Monday, July 18, 2005

Discussing Mars Exploration In Popular Culture.

The San Diego Mars Society's panel discussion at Comic-Con on Sunday went off well. We opened to an audience of 130 people at 2:30 on the last day of the convention. The treat of this year's panel was Rica French, an astronomy professor at Mira Costa College here in San Diego County. She narrated a slide show about the basic facts of Mars in an entertaining and informative manner. The highlight of her presentation for me was a short public service announcement done by some college students at the University of Texas at Austin, where she used to teach. The students, mostly non-scientists, did a spot that promoted building cities on Mars. It was encouraging to see the spot and realize that people outside the space geek community see the importance of colonization to the space program.

That part of her presentation was especially timely in light of the latest Gallup poll that shows strong bipartisan support among the American people for the President's Vision for Space Exploration. According to this story on (click here)
More than three-fourths (77%) of the American public say they support a new plan for space exploration that would include a stepping-stone approach to return the space shuttle to flight, complete assembly of the space station, build a replacement for the shuttle, go back to the Moon and then on to Mars and beyond.

With funding for such a program expected not to exceed 1 percent of the federal budget, 51% of adults surveyed say they support the program and 26% strongly support it. Of note is that a majority of both Republicans (84%) and Democrats (75%) support such an exploration plan.

This high level of support is especially encouraging in light of the prominence given in the media to the myth that it'll cost $1 trillion to send humans to Mars.

Rick Sternbach narrated a fun slide show of his own that showed images of space art by him and other noted space artists. His slides showed imaginary spaceships designed for fictional missions to Mars as well as designs that were made for studies by NASA and the aerospace industry. The coolest pictures he showed were landscape images he produced on his computer using altimeter data from Mars. Software images of the Martian surface are almost as good as being there. Almost.

Science fiction author Kage Baker joined our panel and treated us to a reading from her novella Empress of Mars as well as from an upcoming sequel.

Mike Caplinger of the Mars Global Surveyor, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the Mars Phoenix Lander also joined us and jumped right in to the controversy on whether the methane findings on Mars mean there is life on the Red Planet today. He took a great approach for an audience of science fiction fans by comparing how in Star Trek, the Enterprise crew easily find life by turning on their sensors and how scientists today struggle to detect life on other planets. Today we look for life by looking for its evidence visually and also by looking for chemical elements in the atmosphere. Even when a chemical associated with life, like methane, is found, the conclusion is still ambigous whether the detection is evidence of life or of something else.

We are still a long way away from being able to detect life on other planets without sending people there to do the looking.

Jeff Berkwits did an overview of Mars in science fiction from the 19th century to today, Gerry Williams ran through highlights of Mars science fiction movies, and I moderated the panel and spoke a bit about the Mars Society and how expectations of human exploration of Mars have changed since Werner Von Braun's famous series of magazine articles in the 1950s and the movies Conquest of Space and Destination Moon.

It's always a treat to do a panel like this at Comic-Con or any science fiction convention. There is always so much to learn from the other panelists and the audience is invariably interested in the topic.



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