For two years, the NASA robot rover Curiosity will roam the fourth planet from the sun, seeking closure to a mystery that has long captivated the human race -- the question of whether life exists outside of Earth. Hours after Curiosity touched down on Mars, John Watson offered his answer.
"Is there life on Mars? Yes, there's life on Mars," he said. "Come to Mars, Pennsylvania, and you'll see it."
Reaching Mars, the planet, a journey of 352 million miles, took NASA $2.5 billion and eight months of travel. To get to Mars, the borough, drive north from Pittsburgh on Interstate 79 for 30 minutes and take the Mars exit.
If you spot a spaceship, you're in the right place.
It may be that interest in space travel has waned -- NASA's seventh landing on Mars was still greeted with excitement but far less attention than its mission to the moon in 1969 -- but in Mars, Pa., a Butler County borough with a population just under 2,000 people, space is still embraced.
"We do get a lot of play out of it," said Mr. Watson, who rents properties in town and serves as president of the Mars Area History & Landmark Society.
Mars Area School District is home of the "Fightin' Planets." The Mars Area Public Library uses letterhead featuring a little green guy and two of the book groups it hosts are called "Just Landed In Mars" and "Martians Love to Read Too!"
And, of course, there's that spaceship in the town center.
"It's like Punxsutawney with their groundhog. We have to do what we can do," said Jim Lascher, owner of Mars Travel and Mars Realty. He lives in Evans City, just outside of Mars, but drives around in a car with a Martian sticker on the back.
Among Mars locals, it's still a matter of debate how their town got its name. Most people agree that the town was called Marshall at one point, named after a local postmaster, but was eventually shortened to Mars.
However it started, it's stuck, and even as NASA explores whether there's life on Mars, it can still be hard for people outside of Western Pennsylvania to believe there's life in Mars.
Telling people she lives in Mars often sets up a punch line, said Jennifer Ford, the youth services coordinator at the public library, where the motto is "a world for everyone."
"There's always some little joke about, 'Oh, the planet Mars. You come from a long way aways," she said.
Ed Pfeifer, co-owner of Pfeifer Hardware, calls vendors across the United States and says he gets a snicker when he says he's calling from Mars.
Mr. Pfeifer, who lives in Middlesex but has located his store in Mars for three decades, plays along, telling the disbelieving, "Trust me, it's out of this world."
Their name might invite jokes, Mr. Watson said, but it is a great little town, more Mayberry than Mars.
If the NASA rover finds life on Mars -- and Mr. Lascher, the travel agent, thinks it will -- the Martians of Pennsylvania will be welcoming.
"I'd be glad to book them. If they have got life up there, I'll do tours," he said.
Associated Press contributed. Kaitlynn Riely: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1707.
This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/ First Published August 6, 2012 7:30 PM