Mars frenzy comes to Washington



In its current embrace of space advocacy groups that tend toward zealotry and propagate the rhetoric of frontier conquest and exploitation, NASA appears to be taking full advantage of the Mars Society’s 2015 conference, which starts tomorrow in Washington, D.C., to tout agency programs and plans.

The Mars Society is an advocacy group for the human exploration and settlement of Mars. Its founding declaration, adopted in 1998, offers reasons why “we must go” to Mars – such as:

  • For the challenge. Civilizations, like people, thrive on challenge and decay without it. The time is past for human societies to use war as a driving stress for technological progress. As the world moves towards unity, we must join together, not in mutual passivity, but in common enterprise, facing outward to embrace a greater and nobler challenge than that which we previously posed to each other. Pioneering Mars will provide such a challenge.”
  • For the opportunity. The settling of the Martian New World is an opportunity for a noble experiment in which humanity has another chance to shed old baggage and begin the world anew; carrying forward as much of the best of our heritage as possible and leaving the worst behind. Such chances do not come often, and are not to be disdained lightly.”
  • For the future. Mars is not just a scientific curiosity; it is a world with a surface area equal to all the continents of Earth combined, possessing all the elements that are needed to support not only life, but technological society. It is a New World, filled with history waiting to be made by a new and youthful branch of human civilization that is waiting to be born. We must go to Mars to make that potential a reality. We must go, not for us, but for a people who are yet to be. We must do it for the Martians.”

(Talk about an ideology…. I’ve written about this belief system before – most recently in the August issue of Scientific American. Also see my blog post of July 27.)

You can find the Mars Society’s 2015 conference agenda here. Speakers from NASA include Jim Green, head of the Planetary Science Division at NASA headquarters; Jim Watzin, head of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA headquarters; Deborah Bass (JPL), Pan Conrad (NASA Goddard), John Guidi (HQ), Jen Heldmann, (NASA Ames), Jen Stern (NASA Goddard), Carol Stoker (NASA Ames), Geronimo Villanueva (NASA Goddard), and Niki Werkheiser (HQ). You can find these people’s biographies here.

Others on the agenda include “manned” space exploration advocate Art Harman, hard-core libertarian Ed Hudgins, Mars One CEO Bas Lansdorp, Gil Levin, ex-Apollo astronaut Jack Schmitt, The Martian author Andy Weir (via Skype), and Google’s chief Internet evangelist Vint Cerf.

Harman is founder and director of the Coalition to Save Manned Space Exploration. Harman seems to be “the coalition” as well, as no other staff or members are listed on the coalition’s web site. Harman founded his coalition in 2010. Before that, he was legislative director and space advisor for Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX-36), who represented NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston.

According to the coalition’s web site, it (he?) “advocates an ‘in this decade’ approach like that by which President Kennedy challenged America to go to the moon and to become the absolute leader in high technology for a generation. America can begin to establish a manned research base on the moon within a decade; so we can learn how to live on Mars and develop new technologies to benefit all humanity…. The benefits of such missions will in addition to providing a positive national purpose; bring greater prosperity, innovations, high tech jobs, and investments to Americans…. Mr. Harman believes Americans can solve any problem and reach the furthest frontiers thanks to our history and culture of freedom. Space exploration truly is ‘American Exceptionalism’ defined.”

Ed Hudgins is director of advocacy for the Atlas Society, former director of regulatory studies for the Cato Institute (a libertarian think tank), former director of the Center for International Economic Growth at the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think tank), and former senior economist for the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress. (I used to talk with Ed in the ‘80s, when I was editor of Space Business News and he was at the Heritage Foundation.)

The Atlas Society promotes “open Objectivism,” Ayn Rand’s “philosophy of reason, achievement, individualism, and freedom.” The Mars Society reports that Hudgins will address its 2015 conference “on how growing human freedoms are leading humankind towards an unlimited future in space.”

Lansdorp’s Mars One wants to send a group of colonists on a one-way trip to Mars. Gil Levin flew a life-detection experiment on NASA’s Viking mission to Mars. The scientific consensus was (and still is) that it did not detect evidence of life. Levin says it did. Jack Schmitt is an advocate of building a base on the Moon and mining the lunar surface for helium-3. (He’s also been a vocal climate-change skeptic.) Andy Weir – he’s famous, his book is famous, the Hollywood movie version is coming out later this year, and NASA will be newsjacking that event for all it’s worth. Vint Cerf – I met the man once and we had a nice chat. I don’t know why he’s on the line-up – Silicon Valley is a hotbed of space development and colonization enthusiasts, maybe he’s one of them?

Members of the Mars Society’s board of directors are founder Bob Zubrin, founder Bishop James Heiser, and attorney Declan O’Donnell.

If you are not familiar with Zubrin’s views about the human development and colonization of space, you can read his papers here – for instance, “The significance of the Martian frontier” (1995), or “Mars: America’s new frontier (1995).

According to the Mars Society, Bishop Heiser “was ordained into the ministry in 1996 and has served in central Texas since 1998.  In 2006 he was called to serve in his current capacity as Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of North America.  Bishop Heiser’s other responsibilities include holding the office of President of the Center for the Study of Lutheran Orthodoxy and Dean of Missions of The Augustana Ministerium.” As I wrote in an August 2013 blog post, Heiser is listed as a “speaker” on the web site of the John Birch Society, whose mission is “To bring about less government, more responsibility, and — with God’s help — a better world by providing leadership, education, and organized volunteer action in accordance with moral and Constitutional principles,” by “preserving individual rights & national, independence” and “restoring the Constitution.”

Repristination Press of Bynum, Texas, has published two books by Heiser: A Shining City on a Higher Hill: Christianity and the Next New World (2012) and Virtue and the Settlement of the New World (2010). The Mars Society has published a book of Heiser’s essays, “Civilization and the New Frontier” (2010), which were presented to the conventions of the Society in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010.

At this year’s Mars Society conference, Heiser will be speaking about “the myth of Mars and humanity’s vision of the cosmos.”

O’Donnell is, according to the Mars Society, “a trial attorney in the Denver metropolitan area with a national constituency in the areas of tax and securities litigation and a growing practice base in space law.” According to the Colorado Supreme Court, O’Donnell was censured by the Court in 1998 for a number of shady business dealings: “the complainant and the respondent in this lawyer discipline case submitted a thirty-two page stipulation, agreement, and conditional admission of misconduct…. An inquiry panel of the supreme court grievance committee approved the conditional admission, and recommended a public censure. We accept the conditional admission and publicly censure the respondent.” You can read the details here.

As a taxyaper, citizen, and space policy analyst, I continue to be baffled by the current administration’s fondness for the “space libertarian” crowd. Is it evidence of what neoliberals call the “triumph of neoliberalism” – free trade, downsized government, lower taxes, privatization? It’s time to take a critical look at U.S. space policy and practice.