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Mars Attacks

[whitespace] Christopher McKay All Packed and Ready to Go: Christopher McKay works to raise money and set policy for a manned mission to Mars. Currently the Mars Society is trying to build a model Mars colony station in the Canadian Arctic.

Once, their dreams of a manned Mars mission seemed as far-fetched as time travel. But now that they've infiltrated NASA, local members of the Mars Underground have come up for air.

By Amy Reeves

CHRISTOPHER MCKAY IS A MAN with a passion for life. Not so much a passion for being alive, though he seems to have that too, in his way, but a passion for things that live. As a research scientist for NASA's Ames Research Center, he searches for things that live in the most hostile of environments: frozen lakes in Antarctica, the Gobi Desert, even America's deepest cave. And almost everywhere he's looked, he's found algae, fungi or microbes surviving against the odds.

McKay's interest in these creatures is not simply to remind himself of life's tenacity in the face of hardship. He studies these durable organisms because he hopes that one day they will help humanity bring life to Mars.

"I think that ultimately life will leave the earth," he explains in an interview in his Ames office, cluttered with souvenirs of past expeditions that include lumps of reddish Antarctic sandstone where lichens still grow beneath the surface. "And I think that Mars and terraforming are the first steps in that process."

To some, this may sound faintly wacky. But McKay is part of an increasingly influential group of Silicon Valley engineers, scientists and students who not only are helping guide U.S. policy on Mars exploration, they're influencing the way NASA thinks about a manned Mars mission. McKay is on the steering committee of the Mars Society, a worldwide group with 1,100 members which serves as a fundraising and publicity machine to advance the cause of a manned Mars mission. The Society has a number of high-profile members, such as sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson and Titanic director James Cameron, and a local Northern California chapter populated with NASA/Ames scientists. The purpose of the Mars Society is neatly summed up in its slogan: "Mars or bust!"

The Mars Society was founded last August by Martin Marietta engineer Robert Zubrin, the author of The Case for Mars.

The importance of the Northern California chapter has grown as a team of scientist-members at NASA's Ames Research Center moonlight on the Mars Society's first project, a research station that would be built in the Canadian Arctic and serve as a model for a future colony of humans on Mars.

A dozen scientists there are using their spare time to plan and create what they call a "hab," a life-size replica of the theoretical Mars lander that would also function as house and laboratory for astronauts. Scientists working there would follow "Mars protocol" by going out only in spacesuits, growing food in the nearby greenhouse and doing field research as if they were actually on another planet. Infoseek's founder and chairman, Steve Kirsch, was so intrigued that he donated $100,000 in mid-May to support the project.

The Arctic Base Task Force is being headed by NASA/Ames planetary scientist Pascal Lee. With his spiky black hair and pencil mustache, Lee looks more like a mariachi player than a planetary scientist. Over the last two years he's become an expert in polar living, spending two summers and a winter in Antartica.

An artist's rendition of the Arctic Base shows a domed white cylinder on legs with round windows and tunnels leading to a workshop/garage and an inflatable greenhouse.

Although some have pointed to Lee as a potential future Mars explorer--he's only 34--he keeps his expectations low. "I have little chance of doing it by myself," he says, "but part of the joy of doing this is helping to send humans to Mars. It's the whole journey, not the destination."

Space Oddity

FOR ALL PRACTICAL purposes, NASA's interest in Mars died in 1976 when Viking I visited the red planet for the first time, tested for Martian life and found nothing. McKay watched the Martian landing as a graduate student at the University of Colorado. He had always been interested in space exploration--as an undergraduate in Florida, he pretended to be a reporter for his college paper so he could watch Skylab launch from Cape Canaveral. But Viking made him interested in Mars in particular.

At the same time that McKay's interest was heating up, however, the rest of the world's was cooling down. Galvanized by the science-fiction images of little green men, the public's curiosity about the Red Planet had been driven by the possibility of existing Martian life. When none was found, there seemed to be no reason to continue. "There was no long-term vision for Mars back then," McKay observes.

McKay and some of his friends in Boulder, however, had a vision for Mars that seemed the stuff of science fiction: to make it more like Earth through a process called terraforming. Even if Mars is uninhabitable now, they figured, the dry riverbeds and flood plains show it was probably habitable once--and could be made habitable again. If they could introduce into the Martian environment what we know on Earth as the "greenhouse gases," such as methane and halocarbons, they might create a runaway greenhouse effect that would begin to melt the polar caps, releasing more gases into the atmosphere and further warming the place. Then humans could begin to introduce a few hardy plants, and the Red Planet would begin to go green.

In 1978, McKay and about 25 other students created a seminar titled "The Habitability of Mars." But they quickly realized that they were woefully short of data on which to base their terraforming theories. The only way to get data, they reasoned, was to get more spacecraft sent to Mars. This would mean generating interest outside the confines of the campus.

So in 1981, while all of them were still in grad school, McKay and friends organized a conference called "The Case for Mars," the name Zubrin used for his book. As students they had little money or clout, and they sometimes resorted to guerrilla tactics like pirating the department's copy machine to print out their pamphlets. But during the four April days of workshops and meetings in Boulder, the hundred or so Mars enthusiasts who attended began to form a group identity and mission. They wore buttons showing Da Vinci's famous study of a nude man inside Mars' ancient circle-and-arrow symbol, bearing the caption that would become their name: the Mars Underground.

In 1982 McKay completed his doctorate in astrogeophysics and came to work at Ames, but the Mars Underground went on. After the second Case for Mars conference in 1984, the members made a two-hour presentation to NASA headquarters on their theories of a cheap Mars mission. At the third conference in 1987, Carl Sagan delivered the keynote address and more than a thousand people attended, including future Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin.

McKay's first reaction to Zubrin was a mixture of admiration and amusement. "You could tell after talking to him for three minutes that he's a brilliant engineer," McKay says. "He's pretty kooky about a lot of other things, but he's a brilliant engineer."

Like McKay, Zubrin had an uninhibited zeal for the mission, but unlike the low-key McKay, he was willing to get into anyone's face about it.

Mars 'Direct'

IN 1990, ON THE HEELS of the 20th anniversary of the first lunar landing, President Bush made a surprise announcement. He proposed "a journey into tomorrow--a journey to another planet--a manned mission to Mars." This was before he, or anyone else in the administration, had consulted with NASA.

Under pressure to come up with a plan fast, NASA administrators reached into a vault and dusted off a 50-year-old plan first articulated by German physicist Wernher von Braun, who developed the V-2 rocket before defecting from the Third Reich to the United States in 1945. The plan NASA proposed--called the "90-Day Plan" for the time it took to produce it--imagined building a ship so large it could not be launched from earth, and so had to be constructed in an orbiting "dry dock" floating in the sky. A moon base was also envisioned as a way station between Earth and Mars, a place to build what could become a whole fleet of massive ships. Total price tag: $450 billion.

To the Mars Underground, the plan was ludicrous.

Zubrin set out to convince NASA that a better Mars mission could be completed for as little as $20 billion. He spent the next two years working his way through NASA bureaucracy until he persuaded the top space-exploration team at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to hear his pitch for a unified mission plan, based on the Underground's ideas about low-cost travel and exploration of Mars, that he called "Mars Direct."

NASA's 90-Day Plan assumed that like the Apollo missions to the moon, the Mars mission would have to carry all the food, fuel and oxygen needed for the entire journey. And while the moon is a relatively short hop of 239,000 miles from earth, Mars is about 40 million miles away. No wonder the 90-Day Plan envisions a stay of less than a month--hardly enough time to learn anything, Zubrin says.

Mars Direct assumes that astronauts need not take everything with them--that fuel and oxygen could be manufactured from the Martian atmosphere.

The first stage of Mars Direct would be to send a rocket to Mars with an unmanned return vehicle on its back. Upon safe arrival, the machine would begin converting elements in Mars' atmosphere into fuel--there are several possible compositions of it, but most likely it would be methane-based. Oxygen could be extracted from the carbon dioxide atmosphere. Thus, the vehicle would slowly build up enough fuel and oxygen to make the trip from Mars back to Earth.

Enter humans. Another vehicle, this one with four astronauts, would blast off for Mars with just enough fuel to get there, plus a generous supply of food. When they arrived on Mars, the team would set up camp, blow up inflatable greenhouses and become Martians for a year. This would give astronauts plenty of time to explore the planet with both rovers and robotic vehicles, collect rock and soil samples, and poke around for subterranean pockets of hot water that just might harbor microbial life.

Finally, the astronauts would pile into the empty vehicle that arrived there first and fly home, leaving their landing vehicle and greenhouses to greet the next wave of arrivals.

"People had been talking about these ideas for 20 years," says Geoffrey Briggs, director of the Center of Mars Exploration at Ames, but Zubrin was able to unify them into a feasible plan. "People like myself brought Bob's ideas to the table and advocated them."

The two sides thrashed out a compromise that Zubrin calls Mars Semi-Direct, which is a bit more complicated. NASA's version would send two ships ahead and require an orbital rendezvous on the return leg. The point is that after decades of dreaming, the Mars Underground had infiltrated NASA.

Since then, Mars has re-entered the public's imagination with the discovery in Antarctica of what may be a chunk of the Red Planet embedded with fossilized microbes. A year later, the Sojourner rover cruised around the surface of Mars and sent pictures back that were uploaded onto the Internet.

The public's imagination is piqued. What remains, Briggs says, is a need for money. Briggs, who acts as a liaison between the Mars Society and NASA's upper echelon, says that they should expect to wait another five years for other space programs like the shuttle program and the international space station to "wind down." But even if the competition from other programs wanes, the Mars Society will have to convince Congress that Mars is a better destination that a return trip to the Moon or exploration of asteroids.

In this way, the Arctic Base project is also a PR move. It will provide training for potential astronauts, as well as real research on a little-known part of the world. But it will also gain credibility for the Mars Society, much as Jacques Cousteau gained credibility after scraping enough money together for his first shoestring deep-sea expedition.

In the meantime, McKay can live with the satisfaction that the Mars Underground has finally come to the surface.

"Missions to Mars aren't underground anymore; they're part of the plans. Everybody in the agency wants to go to Mars; there's a lot of interest in Mars. In fact, it's the flavor of the month."

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From the July 29-August 4, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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