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Zubrin
Dr. Robert Zubrin opens the eighth annual Mars Society Conference in Boulder, Colorado, on August 11. (credit: Tom Hill)

The Woodstock of Mars

At the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in May in Washington DC, Dr. Robert Zubrin, president of The Mars Society, gave a well-received speech about his favorite topic and invited all attendees to that group’s eighth conference in Boulder Colorado. He promised that it would be “The Woodstock of Mars.”

Woodstock carries powerful imagery to most who hear the word. To some, it was the pinnacle of the free-thinking ’60s: communal living in a farmer’s field with days of music and other forms of entertainment. To others, Woodstock was a mess, filled with counterculture people and ideas reveling in their own concept of what the world could be. Given some of the images that came from the concert, it was not the kind of world that many people outside the experience wanted to live in. Both visions can be used to describe space conferences.

So approximately 325 people (estimates varied from 250 to 400) descended on Boulder, Colorado last week for this year’s Mars Society Conference. As those who’ve visited Boulder can attest, it is a strangely poetic place to hold a Mars Woodstock. This convention comes after a year that’s seen private spaceflight, a change in NASA administrators coupled with a shift in timelines of the Vision for Space Exploration, a bumpy return to flight of the space shuttle, and continuing finds from a flotilla of spacecraft exploring the Red Planet. The stage was set for something big.

In a venue change, the primary meeting place for the conference was in the University of Colorado stadium clubhouse. Unreachable during football games, the facility provided beautiful views of the stadium, town and campus while serving adequately as a meeting place for the conference. It had a smaller feel over previous conferences, with four afternoon “splinter” tracks running each day where previous conferences had more. There were schedule frustrations, with talks running long or unannounced cancellations of other talks, but I enjoyed most of the splinter talks that I could make.

Robert Zubrin started the conference August 11 with a talk titled “The Moon by 2012, Mars by 2016”, stating that the best way to ensure momentum for the Moon, Mars, and Beyond effort was to have the majority of the equipment well under development by the change of presidential administrations in 2009. The argument goes that it’s more difficult to pull the plug on a program that’s well along in development than to end a program moving slowly towards a goal beyond the reach of the next President.

Friday evening included a prescreening of the documentary The Mars Underground, produced by Ocule Entertainment. The film is essentially a well-produced film-based version of Robert Zubrin’s book The Case for Mars, featuring interviews with Zubrin, David Baker (an early partner in the Mars Direct mission architecture), and Chris McKay (a founder of the seminar series at The University of Colorado at Boulder called The Case for Mars, precursor to The Mars Society and namesake of Zubrin’s book), with occasional counterpoint interviews thrown in with some NASA officials. The film’s official release date was not mentioned.

On Saturday morning, the atmosphere was tense in expectation of Chris Shank’s talk titled “NASA’s New Plan” in the program. Shank, a special assistant to NASA administrator Mike Griffin, likely accepted the invitation to present with the belief that the much-anticipated 60-day report would be cleared for public release by now. It was not, and the newness of his information suffered. Some points that caused the audience to perk up were:

  • For now, efforts are focused on building the CEV and the launcher to take it to Earth orbit (the booster will be based on a single solid rocket booster with an upper stage, and the Defense Department agrees with the plan). Heavy-lifter development, based on the external tank and solid rocket boosters, is not slated to start until after 2010.
  • In terms of its budget, the Mars Science Lander is on track for a launch in 2009.
  • The Mars Sample Return Mission will have to be deferred to next decade.
  • The Mars Telecom Orbiter was cancelled due to there being no driving need for the communications bandwidth it would supply in the near future.

An excellent presentation capped Saturday morning’s plenaries, when Jeroen Lapre’, who works at George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic, displayed his work to take ILM-quality special effects and turn them into educational tools for children. Through an ILM short-film effort, he’s converting Arthur C. Clarke’s riveting short story, “Maelstrom II”, into a 10–15 minute featurette using the story to introduce viewers to orbital mechanics. Then, interactive DVD features will allow the viewer to explore the topic in more detail.

The steering committee introduced several new members and also announced that next year’s conference will be held in Washington DC, with a likely one-day Congressional Blitz to allow members to walk the halls of Capitol Hill and visit their representative’s offices. Also, The Mars Society will sponsor a telerobotically-operated rover competition for college students, where student-built rovers will have to carry out the exploration of a desert site with a time-delayed transmission added as a complication. Details will be announced later.

At the banquet Saturday night, Zubrin pointed out how much had changed since the founding of The Mars Society, and even in recent years. In 1998, when the first conference was held in Boulder, money could not be spent on human exploration efforts focused beyond low Earth orbit. Early in the O’Keefe days of NASA, the official line was “NASA shouldn’t be destination driven.” Since then, NASA’s refocused itself, by Presidential direction, to look beyond the International Space Station and set its destinations as the Moon and Mars. While The Mars Society would be arrogant to say they caused the change, few can dispute that the current direction, if not the timeline of NASA’s efforts, fall in line with The Mars Society’s goals.

Perhaps it’s this reversal of fortune that brought about some of the awkward feelings I picked up at this year’s convention. In some ways, it feels like a battle’s been won: Mars is part of NASA’s long-term mission. Yet challenges remain, which should be made clearer with the release of the upcoming 60-day study. Assuming that Chris Shank’s words can be taken as a preview of the study, there will be a very easily-taken breakpoint after the development of the CEV and its orbital launcher. At such a point, a victory can be claimed in retiring the shuttle and improving the safety of those who fly to the ISS. Those who want to see journeys beyond take place must keep momentum going so that the next President and/or Congress does not, through malice or neglect, push humanity’s future to the next generation.

I left feeling that “something big” had not happened. New projects came about to be sure, but this conference lacked a polarizing event, and that may be a reflection of the times. Given general approval of the Vision for Space Exploration, it is time for The Mars Society to change their call from “On to Mars!” to “We think your plan might not get us to Mars!” Besides being tougher to chant, the new sentiment may be harder to convey to the public and those in power.

I look forward to the challenge.


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