Mars Society conference: Friday

Today was my big day. Paradoxically, this means I don’t have much to say about it.

I presented my Mars Talk as the first plenary session of the day. It went well, there were no technical issues or embarrassing lapses, and I got a lot of compliments on it. I had been concerned that I would either say something technically or politically incorrect for this audience, but even those who had been to the MDRS themselves agreed that it really summed up the experience.

The panel discussion “The VASIMR Drive: Silver Bullet or Hoax?” consisted of four people who didn’t think it would work, and was harmed by starting off with a detailed and jargon-heavy technical discussion of the problems rather than Geoff Landis’s introduction to the concepts of electric propulsion in general and VASIMR in particular, which came third. Basically, the entire panel agreed that the powerful nuclear reactor necessary to power the thing could never be made lightweight enough to achieve the drive’s stated potential of reaching Mars in 39 days. Apparently the drive’s proponents argue that a nuclear reactor can be made that’s 100x lighter than current designs, which all four of the panelists believe is highly unlikely. It would have been nice to get a representative of the pro-VASIMR viewpoint on the panel.

Former NASA administrator Mike Griffin spoke about how NASA has spent about as much per year in inflation-adjusted terms since Apollo as it did during Apollo, but the last 40 years haven’t seen anything resembling that level of actual achievements, and the budget on the table right now does not have any US government capability to put people in space after the Shuttle is retired. Commercial space travel is all well and good, but Griffin argued that this capability is a critical function for the nation and should not be left entirely in the hands of private industry.

In the afternoon I attended several smaller presentations, including Geoff Landis’s entertaining talk about colonizing Venus. Although Venus’s surface is one of the most hostile places in the solar system for human life, above the cloud layer it’s actually quite pleasant, with reasonable temperatures and air pressure (though the air is carbon dioxide, you can live without an expensive and fragile pressure vessel) and you are protected from space radiation by the atmosphere. And floating in Venus’s atmosphere is easier than you might think; Earth air is much less dense than carbon dioxide, so on Venus it is a buoyant gas. A 400-meter-radius bubble of Earth air on Venus could lift the Empire State Building.

After dinner I was on the Sci-Fi Writers panel, also featuring Geoff, Mary Turzillo, and Robert Zubrin (whose published books include the SF First Landing as well as numerous works of non-fiction). It was two hours long and very, very basic by SF convention standards, but I think I aquitted myself well and at the end of it I sold a bunch of copies of The Mars Diaries and Space Magic.

This was followed by an entertaining presentation about “a century of Mars in the movies,” with posters and trailers for films from Edison’s A Trip To Mars (1910) to Disney’s Princess of Mars (2012?).

Tired now. Bed.

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