On to Mars!

While NASA fiddles with robots, a grass-roots movement burns to put human beings on the Red Planet -- soon.

By Rebecca Bryant
January 8, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)
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Last Sunday, NASA's Mars Polar Lander lifted off for an 11-month voyage to the Red Planet, searching for signs of life in its polar icecaps. Robotic missions to Mars are nothing new -- they date back to the Mariner 4 fly-by in 1964. But ever since the Apollo moon missions ended a quarter century ago, the notion of manned exploration of our celestial neighbors has seemed beyond our reach -- more like science fiction than reality.

Today, most of us discount the prospect of a human mission to Mars as far-fetched. I did too -- until a phone call from an old friend four months ago. But over the last several months, through an avid and serious Internet community of Mars devotees, I've learned that their dream, what I'd call "extreme pioneering" -- the exploration and settlement of Mars -- is easily within our technological grasp.


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"I've been through the solar movement and the environmental movement, but I have never experienced such passion," Bruce Anderson's voice quaked. "It was palpable."

The late night call had shrilled through my cottage. After a while, I began to comprehend that, no, my friend had not been to a workshop on tantric sex. Anderson had flown to Boulder, Colo., on Aug. 13, 1998, to join more than 700 people at the founding convention of the Mars Society.


As director of industrial liaisons for MIT, Anderson enjoys a prime view of the technological horizon; he's an aficionado of reality, not science fiction. Moreover, with a long history of environmental activism, he's not inclined to undervalue our present planetary accommodations. So when Bruce revealed the Mars Society's mission -- to establish a human settlement on Mars within 10 years -- my pulse accelerated.

The next day, I opened an investigative file. My first step was to dig out the story of the society's roots in a loose-knit confederation of Mars enthusiasts who called themselves the Mars Underground. Long ago -- about 20 years -- a group of precocious graduate students at the University of Colorado, including Chris McKay and Carol Stoker in astrogeophysics (both now at NASA Ames Research Center and on the Mars Society's steering committee), started a seminar on terraforming Mars -- transforming the planet into a more Earth-like habitat. That led, in April 1981, to the first Mars conference at which enthusiasts bonded as the Mars Underground, sketching plans for human exploration of Mars. The conferences continued every three years; by the third Boulder conference in 1987, there were more than 1,000 attendees. Carl Sagan keynoted.

Members of the Mars Underground thought their efforts had paid off when in 1989 President Bush called for manned missions back to the moon and on to Mars in the 21st century. Responding to the president's bugle, NASA proposed a buffed-up space station, already a pet project of many scientists. At the station, a Galactica-sized spaceship would be constructed for a voyage to Mars "flag and footprints"-style (we came, we saw, we conquered). The estimated cost: $450 billion.


It was a lousy plan with a Neiman Marcus price tag. Splat went the Mars movement.

But NASA's wasn't the only plan around: Robert Zubrin had one, too. Zubrin, a science teacher, attended the second Boulder conference in 1984. The event rekindled his childhood excitement over Sputnik and Kennedy's classic 1961 mission statement: to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade. By 1989 Zubrin, who'd moved on to become a senior engineer at Martin Marietta, had developed his own strategy for getting to Mars and staying there a while. Pitching his "Mars Direct" plan to NASA and the Mars Underground, Zubrin kept fine-tuning his ideas, eventually writing and publishing the book "The Case for Mars" in 1996.


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The book details a plan that takes about five years to execute, at a base cost of $20 billion plus $2 billion per mission. It works this way: 1) Send an Earth return vehicle (ERV) to Mars. 2) On Mars, using off-the-shelf technology, ERV components convert carbon dioxide from Mars' atmosphere plus hydrogen to produce methane and oxygen -- the fuel and propellant needed for the return trip. 3) After a six-month outbound trip, a spacecraft with a crew of four lands on Mars and establishes a base. 4) For 18 months, the crew explores Mars, looking for water, mineral deposits and evidence of microbial life. 5) As the first crew returns to Earth, a second crew arrives, establishing a new base and, perhaps, beginning greenhouse agriculture. 7) The process of launches, new bases, exploration, settlement and eventual transformation of Mars into an Earth-life planet continues.

By 1996, the engineers and scientists of the Mars Underground had dwindled to a small, grim group. But a popular tide was rising. Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson published "Red Mars" in 1993 and its sequels "Green Mars" in 1994 and "Blue Mars" in 1997 -- adding characters and plot to a story line that Zubrin had already demonstrated was technically and financially feasible. When Pathfinder landed on Mars in July 1997, about 2,000 enthusiasts, including Bruce Anderson, watched the first pictures of Mars flicker on a 26-foot screen at the Pasadena (Calif.) Civic Center. Over the next 30 days, NASA's Pathfinder Web site took 566 million hits.


"I got 4,000 letters from people that read my book, all basically asking, how do we make this happen?" says Zubrin.

That ground swell convinced the Mars Underground to convene the Mars Society Founding Convention in Boulder last August. The epic conference covered a wide swath of territory, including biomedical issues, advanced propulsion and the need for a legal system on Mars. The conference organizers wanted to break out of the confines of the space-industrial complex and build a populist movement -- and they got the diversity they sought. For example, Kathleen Bohne, a 12-year-old home-schooled Colorado girl, gave a brilliant presentation, describing how the prospect of exploring Mars had inspired her. And a plenary session on the ethics of terraforming Mars unleashed a ruckus of dissent.

Six of seven panelists spoke fondly of extending the concept of "Manifest Destiny" into space -- including Zubrin and, most ardently, science-fiction writer and astrophysicist Gregory Benford. Most panelists had no problem with annihilating indigenous Martian life, as long as doing so advanced human interests. No one gave a damn about the fate of subterranean microbes on Earth, so it didn't occur to the engineers that people might care about them on Mars.


But when the panelists invited questions, the conversation heated up. It was, essentially, an outer-space version of the abortion debate: When does life begin to have value? To many in the audience, whatever meager life Mars had managed to harbor had the same ethical value as Earth's biota (the sum of all living organisms). Afterwards, several people from the audience climbed onstage to continue the discussion for another two hours. One of those was a corporate attorney from Los Angeles named John McKnight.

"Dr. Zubrin listened, really listened," says McKnight, "and understood we weren't Luddites or anti-Mars or anti-terraforming. For the most part the interchange was exhilarating. I think it did spook some of the Mars Underground to suddenly be challenged by all those people whose values were so different from that of the old steely-eyed missile men." The docking between lay public and expert engineers wasn't the smoothest, according to McKnight, but it was a respectful engagement nonetheless. "I think it was the birth of Mars as a grass-roots cause, the real birth of the Mars Society," concludes McKnight.

Like Zubrin, McKnight had been a space-crazed kid who lost his way. He rediscovered Mars in the mid-'90s with Robinson's trilogy. The Pathfinder photos of the Martian surface made him feel like he was 10 years old again, living in a world full of possibility. He read everything he could get his hands on about Mars and penned one of the 4,000 letters Zubrin received. On the final night of the convention, McKnight offered to create a worldwide task group to address the legal and ethical aspects of Mars settlement. Riding such enthusiasm, the society took off.

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My case file was already bulging. But I wanted to better understand the object, half the size of Earth and one-10th its mass, that had inspired so much passion. So I attended a lecture at the University of Arkansas by Mars geology expert Harry McSween.

McSween described the '97 Mars Pathfinder mission. First, the Pathfinder's rover located andesite, an indication of a possible continental crust system like Earth's. Second, unlike Earth, where soils vary locally, all Martian soils seem to have roughly the same composition -- as though homogenized by dust and wind storms. Third, much of the purported evidence of life on early Mars comes from the study of one Mars meteorite. Embedded in the meteorite are tiny objects that some people think are fossils, but McSween believes are magnetite grains.

On the other hand, McSween noted that water is probably present at both Martian poles and underground elsewhere. Erosion and flood deposits indicate massive, long-term water flow -- like "pulling the plug on the Great Lakes." What's more, hydrogen isotopes in Mars meteorites imply that water cycles from the atmosphere into rocks. Why all the recent fuss about water on Mars, ice crystals on Earth's moon, water vapor in the atmosphere of Titan (a moon of Saturn), and indications of a hidden sea on Europa (a moon of Jupiter)? Because everything we know today suggests that wherever there is water -- no matter how cold, hot, dark, light, pressurized or laced with chemicals or radiation -- there is microbial life.

At a reception across campus in the University Museum, McSween stroked a large asteroid on display. "She's worth a lot of money," he said. I asked McSween about the Mars Society, but he hadn't heard of the organization yet, so I explained the society's goal of beginning settlement no later than 2008 -- as compared to NASA's revised plans today, which vaguely call for human exploration in 2014 or so. "Oh, I think we have to go in steps," McSween said. "NASA needs to prove it can carry out a large project on time, in budget. They did it once with the Apollo program, but their recent history with the International Space Station isn't great."


That ho hum approach -- on time, in budget, no risk -- has become NASA's mantra. The collective rush we got from Sputnik's launch in '57 and from the glide of human feet upon the moon in 1969 has been supplanted with the tedium of watching objects circle and circle and circle Earth. The Mars Society could restore boldness to space exploration, with its spanking new motto -- "Public if possible, private if necessary, but on to Mars!"

Already the Mars Society has 70 chapters in 20 countries, 10 task forces, 900 dues-paying members and a mailing list of 6,000. Relying on the Internet, the Society has become both a global forum and bazaar. Task forces coordinate through discussion and work groups. At the hub is the Web site, providing chapter contacts, news, a library, bookstore, archives and message boards.

The membership has toned its political muscles by rescuing the Marie Curie rover on the Mars 2001 mission from budget trimming. To date, the organization has operated online only -- but bricks and mortar, file cabinets and a phone will soon materialize in Lakewood, Colo., at Pioneer Astronautics, a space R&D firm founded by Zubrin. Just before Christmas, the steering committee hired an executive director -- John McKnight.

McKnight went to the Founding Convention hoping to engage in one good conversation and "got a lot bigger piece of the action than I ever imagined." Some of the forthcoming action will be mundane -- the start-up challenges of purchasing office equipment, writing procedure manuals, ordering business cards and fund-raising. Another project is the construction of a $1.5 million Arctic base, with money raised from private sources. To be located in the Martian-like Haughton Crater region of Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic, the base will be a prototype of the Mars habitat for researchers and astronauts.


Still another formidable task before McKnight is to finish chiseling a profile of the Mars Society. How, for example, will the Mars Society relate to NASA, one institution to another? Several NASA officials sit on the society's steering committee, and a large portion of the Mars Underground work for NASA as employees, contractors or subcontractors. Today NASA's Reference Mission, its blueprint for manned exploration, has evolved away from the $450 billion monster of a decade ago; now it's essentially "Mars Semi-Direct" -- Zubrin's plan plus two more crew members and one more launch per mission at a cost of about $55 billion. But aside from tiny budget allocations through the Johnson Manned Space Flight Center in Houston for Mars research and astronaut training, what little money Congress is allocating to Mars is all for robotic missions. The shuttle and the International Space Station gobble up NASA's entire "manned" budget.

McKnight doesn't fault NASA for its robotic-skewed priorities. NASA can't lead, says McKnight. "As a government agency, its job is to follow where the president points and Congress pays." The Mars Society joins existing groups like the Planetary Society and National Space Society on the nonprofit side of the space industrial complex. However, unlike these "newsletter groups," as Zubrin describes them, the society is an activist entity: It aims to influence where the president points and Congress pays. McKnight elaborates: "We're doing political action, looking to meet with potential presidential candidates to encourage them to make Mars a priority in the next administration." In short, the Mars Society wants to see the first U.S. president of the third millennium walk to the podium for his or her inaugural speech and, echoing Kennedy's promise three decades ago, announce that the United States will lead a global consortium to establish the first colony on Mars by the end of the decade.

"If that doesn't happen," says McKnight, "we can act as NASA's competition by pursuing a private space program. That way, we've got a space race again, between us and NASA, and that can only speed the way to Mars." In such a race, the society has a couple of advantages. "We're global, with access to a much bigger talent pool, " says McKnight. "And we have more fronts on which we can progress. We'll explore the possibility of sending out a hitchhiker payload on a European or Japanese mission. We're eager to build our presence in Russia. As we grow, we'll be looking less and less like an American group with an American agenda. But as the big kid on the block, NASA will always figure prominently in our attentions and efforts."

The Mars Society chose the timing of its debut carefully: It has time to influence the November 2000 election. The just-launched Mars Polar Lander destined for the planet's south pole, along with the December-launched Mars Climate Orbiter, will begin returning new data on Mars in late 1999: analyses of rock and soil samples, views of the south pole, sound recordings, subsurface temperatures and observations about the movement of water and dust in the Martian atmosphere. That should help stir public interest in Mars. So, too, may a TV miniseries: Variety reported in November that Fox plans to air a miniseries based on Kim Stanley Robinson's books, produced by "Titanic" director James Cameron and to be shown in the first quarter of 2000.

Underground for two decades, the Mars movement now pushes at the landscape of possibility -- a pioneering spirit prepared to erupt into our lives through TV, educational initiatives, new products, symposia and, if the Mars Society achieves its goal, an international commitment to colonizing Mars. As the pitch of Mars fever increases, people will wonder: Is this a good thing?

Those of us who experienced the '60s, either the big waves or the ripples of its wake, shared a sense of taking part in something more important than ourselves. Previous generations have found such passion in other historical moments. For young people like Kathleen Bohne, the rising tide of the Mars movement may be a rare opportunity to participate in the next defining moment in human history.

And what exactly is that? Today humanity sits on a threshold. Soon life will vault from Earth to Mars, the moon, asteroids and other planets. Some people will argue that the urge to leave our problem-ridden Earth is merely another expression of a disposable society. Others will contend that we should, instead, invest the time and energy in bettering conditions here.

But surely a global conversation about how we'll seed Earth-originated life on another planet could reward us with a heightened perspective on problems at home. Such a conversation, and its outcome, might improve conditions on Earth via a simple mechanism -- elongating the axes of time, distance and scale in which our species thinks and acts.

The Mars Society is a forum for the emerging philosophy of planetary exploration. Here, the lay public can collaborate in setting a course for the settlement and governance of Mars. Will we generate a prime directive (` la "Star Trek") for noninterference in the evolution of other species, including microbes? What might a legal system for Mars look like? Can we devise less exploitative templates for relationships among human beings, between humans and other species, between humans and their habitat on Mars?

Such off-planet questions, while they may seem at the margins of relevance
today, will only grow more common, and more urgent, in the future. Answering them well could benefit not only the pioneers of Mars but the rest of us back

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

--T.S. Eliot

Rebecca Bryant

Rebecca Bryant is a freelance writer.

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