2019 Mars Society Conference

I’m a bit late with this post, but it’s been a busy week. Last weekend (October 17-20) I went down to Los Angeles for the annual conference of the Mars Society. For those who are not familiar with the Mars Society, it’s a group dedicated to colonizing Mars. They welcome people of all backgrounds who are passionate about this cause, and they actively support research and educational programs that contribute to establishing human settlements on the planet. Some of these projects include habitat design competitions, rover challenges for teams of college and high students, and analog simulation missions of Mars-like conditions in austere environments (think desert and arctic locations). One of the things that I think is especially interesting about this organization is that it welcomes both neophyte enthusiasts as well as subject matter experts in a diversity of fields including astronautics, geology, botany, sociology, chemistry, physics, and many more. The conference was a great opportunity to renew some previous acquaintances and meet some great new people who share a common passion.

This year I was invited to stay with my friend Nicolas who lives just a few blocks from the USC campus where the conference was held. Nicolas is a writing coach and publisher who I met at the conference last year in Pasadena. Even before I met him though, I’d been following him on a website called Quora where he frequently answers questions about Mars and space exploration. Some of the questions are very insightful and others are just absurd, but Nicolas does a great job of providing very knowledgeable responses and explaining complex ideas in a way that is understandable without being condescending. I’d been hoping that I might run into him when I went to that conference, and when I shared my plans for going to Mars with him he became a fast friend. I really appreciate all his encouragement and feedback, and it was amazingly generous of him to open his home to me for the conference this year.

I saved a few dollars on conference admission (don’t judge me- I am trying to conduct an economical project here!) by volunteering to help out with the conference. I love doing this because it’s helping a great cause, but it’s also a wonderful way to meet conference attendees. The first day I helped out with registration, so I was able to chat with a lot of people as they came in and find out a little about their backgrounds and see who was going to be presenting. I also spent a good portion of the time introducing speakers and timing presentations to keep things running on schedule. This also gave me an opportunity to visit with the presenters a bit and introduce myself to them.

James Melton and myself

One of my favorite presentations of the weekend was given by James Melton, a leadership adviser from Palm Springs, California. His talk really resonated with me, especially because it was right in line with the leadership and success principles that I’ve been learning through Life Leadership. James was kind enough to invite me to join him and his friend Roger for dinner that evening, along with several other acquaintances from the day’s events. As I shared my plans with the group both James and Roger were very encouraging and had some great recommendations to offer. One of the first thing that James mentioned was that I need to get a website and share what I’m doing, which just confirmed what I already knew- that I need to get this blog going! For Roger’s part, he suggested that I contact a gentleman named Rick Tumlinson who is instrumental in helping fund emerging projects in space exploration. Rick spoke at the conference, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to speak with him personally. I did get his contact information though, and I’m trying to reach out to enlist his help in my project.

Roger, Nicolas, Neville, James, myself, and Darian

One of the presentations that was given was from Max Fagin, and aerospace engineer with Made in Space. He spoke on the challenges of planning for entry into Mars’ atmosphere, descent, and landing on the surface. Because Mars has such a thin atmosphere it’s more difficult to slow a vehicle from orbital velocities to speeds that they can safely land on the surface. It’s not as easy as just putting a parachute on a lander to slow it down because at high speeds the parachute will just shred when it opens. The problem of dissipating speed and energy is exacerbated as the mass of the vehicle increases. There are several strategies for addressing these issues, but of course they each come with their one set of concerns. Aerodynamic braking heats up the vehicles surfaces and a ablates (pronounced “melts away”) it’s structure. Using thrust to slow the vehicle is effective, but requires a significant amount of fuel. These aren’t insurmountable obstacles, but are important to consider.

Another significant consideration that Max pointed out to me is that 2022 is not an ideal year to launch to Mars. Because of the planet’s highly elliptical orbit the distance associated with Hohmann transfer windows is not always the same. As a result a higher energy transfer orbit (which equates to higher velocity requiring more fuel) is required to get between Earth and Mars. Again, this isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but does involve some significant restrictions. In particular it would likely limit the amount of payload that could be carried. In theory this could be addressed by refueling the transfer vehicle in low earth orbit (this is SpaceX’s plan for getting Starship to Mars), but that’s a process that hasn’t been developed… yet. I think that’s probably the best potential solution for getting to Mars in 2022 without significantly reducing the mission mass. Max said that in theory my plan was feasible, it he wouldn’t recommend it. I can work with that.

One renewed acquaintance from last year’s conference was Susan Ip-Jewell, a medical doctor who works with the Mars Academy. I really enjoy visiting with Susan. She’s very passionate about her work and has a great energy that she spreads to everyone. Susan is working with the Mars Academy to organize a series of expeditions to Mt. Everest. The plan is to conduct research on medical factors associated with prolonged exposure to high altitudes and reduced pressure. She invited me to join the team and I was sorely tempted, but unfortunately I have other commitments that conflict with the itinerary. I think that it’s a wonderful opportunity, and hope that I might be able to participate later. The Mars Academy does offer some other training programs that I may take advantage of in the nearer future though.

Myself with Susan and James

Perhaps the highlight of the Mars Society conference was a talk at the Saturday night banquet by Paul Wooster who is in charge of Mars planning for SpaceX. He related all of the progress that SpaceX is making in the development of the Starship rocket and described their vision for how it will be utilized. Some of the information was already familiar, but the new stuff was pretty fascinating. In particular he described how the vehicle doesn’t really have wings it uses aerodynamic flaps to adjust the orientation of the fuselage which acts as a lifting body. In effect, it behaves more like a falling skydiver as opposed to an airplane. I had an opportunity to speak with Paul after his presentation, and asked if SpaceX would be open to the idea of using a Falcon Heavy rocket as a platform for a manned mission to Mars. His response was that they are in the business of selling rockets, and if I wanted to buy one they would sell it to me. That was very encouraging!

All in all I felt like this was a great conference. I learned a lot and made some wonderful friends. I’ll elaborate more in later posts on some specific actions that I’m taking to follow up on lessons from this event. Stay tuned!

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