WASHINGTON — Eons before man dreamed of exploring the heavens, dinosaur tracker Ray Stanford is convinced, a low-slung armored beast roamed what is now a NASA campus in Greenbelt, Md., stamping a huge footprint that went unnoticed until he spied it this summer.
A scalloped mini-crater with four pointy toe prints pressed into ruddy rock, the putative dinosaur track juts out from a scruffy slope at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, home to 7,000 scientists, engineers and other workers with their eyes firmly turned skyward.
Maryland's signature dinosaur, an armored browser known as a nodosaur, made the track with its back left foot 112 million years, Stanford said as he led an entourage of NASA officials to the print Friday morning.
Sticking out of the grass in plain view, the elephant-foot-size impression — nearly 14 inches wide — elicited gasps. "Unbelievable!" said a NASA photographer. Someone else said, "Oh, my!"
NASA officials said they accept the discovery for now as an authentic dinosaur footprint. They are moving to call in experts to confirm the find and search the area for other dinosaur calling cards.
Last week, Stanford showed the print to noted Johns Hopkins University expert David Weishampel, author of the book "Dinosaurs of the East Coast" and a consultant on the 1993 film "Jurassic Park."
Weishampel said that the track, pressed into the bedrock undergirding the campus, is real.
"Ray showed it to me, and I was overwhelmed," Weishampel said in a phone interview. "As a scientist, I'm skeptical of things like this. But it has all the detail you want. It's got toe prints and sort of a heel print that's starting to erode away."
Added Weishampel: "It looks like a nodosaur."
On Friday morning, Stanford pulled out a paintbrush and dabbed dirt from around the edges of the print, highlighting where he says four sharp toes once pressed into mud that eventually hardened into stone.