Out in the rocky mountains, you feel closer to space. The veil of air is thin; the stars and planets seem nearer. So it’s fitting that the capital of the movement to send humans to Mars is at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
In the interests of journalistic full disclosure, I must note here that it’s a movement I’m proud to be part of. Since 1981, I’ve gone to Boulder for occasional conferences of Mars flight enthusiasts; the most recent was last August. I still remember the very first “Case for Mars” conference, organized by a band of graduate students who had no idea what sort of reception their proposed convocation would receive. After all, the last government official to endorse manned flight to Mars had been Richard Nixon’s soon-to-be-disgraced vice president, Spiro Agnew-an unfortunate patron saint.
In the early years of the Space Age, American citizens and aerospace engineers alike assumed that the moon landing was only the first step in an uninterrupted sequence of manned flights that would lead to Mars within 10 to 15 years. But in the ’70s, post-Apollo retrenchment eliminated Mars from even the most optimistic NASA timetable; with the political perception that we had won the space race, NASA’s budget was cut by two-thirds. The agency’s remaining energies were concentrated on the space shuttle program, and manned flight to Mars vanished from official consideration.
Yet people came to Boulder in ‘81. They gathered hesitantly, almost shyly, with no official backing from any agencies or corporations. Many had kept the faith during a decade when talk of manned interplanetary flight was almost taboo. Each seemed astonished to see so many others stepping out of intellectual closets to proclaim that they, too, thought a human mission to Mars was feasible and desirable, and that they, too, had a new idea or suggestion to bring it closer.
But last summer, the conference brimmed with boldness. This time, more than 700 people gathered not only to exchange ideas, but also to form a new “Mars Society” and sign a “Mars Declaration” stating their belief that human flight to Mars had at last become feasible and was more desirable than ever. (That declaration has since been posted on their website at www.marssociety.org, and copies have been sent to Washington.) At the main podium, a parade of speakers delivered wildly imaginative presentations with the stated purpose of making all others look too moderate. The conferees were astonishingly eclectic: NASA scientists and astronauts; university researchers and graduate students; even ordinary citizens, some of whom brought their children. Vendors offered Mars T-shirts and Mars calendars.
Since the conference’s planners, led by private-sector space engineer Bob Zubrin, founder of Pioneer Astronautics in Lakewood, Colo. (see “Mars on a Shoestring,” TR November/December 1996), were aggressively inclusive, the quality of the presentations varied enormously. Ideas were thrown around, thrown out and vigorously recycled. Specialized sessions dealt with everything from the engineering and medical challenges of a Mars mission to the legal and philosophical issues raised by human exploration of the planet.