ExWeb NSS report, final: Gold, War and a huge Ego will take us there

Posted: May 13, 2006 12:05 am EDT

They say that competition is hardest at the bottom and easiest at the top. True on this year's ISDC conference in LA, arranged by NSS and Planetary Society to celebrate the formers 25th birthday. One after the other, the world's foremost people in space and science arrived, and we got them virtually all to ourselves.

The conference attracted some 200 folks, most insiders and big media. The rest of us couldn't believe our luck. There, just an arms length away - a man who had walked on the moon. 5 feet further, a shuttle pilot. There another Astronaut and Burt Rutan, chatting to anyone nearby. There again Pete Worden, Center Director for the cutting edge research department NASA Ames.

Joan Rivers of Space

As star after star entered Sheraton's Gateway hotel, ExWeb's chief editor of Pythom.com feverishly pointed in all directions like a Joan Rivers of Space: "That guy was a paying client to the International Space Station last year, oh and that one - he's the founder of the XPrize," she explained. "Oh and that's Rusty - the Apollo Astronaut. It went on and on. Carl Sagan's buddy and co-founder of the Planetary Society Louis Friedman showed up, PayPal rocket builder Elon Musk did the keynote, and Robert Bigelow was in the house too, parting briefly with his prototype space hotel. We expected to bump into Bill Gates in the cafeteria and President Bush by the pool. But the two were just about the only ones who weren't there.


The people behind the seminar, NSS and Planetary Society, both privately funded non-profits had done an unbelievable job. And the gathering was courteously enough funded by the very agency most popular to trash during the event: NASA.

There's a wind of change blowing within NASA, and it seems a good one. True, a lot of people are leaving the agency, not because of money, but because they don't get to work on projects closest to their heart. Yet although they jump ship for the private sector, the researchers and engineers continue to stay in touch with their former employee. And so, NASA doesn't really lose manpower - but become more spread out. With the new open policy and a hand stretched out to the world for a change, NASA is becoming bigger than ever.


The four days were packed with simultaneous talks in virtually each of the hotel's conference rooms. Space elevators were mounted in the hallways. The crowd was an eclectic bunch. A woman looked like she'd aged a bit since she left Star Trek; a man dressed in a velvety robe - a Space version of Prince Valiant - treaded softly among us with an enigmatic smile. This was Space after all - and California.

But most people were down to earth, brilliant minds with a very real common goal - the stars and possible life around them. And they were rallying to go out there - now! "We need the spirit of the Russians in the early sixties in terms of risk" said Burt Rutan. "There's a dramatic difference in what people considered normal in the 60s and now."

There was a lot of talk about courage - or rather a lack of it - in space research in general and NASA in particular. Yet people at the conference, most working in the field and at NASA, seemed very outspoken. If not physically, they were brave in a social way - by contrast to climbers and explorers who often show great guts until it comes to speaking up. Could it be that brilliance needs to speak the truth, but is also held back by a logical resistance to pain and danger? Who knows. We also noticed than an unusual number of the men were bald - "a sign of intelligence," mother always told us.

The case for Mars

"NASA is almost irrelevant in the process of colonizing space," said Lee Valentine on the Mars Panel. "One of our most important tasks is to find cheap access to it." The physician, a long time space advocate and director of the Space Studies Institute listed three main reasons for mankind to go to space: Survival, Prosperity and Freedom. To this, Barbara Marx-Hubbard added, "there's a global pessimism when it comes to space travel. We must unite in a positive spirit." A few decades back, Barbara was very close to get NASA to build her a private rocket to the moon - after she had Cartier commit to buy $400 million worth of moon rock to be mounted in a line of jewelry.

Robert Zubrin, the popular engineer and founder of Mars Society worked himself up as usual in his plead for Mars travel, frequently running his fingers through a thin strand of hair still remaining on his forehead. That's when Rick Tumlinson (named one of the world's top "Space Visionaries" and one the top one hundred most influential people in the space field by Space News) jumped up and screamed "Zubrin is WRONG, Barbara is wrong, Eli is wrong - they are all wrong in what they think is the right way to promote space endeavours - they only right way is all of the above!" And he continued, "We must attack on all fronts!"

Fish, our weak cousin

Addressing a question from the audience on what should be colonized first, Zubrin had a simple answer: Mars. And it's important to focus on one goal at a time.

Then a question from a pale man in his mid-thirties, "So what if myself and my wife emigrate to Mars and have kids, and they get admitted to Harvard - will they be attending laying flat on their backs or will they be wheeled into classes?" Zubrin jumped at the mike, "What makes you think they won't have better schools on Mars!" he snapped.

"We are not meant to do only what we are adapted to - when fish started crawling up on land it was not practical. Some say there's no purpose to life, it's just the way it is. But that's not true - it's not useful," Zubrin continued, now in a soft voice. "Fish who ventured up on land (where they could see stars for the first time) evolved into much more than being fish. Those who stayed behind are still stuck in the oceans, doing their fish things the way they always have."

Rusty's B612

The conference continued in an increasingly frantic beat. Lectures busted their cut-off times as debates soared. We didn't know where to turn next - Voyager, Stardust, Hayabusa and Deep Impact accounts straight from the horse's mouth - the very mission directors? NASA Mars mission updates? Solar Sail by Louis Friedman? Checking out Sci-Fi giants Benford, Nivelle and Pournelle? Michael Okuda and Rick Sternbach perhaps, them men behind Star Trek? Advice on space business legal rights and real estate, or Return to Flight by space shuttle pilot James Kelly? Space solar power, nanosatellites, Virgin Galactic managers and the Xprize gang including a member from the Ansari family? Our heads spinned.

Lunch was with Apollo Astronaut Rusty Schweickart who presented his B612 Foundation. The goal is to alter the orbit of an asteroid, in a controlled manner, by 2015.

Asteroid and comet impacts have both destroyed and shaped life on Earth since it was formed. The Earth orbits the Sun in a vast swarm of near Earth asteroids (NEAs). The probability of an unacceptable collision in this century is ~2%. We now have the capability to anticipate an impact and to prevent it. Oh and btw, B612 is the asteroid home of the Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupery's child's story.

Reading our neighbours mind

Seth Shostak, the chief astronomer for SETI was in the Grand Salon. So what is the state of our search of extraterestrial life? No word - yet.

Earth has been sending out our biology memo for 4 billion years. Based on our own current technological level, we know that worlds only 100 years more advanced than us already know we have life, but they'll also have a list of about a billion worlds to signal.

Seth said that we have technology allowing us to outshine the sun in a nanosecond pulse. We can send out a low intensity signal in a two tier strategy much like a lighthouse. But we have a problem - synchronizing our looking with their transmitting and vice versa. So we have to think different; we have to try to read their mind.

Tuning in on the big events

On New Year's Eve - a whole lot of people can be found on Time's Square. Rock concerts with big names usually attract big crowds. So we need to find the super events of Cosmos - the show everyone will be watching. Fireworks in space are Gamma ray and Supernova blasts. When a Supernova occurs, everyone is looking.

So the next time a nova occurs (we don't know when as these shows are unscheduled), we'll point to it and simply beam our message back from there, sort of like an announcement to the viewers, "Hello everyone, thank you for watching, please let us introduce ourselves on this significant event - were are the folks from Earth - if you look straight to your left you'll spot us waving."

Seth continued, "another way is to find two solar systems close to each other - they should have a communication pipeline we can tune in to."

In any case - we only have to keep trying. Everyone involved seem to believe that one day we will succeed in contact. The optimist, Carl Sagan, predicted it will happen in 2014. Drake, the biggest pessimist, said not until 2027. Even in a worst case scenario, Seth concluded, we can expect a signal within 20 years.

Mars habitat: Big windows and an orange sofa

Going to space is just a matter of time, and Mars will probably be our first settlement outside Earth. So where on Mars to choose our spot, and what kind of house to build? (Provided we have worked out the Mars storms and will have other choices than a mere hole in the ground.)

In true scientific spirit, a scientist architect showed a building - sitting on Mars darkest side, the Pole. There were no windows but bright posters of earth pinned to the walls and there was a sauna - including two fair ladies bathing inside. Those of you who have been to the South Pole station get the idea.

The worst mistake an architect can make is to build a log cabin in Florida. It won't feel like Colorado - it will feel like a weird house in Florida. Talented designers know that it's important to harmonize with the natural surroundings, for practical and aesthetic reasons. Explorers know that camps need views. We get used to the rocks and the ice, and we learn to find them beautiful.

The design of Mars habitats should probably not be left to scientists, but to the explorers who'll live there. Water or not, we want to settle on the bright side of the planet, the interior should go in shades of orange, and we want a view; of the desert and Olympus Mons, and the Earth beyond - twinkling in the sky. A greenhouse nearby, and we are good.


With all practicalities worked out, one question remained - how do we get there?

Neil deGrasse Tyson, the enigmatic Astronomer and Director for the cool Hayden Planetarium on Manhattan went straight for the heart of the beast: Doubt and money.

He began by offering several pessimist quotes, involving the future of human flight. "Man will not fly in another 50 years." Who said that? "The Wright brothers, only a few days before they did it," Neil educated us and continued with a set of other quotes, all establishing the impossible - shortly before it was achieved.

How many times have explorers not set out on an impossible mission, deep inside not believing for a second they would make it? And then, after each step seemingly confirming their doubts, all of a sudden found themselves on the summit? Afterwards, you look back and think to yourself, "how the hell did I ever pull it off."

"People tend to overestimate in the short run, but underestimate in the long run," said a scientist. We don't have to believe in success; only dare to take small steps towards it.

Getting the money - know your customer

Believer or not, ask if it is technically possible to build a rocket to go to Mars? You'll get a Yes - from top space engineers. How long time will it take? 6-8 years. Do we have to wait for Bush? That's a No. So what else do we need to do? Climber and explorer, you already know the answer bringing the bold expedition to a screeching halt: Get the money. 5 billion to be exact.

Neil deGrasse Tyson took a look at what it takes to get governments and very wealthy people to dough out that kind of money. In fact, Neil checked our entire history, all the way 5000 years back. He came up with three main motivations that have driven major projects in history. They were:

- Defense (Apollo, Great Wall)
- Promise of Economic Refund (Columbus, Magellan)
- Praise of Power (Vatican)

Ineffective drivers were: Wonderment, next frontier, the calling, urge to explore, curiosity, science.

Why have we done nothing for the past 40 years? 'Cause we won! And there are no new incentives. You want to get the money? These are the brushes you'll need to stroke. Find someone very rich, at war, and with a big ego. Bill Gates would have been solid had it not been for Melinda who might prefer to spend the money in Africa.

That's your plan and now you only have to get out there and make it happen. An Astronomer offered a final encouraging observation, "Nature favors those who challenge it - because nature challenges itself all the time."

Out of Biosphere 3

And then it was over. We had spent the entire four days captured by these people inside the four walls of the hotel, our brains hammered by outrageous and incredible things. The conference was so crammed with interesting stuff, we hadn't ventured outside for a single minute.

Sunday evening, we stepped out into a golden sun setting over beautiful Marina del Rei, and we felt like we had just been let out from Biosphere 3. It had all been such a weird, intense mind game. We looked at the Continental airplane, waiting to take us back to reality, to the sweet spring of upstate New York. That's when, for a second, we hesitated. Something strange had happened to our very soul - and we didn't want to go home.

Previous stories in the series:
ExWeb NSS report part 3: Alpine style in science, Solar panels in space, Google maps and the Japanese man
ExWeb NSS report part 2: Space Adventures - the Seven Summits of Space
ExWeb NSS report part 1: Burt Rutan: "I hope to go the Moon in my lifetime"

The National Space Society (NSS) is an independent, international, grassroots nonprofit organization, dedicated to the creation of a spacefaring civilization. Founded in 1974 by Wernher von Braun, NSS is working as the preeminent citizens voice on space. The ultimate goal is "People living and working in thriving communities beyond the Earth."

"Cultures that do not explore, die!" writes the Society in its mission statement. They want humanity to diversify, live and think out of the box, and go to outer space to survive. NSS also publishes the Space mag adAstra and partnered recently with Space.com.

The Planetary Society was founded in 1980 by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman. A Pulitzer Prize winner, Dr. Sagan was the author of many bestsellers, including Cosmos, which became the best-selling science book ever published in the English language. Sagan died December 20, 1996, but his society continues his legacy. The Planetary Society is a non-profit, non-governmental membership organization that supports and advocates exploration of the solar system and the search for extraterrestrial life. With 100,000 members in more than 140 countries, the Planetary Society is the largest space-interest organization on Earth. They support various projects and the website is a wealth of news on Space.

#Mountaineering #Polar #Tech #Space #Mountaineering #Oceans #choice

Believer or not, ask if it is technically possible to build a rocket to go to Mars? You'll get a Yes - from top space engineers. How long time will it take? 6-8 years. Do we have to wait for Bush? That's a No. Image courtesy of NASA Ames.
But it will take a bumpy, winding road such as the one across the desert to Mojave spaceport, the launchpad of SpaceShipOne. ExWeb went there a few days before the space conference and got - if not a date with Burt - at least some local "Mystic Maze" desert honey. Image ExplorersWeb (click to enlarge).
July 20, 1969 this man walked on the moon. Image of Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, ExplorersWeb (click to enlarge).
Robert Bigelow (left) parted briefly with his prototype space hotel to attend a space conference in May. Here with Rick Searfoss (right) Astronaut and Space Shuttle commander. Image ExplorersWeb (click to enlarge). <br><br>
The small, dusty town of Mojave (check the first part in this ExWeb series) is the simple home to a big man - Burt Rutan. Image ExplorersWeb.
A genius rocket designer in an Elvis hairdo and black leather jacket: Burt Rutan had much to say on this space event. Image ExplorersWeb (click to enlarge).
The XPrize gang - playing hard. From left tor right, Amir Ansari, Eric Anderson, XPrize founder Peter Diamandis, Noah McMahon, and SpaceAdventure's latest client at the International Space station - Greg Olsen.
While in California, ExWeb took the opportunity to test tech power in Mammoth mountains. Because of the summit pushes during the space seminars, we also had to bring in our laptops to the speeches to give tech support to Everest climbers.
"We are not meant to do only what we are adapted to - when fish started crawling up on land it was not practical." Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society, worked himself up as usual in his plead for Mars. Image ExplorersWeb.
That's when Rick Tumlinson (named one of the world's top "Space Visionaries" and one the top one hundred most influential people in the space field by Space News) jumped up and screamed "Zubrin is WRONG." Image of Rick, ExplorersWeb (click to enlarge).
Neil deGrasse Tyson, the charismatic Astronomer and Director for the cool Hayden Planetarium on Manhattan went straight for the heart of the beast: Doubt and money. Image of Neil, ExplorersWeb (click to enlarge).
Air Continental was waiting to take us back to reality, to the lush spring in upstate New York. That's when, for a second, we hesitated. Image of team ExWeb picking flowers in the barren Mojave desert, ExplorersWeb.