Mars Society Banquet: My Perspective

Mars Society Banquet: My Perspective

Joel McKinnon, Event Coordinator, May 5th, 2001


"Jim's here," a voice announced- trying to sound a little more casual than felt, and sure enough, there was Jim Cameron- striding out onto the terrace clutching a briefcase and dressed in a dark sportcoat over a plaid shirt. At once I was glad I hadn't blown $100 bucks on that rented suit. Our host, Bill Clancey jumped up from his posture of relaxation on his terrace air seat and, clad in t-shirt and cutoffs, sheepishly came over to greet our most-honored guest mumbling about the need to go get into his suit. Cameron had arrived a few hours earlier than any of us expected.

I found myself shaking hands and introducing myself to a man I'd last seen proclaiming himself king of the world on a TV screen a couple years back. Bill vanished to change into his evening elegance and I realized I was going to have a lot more time than anticipated to chat with the director of Titanic, etc. I had been thinking I might catch a couple of moments with Cameron all night and had a couple of ideas I hoped to express. 30 seconds later I realized I'd used up all my material and Jim was yawning.

Fortunately, Sam Burbank arrived moments later and I gladly turned over the conversation to him and found something else to do. Those two could and probably did chat about filmmaking all night.

A little later my friend Missy Olsen, the piano player from the late, great Jupiter Sheep arrived from Sacramento for her gig. She was to play the first hour and a half on Bill's grand piano while the guests got acquainted. My anxiety level had now dropped to imperceptible levels. Having Jim, Sam, and Missy on hand meant the event would roll smoothly along and no one would be disappointed.

I took Missy outside and gave her a quick look at the grounds of Bill's estate. Down to our left we saw the bubble covered swimming pool with its cabana- a fine alternate site for the dinner if we'd had about half the expected 70 guests. Off to our right and down the hill Bill and his wife Danielle had a nice hot tub deck set into the side of the hill covered with a scattering of Oak trees. It was a common site to find deer wandering about here, and I'd seen a couple munching on the grasses a few feet away from us the first time Bill had shown me around.

We were interrupted by the appearance of the other guests out to see the grounds, including Robert and Maggie Zubrin who'd arrived shortly after Sam. Jim Cameron introduced himself to Missy who acted as if she met Academy Award-winning filmmakers every other day. Then we ducked inside to do our sound check. The plan was for me to join Missy for the last song of the night, a reprise of one of our favorite Jupiter Sheep songs, "Star Waltz." My only disappointment was that we weren't set up for Missy to sing it. She has a beautiful voice and the song's lyrics, highlighted by the phrase "I'm leaving the Earth far behind... back to the stars where I belong with you..." were entirely appropriate for the occasion. It was also one of my favorite songs as Missy had turned my simple bass line into a gorgeous creation filled with lush piano fills and romantic overtones. I plugged in, set my levels and we decided to just run through the song. Unbeknownst to us, Jim Cameron had silently reentered and found a seat to listen. When we finished he congratulated us for "sounding great" and gave us a sincere thumbs up. I wondered if there was any point to bothering to play the song during the dinner since we'd already found and sufficiently entertained a pretty good audience. Oh yeah- there were others I hoped to play for...


Now the guests began arriving: Carol Stoker and Mark Lemke from NASA Ames, Mark with a Mars Airplane mockup to hang from the roof in front of the house, Sam's friends Jeremy Bloch and his wife Laura. Jeremy a superb animator who'd contributed significantly to Sam's Mars Society movie. The trickle became a flood. I found myself playing a guessing game, as I knew everyone's name from RSVPs and seating charts but knew very few faces. I'd guess who someone was and then introduce myself and usually find out I was far from the mark. One gentleman left alone and appearing to be a little out of place turned out to be none other than Dr. Frank Drake, founder of SETI and author of the famous Drake's Equation for determining the likely preponderance of intelligent life in the cosmos. Dr. Drake was to me one of many guests I regret not engaging in conversation beyond a quick introduction.

Another interesting face turned out to be one Peter Waller, a crusty old gent with a southern drawl who happened to be one of my dinner table companions. I apologized for spelling his name wrong on the place setting as I showed him who'd be sitting at our table, among them Dr. Drake, Sam and his companions and another guest of great honor who'd not yet arrived, the author of Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson. I'd had the nerve to place him to my immediate right at dinner and I hoped he would not disappoint by failing to show.

Moments later my concerns proved moot as I discovered my most favored guest in the entry room. "Kim Stanley Robinson?" I inquired, knowing full well the face of one of my favorite writers, "I'm Joel McKinnon, co-coordinator of this event- I'm the guy who invited you." "Stan" turned out to be a great guy and I chatted with him quite a bit during the night. There are some "great" people who you always feel lesser than and a little tense with. Stan is not one of those. He immediately set me at ease and gave the impression he enjoyed my company as much as I enjoyed his. I told him about one of my favorite books he'd written, "A Memory of Whiteness" a story of a reluctant master musician/mathematician who tours the great assortment of human-inhabited worlds of the solar system in the late third millennium. I'd known this was something like Stan's third book, and he surprised me by telling me it was his first novel, but had been "such a mess" that he'd had to go back and revise it to make it publishable. I could go on and on about Stan but there's a show to discuss here.


Salad was served and consumed, a hint of the fine repast before us, and it came time for my song. I'd had a glass or two of wine by this time and I played the song with more zest and relaxed feel than I would have anticipated. My tablemates- including Sam, a fine bassist himself, congratulated me and it was on to the presentations as dinner was served. Bill Clancy made a few introductory remarks and introduced the man serving our donated wines from the Rutz Cellars in Napa Valley. He opened one of the huge "Balthazars", a monstrous bottle of wine measuring something like 11 liters and said, "this was the small one." He then gave way to our first speaker of the evening, Dr. Chris McKay from NASA Ames Research.


Chris McKay is a great lecturer. I'd been told he was equally adept at educating PhDs and small children and now I can believe it. Chris has an engaging enthusiasm and ability to articulate complex ideas in simple terms. He showed only a view viewgraphs; two of which were an artist's conception of early Mars with most of the northern hemisphere covered with water and lakes and rivers abounding on the land surfaces, and a diagram of the "tree of life". The tree is broken down into eukaryota; including plants and animals, eubacteria; single celled creatures that dominate the Earth- a few of which can make you sick as a dog, and the archaea; the bizarre single celled creatures that can survive in extreme environments like hot suphur springs and very salty conditions where nothing else can live. The main thrust of Chris's talk was that it's been found that all life on Earth shares the same building blocks in terms of hardware and software; that is the genetic code that determines how creatures behave and are assembled. To determine if this is a universal trait of life we need to find evidence of a second genesis and then analyze the frozen bodies of these creatures to determine exactly what they are made of. On Earth, simple organisms that lived 3 and a half billion years ago are found frozen deep below permafrost in arctic and subarctic regions. If Mars had a warm and wet environment conducive to the development of life in about the same time frame, it makes sense to think these creatures are still buried beneath the polar regions of Mars. If we can find a way to dig deep enough to recover a few corpses we can answer some very fundamental questions about the development of life in the universe.


The question and answer session was lively and intense and stretched well into the time for the next guest, none other than the founder and president of the Mars Society, Robert Zubrin. He finally took center stage and launched into a powerful presentation on mankind's future in space and the role of the Mars Society in pushing us forward toward our first big step beyond the Earth-Moon system. Zubrin outlined the three-pronged strategy of advocating government Mars exploration initiatives, supporting privately funded missions, and broad public outreach to get the public involved in any way possible. Much of Robert's talk discussed the first significant project for the society, the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS), and another three research stations to follow, based in the American southwest, Iceland, and Australia. He announced the recent sponsorship of the desert research station by the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada (UA). The support of this union, one of America's oldest, is a great asset for the Mars Society. Along with the research to be performed at the desert station, it will serve a prominent public outreach role. During the hottest summer months the station will be transported to various public sites to be part of an interactive exhibit where people can get a sense of what it would be like to be an astronaut on a Mars mission.

One of the best comedic moments of the evening occurred during the Q&A session. Someone asked about the much hyped VASMIR nuclear engines that could eventually cut down the travel time to Mars from 6 months to a couple of weeks. Zubrin said there are some big obstacles to putting such a "big nuke" in orbit, and suggested that initial transport to the red planet will occur with currently available chemical rocket technology. Once a foothold has been made, new generations of transport will follow. He likened this to the fact that with a few decades of Columbus's voyage to America no one would consider using the same kind of primitive boats to cross the Atlantic. These would be followed by much more seaworthy craft such as clipper ships and steamships, which worked much better "with one notable exception". Jim Cameron spoke up on cue with "It worked for me". Big laughs all around.


Now it became time for the guests to move inside where Robert introduced Dr. Pascal Lee of NASA Ames, the head of the Haughton Crater project on Devon Island where FMARS was built. Zubrin said Pascal ran into him on the street and bluntly told him that his initial plan for a Mars Society project, a hitchhiker payload on a Mars probe, would be a big mistake. The much better plan as it turned out was FMARS. Pascal's talk featured several striking images of the Mars-like terrain on Devon Island, and he clearly articulated the advantages of studying this environment to get an understanding of the way life operated in fringe conditions. Pascal showed us some landforms that dramatically parallel those on Mars that are claimed to represent water breaking out from subsurface layers, noting that the mechanism here on Earth is entirely different. This is one example of how studying this area can teach us a lot about the conditions on Mars.

Pascal also showed images of last summer's construction of the FMARS station including the dramatic failure of the last parachute drop of the floors, a crane and a trailer needed for construction, and how the volunteers on hand rallied to find a way to erect the structure despite the odds. This is a fine example of the value of having real people on hand in an actual Mars mission, instead of just robots.


Next up was Sam Burbank and his Mars Society movie. Sam has produced a one-hour documentary featuring many of the most eloquent scientists and visionary's associated with the society. It was interesting how many of these notable contributors to the cause were in the room watching while Sam showed a 20-minute excerpt. At one point a technical glitch caused the sound to drop out during a segment of a Chris McKay interview. "Finish it, Chris" somebody shouted and the real Dr. McKay dutifully proceeded to accompany his screen image. Sam's movie features several brilliant animated sequences of Robert Zubrin's "Mars Direct" mission plan, created by Jeremy Bloch, who was also in attendance. Jim Cameron was impressed enough to offer Jeremy some work as a result of these animations.


Finally, the time arrived for our featured speaker. It was getting late, and I kind of wondered how Jim Cameron could follow all of these great acts preceding him. I need not have been concerned. Jim started by reading some prepared notes- "I'm a writer-" he explained, "not a dynamic speaker." Nevertheless, the content of his notes was dynamic enough. He first laid to rest the rumors that he would be soon following Dennis Tito as the next space tourist. He'd done a lot research, he said, including going through a three week training program at the Russian space complex and was declared fit for regular cosmonaut training. He said that if he were to go to the ISS it would not be just a quick visit for the experience, but a part of a full production to use the platform as a way of rekindling human interest in spaceflight. He said he felt it would be a little irresponsible to do it right now.

Most of Cameron's remarks centered upon his passion for space exploration and his belief that Mars is a powerful goal for humanity to reach and well worth our best efforts. He described his first visit to the deserts of the southwest after leaving his relatively lush, native Canada. He felt an immediate sense of awe unlike anything he'd felt before. He noted that most of the world's religions started in the desert and said, "Mars is one whopping huge desert." Exploring such a place would leave a powerful imprint on the psyche of humanity.

Jim Cameron then produced a stack of about 150 viewgraphs, which he said he'd show us only a few of since it was getting late. These were concept drawings for a mission architecture to be the backbone of his planned six-episode miniseries and 3D Imax production. He said that one thing he wanted to be sure of was to place the engineering first, rather than is often done, to put aesthetic considerations first leaving gaping logical holes in the resulting production. The viewgraphs were extremely compelling viewing and I felt that this was such a rare treat to get a glimpse into the early process of what was sure to ultimately be a great production. There was electricity in the room as everyone's attention was riveted on the material being displayed. He showed drawings of the unmanned descent vehicle that would include a habitat structure that would make a bouncing airbag cushioned landing on the Martian surface accompanied by a cargo vehicle that would make a powered landing. This would include the return ascent vehicle and a pressurized rover to be the main exploration vehicle for the mission along with enough cargo to complete making the habitat livable for the crew. As in Zubrin's Mars Direct plan, the initial unmanned mission would leave machinery in place capable of producing the fuel necessary for a return flight. Humans would not go until telemetry assured that a healthy habitat and fully fueled return vehicle awaited on the Martian surface.


I was probably not alone in wishing that we could see every one of the 150 viewgraphs but it was getting late and my appetite for the marvelous information we'd been bombarded with for the past several hours had been more than sated. The guests now began to depart and I hurriedly made connections with a few folks I hadn't had time to meet before the presentations began. This was a fascinating part of the evening as small gatherings sprang up filled with fascinating topics of conversation. Sean Plunket of the Nevada Mars Society, an amateur pilot, discussed his work with Zubrin and Cameron at identifying Mars-like terrain in the southwest for the terrain- information Robert needed for locating the next research station. Jim also had an interest because of his needs for finding good location shots for his film project. I chatted with Robert about his views on Jim's presentation. Robert said it was fine for a movie- but if I'd like his critique of the engineering it could take some time. I continued my conversation with Stan about his books and our mutual interest in music. Stan described the thrill of musical collaboration, which he'd recently experienced sitting in on harmonium with some highly regarded jazz performers.


Finally, one of the last guests to leave- as he'd been the first to arrive- was Jim Cameron himself. Jim spoke of helping out the Mars Society with the anticipated returns from the Mars project and I realized that the event could ultimately be a much bigger success than first met the eye. "We share the same goals- keep on believing," Jim spoke as he headed for his car. Danielle replied, "Keep us dreaming."


So, you may be wondering- how did we do, did we make any money? Well, we knew going in to the night that we'd do a little better than breaking even. We expected to make about $10,000 over our expenses from the receipts of those attending. The hope was that some wealthy guest might be inspired to make a much larger contribution, but as I went home that night I'd heard nothing about any such providential occurrence. The next, morning, however, one Elon Musk went out to breakfast with the Zubrins and decided he had been sufficiently impressed to pull out the checkbook and write a check to The Mars Society for a mere $100,000. I suppose it was a success come to think of it.