Last October, the Mars Society had their 22nd annual convention; and, since then, their YouTube channel has been steadily publishing recordings of all the talks from that convention, in a slow trickle ending in February. Combined, they amount to over 48 hours of content, of varying quality. The sheer quantity of content may be daunting to some, but I’ve watched or listened to every single one of them (so you don’t have to), and have put together this list of highlights and lowlights for those who don’t have quite so much free time (or as lenient a boss) as I do, and would like some guidance on where to start.
Zubrin vs NASA and Zubrin vs Musk
The Mars Society’s famously combative founder, Robert Zubrin, took shots at both NASA and SpaceX during the convention. He had an extended debate with Grey Autry, a UCLA professor who helped set the current NASA agenda for missions to the moon. Zubrin focused heavily on the engineering inefficiencies and impracticalities of NASA’s plan, from the unnecessary number of launches and dockings per mission to the overweight and underpowered Orion capsule. He was especially harsh on the proposed Deep Space Gateway station, calling it a “deep space tollbooth.” He contrasted the DSG/Artemis plan with his own Moon Direct plan, which makes efficient use of commercial hardware to set up a lunar base as soon as possible. Autry rarely defended the engineering aspects of the NASA plan, arguing instead from the perspective of a bureaucrat trying to make the best of the situation mandated by the political powers that be. He defended the DSG by pointing out the many benefits of the ISS, which was never used for its original intended purpose of being a waystation for future missions to the moon and beyond. More recently, NASA has announced that to meet the 2024 deadline for returning to the moon, the first Artemis missions might not use the DSG as a waystation.
In another presentation, Zubrin took issue with SpaceX’s current plans for Mars missions with the Starship/Superheavy launch system currently under development in Boca Chica, Texas. Zubrin’s Mars Direct 2.0 plan utilizes the Starship as a reusable 2-stage launcher to send expendable cargo or crew vehicles off to Mars. Zubrin has apparently personally discussed this plan with representatives of SpaceX, maybe even with Elon Musk himself, but they’ve stuck to their original plan, nonetheless.
Musk’s aggressive timetable with regard to Mars missions has increased the urgency in developing the technologies that humans will need to survive on Mars. Perhaps the most important part of the convention was when the people developing these technologies showed just how far they had come. Chief among these was NASA contractor Jeffery Greenblatt, who presented a working prototype for a compact electrochemical reactor to produce oxygen, methane, and ethylene; to be used as rocket fuel or for producing high density polyethylene, a durable and versatile plastic. A minor by-product is ethanol, useful for making rover fuel or Martian moonshine. Dave Poston, of Los Alamos National labs, presented a promising power source for early industry on Mars. NASA’s kilopower program, a project to create compact and ultra-safe nuclear reactors, has produced a working prototype for a 1kW reactor, using extremely reliable sterling engines for power generation. Poston expects that this technology could be easily scaled up to much higher power levels. However, some critical technologies for Mars already exist and are well-proven. David Jedynak, from Curtiss-Wright electronics, showed that currently-available military grade electronics are capable of meeting all the needs of a Mars colony, while being relatively inexpensive compared to everything else that would be involved in supporting such a colony. These systems would be extremely reliable, requiring minimal maintenance even in the harsh conditions of Mars.
Bacteria can do it!
Several other presentations were on how biotechnology could allow a Mars colony to perform several important functions in a very energy-efficient way. Daniel Thompkins, from the Moon Village Association, presented a concept for an algae bioreactor to produce high-performance bio-plastics, including polycarbonates that could be used to build large greenhouses on the surface of Mars. Colin Lennox, from Eco Islands LLC, presented his company’s “artificial wetland” bioreactors, which are currently used for remediation of mine runoff. This technology could be used to remove toxic perchlorates and other salts from Martian water, as well as recycling much of a colony’s wastewater using practically no energy when compared to methods like distillation and reverse-osmosis filtering. Martin Van Den Berghe, a PhD student at USC, presented a very novel method for producing oxygen on Mars. His bioelectric reactor used bacteria to extract oxygen from the iron oxide that makes up much of Martian soil. It does not seem particularly efficient in terms of mass or volume, but it uses a tiny amount of electrical power compared to fuel cells or electrochemical reactors used for extracting oxygen from the Martian atmosphere or from water. The last slide of his presentation had the title “bacteria can do it!,” which I think nicely sums up these innovative biotech applications.
A Few Crackpots
In contrast to these excellent talks, there are several others that stand out as, to put it as kindly as possible, not consistent with the conventional wisdom in their fields. A presenter named Craig Davidson presented on several applications of a magnetic sail design he created. He claims that a version of it, small enough to fit on a cubesat, could generate incredible amounts of power and thrust by interacting with the interplanetary magnetic field (which is extremely weak), only giving a vague reference to “motional emf” as an explanation as to how. Another presenter, named William Gardiner went even further off the deep end, claiming that cancer is caused by a fungal infection, and can be prevented entirely in Martian colonists by eliminating certain things from their diet. He seems to think that mainstream cancer research is a conspiracy by the nuclear and pharmaceutical industries to sell their products. Some other talks were not so much factually incorrect as incoherent. Ethan Cliffton’s presentation titled “neuroeconomics” did not appear to focus on any kind of economics or neuroscience, instead being a list of often bizarre speculations on how he thinks various aspects of a Mars colony would operate.
All the recordings at this convention were apparently done by volunteers, and it really shows in some cases. The audio quality is perfectly serviceable for most of the presentation rooms, with only a minor amount of background noise and interference. However, some of the recordings are far worse, and appear to be in a particular subset of the conference rooms. Particularly hard-hit were many of the presenters who are not native english speakers. Some speakers from eastern Europe and Latin America are nearly unintelligible, which is a real disservice to those presenters who came so far, often from countries that don’t have an active space presence, to contribute to an international effort to support space exploration.
It’s not just scientists and engineers that are coming up with the innovations that could make Mars colonization a reality. Several people presented ideas for financial structures that could make a Mars colony much more economically viable. Alex Sharp, from the University of New South Wales, argued that a colony could benefit greatly by becoming a semi-autonomous region within its parent country, since it could issue bonds and carry out independent monetary policy. He also describes some potential benefits and risks involved in securitizing reusable rockets and interplanetary trade, in a similar way to international trade today. Brian Hanley, another presenter, designed an entire banking system for Mars, addressing many of the shortcomings of modern venture capital and high finance, to try to maximize technological innovation and industrial growth. Although Hanley defended fiat currency and the ability of banks to create virtual money, attributing to it the rise of western civilization, Stephen Houghton took a decidedly different approach. As part of his talk about a US space strategy to counter China’s ambitions, he suggested moving away from pure fiat money to a platinum standard, to encourage asteroid mining, employing some common libertarian arguments in favor of a currency backed by precious metals. He also put a lot of emphasis on property rights and low taxes, making it fairly obvious where his political leanings were.
Colony Design Competition
Without a doubt the greatest highlight of the convention was the Mars colony design competition, in which 10 finalist teams from around the world presented their designs for a 1000 person colony on the red planet. In their written proposals, all teams were required to come up with a design for the physical layout of their colony, as well as detailed concepts for the industrial systems, life-support systems, society and economy. They also had to come up with some sort of plan to make their colony revenue-neutral. The two presentations that impressed me the most were Team Twardowski, from Poland; and Menegroth, from Perdue University. The winning MIT design seemed a little too much like a space version of Epcot Center. The Twardowski design was built into a hillside, offering the inhabitants a great view of the Martian landscape, while integrating food production and radiation shielding into the structure. The team also went into a lot of detail on the industrial systems, life support systems, and the social structures of their colony concept. Menegroth was easily the most creative colony design. Named for an ancient dwarven kingdom in Tolkien lore, this colony would be built inside a sealed and pressurized lava tube. People could live in this subterranean space just like on Earth, constructing houses and factories in the open air. The settlement would be centered around an artificial lake on the cavern’s floor, providing food and recreation.
These are just the talks that stood out to me the most. The entire convention covers a far greater range of topics disciplines than were summarized here. People from all over the world, and from all different fields, are busy preparing for the moment we can set off for the red planet, even though it may only be Elon Musk who’s making real progress towards getting us there, at least for the time being. Even so, we’ve never been closer to Mars than we are now.