BRADENTON -- A few years ago, Jim Toomey bid on old NASA test films from an online auction and later donated them -- along with other space-related items -- to the South Florida Museum.
The Bradenton resident had no idea the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had been trying to locate those films for years.
The rare films were from tests of the Viking Mars lander program in the early 1970s. According to NASA, the Viking project was the first U.S. mission to land a spacecraft safely on Mars and return images of the surface.
Two weeks ago, Toomey said he got a message from the auction house that NASA was interested
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in seeing the films, which the agency believes may provide data that will help design the next generation of Mars landing technology.
"My first reaction was: I hope they weren't stolen," he said with a laugh.
On Tuesday evening, South Florida Museum officials held a special program to hand over the rare films to Dr. Ian Clark, who works for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managed by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.
Clark oversees design and testing of technologies for landing payloads on Mars.
According to a press release, museum officials decided to donate the films to JPL in the interest of furthering space exploration.
Clarke also gave a lecture on the past and future of Mars exploration.
Before a large crowd inside the Bishop Planetarium, Matthew Woodside, South Florida Museum director of exhibitions and chief curator, said the museum was happy to have just been in this moment of serendipity.
"Museums keep things because it's a good idea to keep things and sometimes you don't know why you have them, but then situations like this occur," he said.
The films were stored in a briefcase, which Tuesday was displayed at the front of the room.
Clarke sincerely thanked the South Florida Museum.
He described it as an "Indiana Jones expedition" to track down the films. According to the engineer specialist, NASA knew these test videos existed but couldn't find them.
"These were things that we had been looking for since actually the first Mars landing that we did in the 1990s -- the Mars Pathfinder mission (in 1997)," Clark said. "We were trying to return to the surface of Mars, something we hadn't done since the Viking landers, and a lot of our ability to do that hinged on our understanding of how Viking had done its landing -- and that meant how their parachute worked, how it was tested."
Clark delighted the crowd with an in-depth lecture that included images of Mars' surface and NASA test videos.
Seated in the front row, Ron Saper said Clark's lecture was incredible.
"I really had no idea how difficult the process is to decelerate space craft that's going to Mars," said the Sarasota resident. "For some reason or another, I was just naive enough to believe that you just put some rocket thrusters in a certain area and deploy a parachute and it was that simple. I really had no concept of how difficult it really is."
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.