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  • An inspiring, out-of-this world friendship

  • It's not often you get to talk to a real live spaceman. But when North Medford High School science teacher and planetarium director Robert Black called to say his world-famous BFF, Taber MacCallum, was coming to town for a talk, that's exactly what I got to do.
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  • It's not often you get to talk to a real live spaceman. But when North Medford High School science teacher and planetarium director Robert Black called to say his world-famous BFF, Taber MacCallum, was coming to town for a talk, that's exactly what I got to do.
    We discussed MacCallum's stint in Biosphere 2 — where he and his wife, Jane Poynter, handled air, water and food for the 2-year experiment in closed-space living. And, by the way, fell in love and eventually got married.
    Ain't love grand?
    Nice to know it thrives, even when eight humans in a gigantic glass terrarium are struggling to survive.
    We also discussed the couple's Inspiration Mars prospects. I'm guessing MacCallum and Poynter are odds-on favorites for the 502-day round-trip excursion to Mars' orbit that will slingshot the couple back to Earth on a boomerang trajectory.
    Basically, if all goes according to plan, Earth will turn into a tiny, pale-blue dot as the couple hurtle toward a tiny, pale-orange dot. The highlight of the trip will be the 90 hours spent flying around Mars, MacCallum said.
    I know. I know. So many of you are so excited. Ooh! Ooh! I wish I could go!
    But this gal has vertigo and gets twitchy in an elevator. So the whole notion of being hermetically sealed into a minivan-sized contraption that rockets around the galaxy at 33,000 mph gives me the heebie-jeebies.
    "You're making the hair stand up on the back of my neck," I told MacCallum. "Let's talk about aliens. What do you think? Is there life out there?"
    Hold on to your little green men. Because, in fact, yes, he does. Sorta. Depends on how one defines alien. Or life. I think.
    Actually, I'm still trying to unknot my brain.
    As I explained to this space pioneer, I may have grown up in the heyday of Kennedy's space race, and in the shadow of JPL, and be a huge fan of The Big Bang Theory, but when it comes to advanced biology, I am more of a ... well ... a journalist. So here's a direct quote from MacCallum — make of it what you will.
    "I do think that life is almost certainly fairly ubiquitous," MacCallum said.
    Errrmm.
    MacCallum said a lot more about planets in the "Goldilocks Zone" — where things are neither too hot nor too cold for life to form. And the possibility of microbial life on Mars. And dormant life. And hoarder bugs. And how life arose on Earth almost as soon as it cooled. And apparently it's all quite similar in terms of DNA/RNA.
    "So you almost think it came from somewhere else. That's the big question. Right?" he said.
    I barely made it through the original Star Wars with my mind intact. But here's the part I thought was truly outta this world. MacCallum and Black became best buddies back in Austin, Texas. Their mutual scientific passions have taken them in different trajectories. But they maintain a close friendship and a deep respect for one another. Black was thrilled his pal was heading to Medford to speak to his students about space exploration. MacCallum wasn't about to miss his buddy's 50th birthday bash — and offer up kudos to the teacher of the next generation of scientists.
    "He's fabulous," MacCallum said. "If I'd had him as a teacher ..."
    Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or sspecht@mailtribune.com.
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