission while working on his own.

NASA scientists predict humans could travel to Mars in the next 20 years. Would Hartung ever consider leaving Mars borough and becoming a Red Planet resident?

“Maybe if I was younger I might,” he says with a laugh. “The first mayor on Mars.”

Kristy Locklin

Kristy Locklin is a North Hills-based writer. When she's not busy reporting, she enjoys watching horror movies and exploring Pittsburgh's craft beer scene.