By Billy Cox

Before the Mars Observer was encapsulated last month for its voyage to Earth's cold, dead sister planet, the project manager made a revealing appraisal of the mission's most unconventional political obligation - to rephotograph landforms evoking images of a mythic lost civilization.

Standing in the clean room before the 3-ton spacecraft, David Evans anticipated the question regarding the 16-year-old photos of Cydonia, a wind-blitzed desert in Mars' northern hemisphere. Lately, he has fielded a number of media inquiries on the vexing subject. And he is getting a little tired of it.

Yes, Evans conceded, NASA did indeed intend to acquire new, high-resolution photos of the controversial monoliths that resemble pyramids and the face of an Egyptian sphinx.

"But," he warned, "it's not the mission. The mission is a scientific mission."

Evans' use of the word "scientific" - and the implicit distinction drawn between what is and is not valid science - underscores what has become a source of considerable irritation among Mars Observer mission planners.

Amid the chatter of publicity and growing speculation, NASA is charged with reinvestigating some odd-shaped landforms its geological teams dismissed as a trick of light and shadow after a Viking orbiter first photographed them in 1976. And ironically, the scientist who designed the $21 million Observer camera - and who will be responsible for deciding which photos to release to the public - has been involved with one of the most hotly debated UFO controversies in recent history.

In 1987, author Gary Kinder chronicled the strange case of a one-armed Swiss farmer named Eduard "Billy" Meier in the book Light Years. For years, Meier, an amateur photographer, kept returning from solitary hikes into the Alps with hundreds of photos of apparent flying saucers.

Malin was one of several quoted experts who studied the pictures. Unable to detect signatures of a hoax, Malin proclaimed them credible and added, "They're reasonable evidence of something. What the something is, I don't know."

Now working on the Mars observer contract under the corporate name of Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, the 42-year-old former Arizona State professor will command three cameras when the spacecraft blasts off from Canaveral Air Force Station. Launch is scheduled for between 12:27 and 2:27 p.m. Friday.

Once the probe is placed into Martian orbit next August, Malin's primary assignment is to begin a global, photographic mapping mission for 687 days, the equivalent of a Martian year. The high-resolution camera will be able to resolve surface features as small as 3 feet across, 40 times better than the quality of the Viking photos.

But Malin says obtaining high-resolution photos of specific targets is tricky and subject to variables such as weather conditions and atmospheric drag on the spacecraft.

Either way, Malin figures, he loses.

"Without actually being able to handle the goods personally, photos by themselves are not really evidence of anything," Malin says.

"And if I say yes, we'll definitely get something, and we don't, then we'll be held responsible."

The tenor of debate over the Cydonia enigmas has escalated dramatically since Viking first beamed back two photos of a mile-long, 1,500 foot-high mesa that looks like a face staring upward.

In 1980, Goddard Space Flight Center engineers Vincent DiPietro and Greg Molenaar self-published the results of an independent photo analysis of the Cydonia region. By stretching the contrast, they not only concluded the shaded region of the face was symmetrical to the sun-lighted portion, they also discovered a five-sided pyramid with buttressed foundations.

But by 1987 science writer Richard Hoagland went way beyond the case for mere artificiality. In The Monuments of Mars: A City on the Edge of Forever, the former CBS aerospace consultant argued that the alignments of assorted other pyramids and structures were as mathematically sophisticated as the tombs of Giza, Egypt.

Five years later, the 46-year-old New Jersey resident is going even further. Today, Hoagland claims the architects of the stone hexagon and surrounding complex had, through angles and alignments, erected coded messages that actually are formulas for harnessing free power by using a planet's internal energy forces.

Reviled as a book-hawking charlatan by geologist/Viking photo imaging team leader Michael Carr and dismissed as unscrupulous by Paul Butterworth of the space agency's National Space Science Data Center, Hoagland's assertions continue to find large audiences.

Two NASA facilities, Goddard Space flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, booked him for speaking engagements three times over the past four years. Earlier this year, Hoagland took his case to the United Nations.

"The problem is, NASA never assembled a multidisciplinary team to look at the data," Hoagland says. "They went exclusively with geologists who wouldn't know architecture if they tripped over it."

Erol Torun, one of the researchers on Hoagland's team - called the Mars Mission - is a cartographer with the Defense Mapping Agency. Torun particularly is impressed by the principal alignments of the objects to one another.

"You can draw some broad conclusions from abstract mathematics," says Torun, "and that gets pretty speculative. But the numbers are all there. You just have to take your ruler out and measure the angles."

Torun suspects NASA has not taken Cydonia seriously because the space agency is gearing up for next month's Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The $100 million campaign involves aiming radiotelescopes at the stars in hopes of detecting a non-random signal that would indicate Earthlings are not alone.

"They don't have a shred of evidence to suggest that's the best way to discover (extraterrestrial intelligence)," Torun says. "But it's almost as if SETI has become sanctified, and they're locked into it."

Ultimately, it was political intervention, not innate curiosity, that secured a place for Cydonia on NASA's official, high-resolution target-acquisition schedule.

In 1988, Viking geologists reeled angrily from Hoagland's assertions that trained professionals could not tell the difference between a rock and a roof. Responding to Hoagland's media exposure, Viking orbiter manager Conway Snyder lamented, "One should never underestimate the stupidity of the American public. "

Furthermore, whenever they received requests for prints of the Cydonia anomalies, NASA staffers at the Jet Propulsion Lab routinely attached unsolicited photos as well, which included a sprawling Martian plateau resembling Kermit the Frog and a meteor crater that looked like a smile button.

Explained the lab's photo archives director. Jurrie Van Der Woude, "We figured, OK, to heck with it. they're scientific photos of legitimate geological features, too."

However, in 1989, after meeting with Hoagland and studying his team's data, Rep. Robert Roe, D-.N.J.. chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, secured verbal assurances that the Mars Observer would reimage Cydonia. Observed Roe, "It looked like they (the objects) had to be fashioned by some intelligent beings."

But that same year, NASA's Freedom of Information Office in Washington, D.C., was singing a different tune. "There are no plans to make specific studies of the so-called Mars face during the Mars Observer mission," NASA's Patricia Riep wrote. "The Mars face is generally believed to be a natural erosion formation, and it is therefore, not regarded as a high scientific priority."

So, before vacating his Space Committee chairmanship this year to become head of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation, Roe obtained written assurances from then-NASA boss Richard Truly's office that the space agency would make a serious effort to get better photos of Cydonia.

Today, NASA's office for Legislative Affairs in Washington is issuing a four-page statement entitled. "Information on NASA Rephotographing The Cydonia Region of Mars." It details the obstacles confronting the Observer's ability to acquire specific pictures, as well as the adjustment limitations on the fixed-position camera.

The paper also reiterates that planetary scientists have determined Cydonia is studded merely with natural rock formations. "This conclusion," it states, "is supported by the fact that the face disappears in images of the same place taken at different lighting angles "

But Mars Mission investigator Mark Carlotto, an imaging division analyst for Analytic Sciences Corp. in Reading, Mass., points out that the second image of the face - acquired by Viking at a 30-degree sun angle revealed even more compelling details than the first, which was taken at a 10-degree sun angle.

In 1988, Carlotto made his point in The Journal of Applied Optics, contending the evidence suggested the face was bilaterally symmetrical. Two years later, in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. Carlotto showcased the results of his fractal analysis of Cydonia.

Fractal analysis is the process of separating unusual objects from the natural background, for example, camouflaged tanks from desert rocks. Carlotto says his systematic screening produced hit after hit on unnatural objects.

"To be honest," Carlotto says, "I'm getting a little sick and tired of this he-said-this, he-said-that method of debate that's going on. Let's stick to the data and analysis. I've written my papers, and they're in the literature. I challenge NASA to produce evidence to the contrary that this region isn't worth looking at."

NASA has issued only press releases to defend its position. The latest NASA paper also asserts that "data from the Mars Observer Science Camera will be made available to the media and the public in a manner typical of previous planetary exploration missions."

Not exactly. Unlike other planetary missions, this will be the first conducted without live images before the assembled media at the Jet Propulsion Lab. Mars Observer marks NASA's first full-fledged "distributed science" operation, initiating an effort to cut costs.

The orbiter, taking measurements from seven on-board instruments - from a thermal emission spectrometer to a magnetometer - will compress its readings into a single data stream and funnel it back to the JPL. In turn, the lab will relay the information to the research teams' home facilities scattered across the country.

But it will be a while before the world gets to see what Mars looks like under the scrutiny of state-of-the-art cameras. In addition to the Observer's 11-month journey and the two years it will take to complete the photo mapping, Malin's contract gives him exclusive rights to process the photos for six months before public release.

That has Hoagland worried. "If Richard Nixon said, 'I've listened to the tapes, and there's nothing there,' would you believe it?" Hoagland asks. "Remember Challenger? Remember Hubble? Remember the space station? Without live photos, we're supposed to take their word for it when they say, 'Oh, we've looked, and there's nothing there?"

"Let's remember that most of the people who shape NASA policy' are not scientists, but bureaucrats in the service of science. "

On the other hand, Malin is quick to point out that Hoagland is not a physicist, either. Furthermore, Malin says his association with Billy Meier's UFOs has nothing to do with his NASA relationship.

"When people ask me whether or not I believe in flying saucers," Malin says, "I tell them, 'Frankly, I don't care. If they're real, they're ignoring me. And if they're not coming to help me, then get out of the way.' They're literally as interesting to me as ball lightning. I mean, what good is it serving me?

"The Meier pictures were really' pretty as published, but I never got to see the originals. Maybe if I had, I would've reached another conclusion."

As for the Cydonia images? --you're talking about isolated mesas and buttes studded on a plain -- Malin says. "Naturally, you'll get fractal hits in that environment. They look perfectly reasonable the way they are. There's no substantive evidence to suggest anything extraordinary happened there.

"It boils down to a matter of opinion. We see the same features they do (the Mars Mission). They see a meaning to these measurements and relationships.

"We don't. "