Monday, August 23, 2004

Mars Conference, The Short Version

Oh, dear, where to begin…

This weekend was the Mars Society conference. I presented my paper the first day, and all went well. There were about 30-40 people in the audience. It was well received.

The second day, I presented my “Saturn Direct” paper to a smaller crowd, though the room was packed. I only got one question, which made me wonder if the audience thought I was stunningly intelligent or frighteningly insane. Saturn Direct designed in the most basic sense a trade between the Earth, the Moon, Mars, and the asteroids, with the basic construction method for very large spacecraft broken down into smaller chunks. In the process, it creates a vision of very large craft plying the solar system, complete with their shape, mass, basic layout, and payload capacities.

The third day was the Why Mars paper. None of the Why Mars readings were well attended because they were all printed in the program book (in fact, it seemed half the program book was Why Mars papers). I read mine to roughly ten people, and only took ten minutes of the half hour slot, even with “directors commentary” strewn in.

That night, however, was incredible.

After a fake quiz show in which Robert Zubrin was put on a panel that was basically there as a prank (half the contestants were from a science fiction comedy troupe), and before the five finalists in the mars music contest, they gave out the awards. I was the last one. I got an etched glass trophy about a foot square with the Mars Society logo, the Kepler Prize logo, and the inscription crediting Team Daedalia, my team, with winning. It was set in a fake marble base with fake gold columns on both sides to hold the glass upright. It looks really, really, impressive, especially to the audience of 400. The build up explaining that 20 teams started, 12 made it to the midterm report, and five finished seemed to impress the audience as well.

My acceptance speech went something like this:

“I’d like to thank Janet Dornhoff who couldn’t be here tonight, the judges for all their hard work, and all of you. This contest gave me a chance to overcome math skill issues that have dogged me since childhood. There is a line on the To Touch The Stars CD that says “We can do it if we try” and we certainly can do it if we try, and I can’t believe I freaking won. I said it when I read the e-mail, and I’ll say it again – I… can’t… believe… I… freak-ing… won. Thank you!”

How often do you get a chance to give an acceptance speech in front of 400 cheering people?

I almost walked off the stage the wrong way – I had to be photographed by Dr. Zubrin and several others, including of course my wife. Dr. Zubrin’s reaction to the photo after taking it was to shug his shoulders, implying the photo was goofy. Maybe he’ll take a replacement before it’s published – if it’s published.

Speaking of published, I asked him how long I’d have to turn in the short versions of my papers. These are necessary for the publisher to include the maximum number of papers in the book. I have until the end of the week to trim my research papers to fifteen pages each, with illustrations on the back pages.

My wife will be in all week, for which I rejoice, but I also know I’m going to spend a lot of that quality time redoing science papers. Saturn Direct is 25 pages, and a lot of that can be trimmed outright, but the ERV Kepler Prize design is 55 pages, and doesn’t lend itself to anything but a near-rewrite.

I also have to get my basic Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) information in to Robert Zubrin this week, most likely. I have a feeling I’ll be designated “documentarian”, what with the presence of documentation skills and lack of direct mechanical skills. As a farm kid with a pilot dad, I have assisted in repairing anything from a chainsaw to a twin-engine airplane, but have very rarely attempted to fix something myself and largely do not know how to do so. I know all the parts, just not the diagnostics. When it comes to machines, I’m a physiologist, not a surgeon.

My father’s surgery for a broken hip went well, but he’s got other issues that developed while I was at the conference. I’m watching that situation closely. Theo may have to go to the job site over the weekend, at which point I’d need to go downstate to spend time with my Dad.

My biggest concern was that I’d have to cut short the conference to go downstate if anything horrible happened. Now I’m concerned if I take a shift at MDRS at the wrong time, that may be cut short. I mentioned this to Brian Ecke and a person who works for Zubrin’s company in passing. I’d just driven them to my house in a logistic “first stage” to get all the Zubrin’s books, t-shirts, and other merchandise out to Colorado. Brian suggested it may be a good way to get away and clear my mind after that tragic day. I’d never thought beyond that day, frankly. Dad has been saying he’s “old and will be dead someday” since he was in his sixties, as if preparing us in his pessimistic way. Now we are dealing with a dad who can barely move and is asking my oldest brother how his car is doing, his Studebaker, which he hasn’t owned since he was a teenager or maybe his early twenties. In short, we saw this coming a mile away, but never considered the follow up. Now I have to pick a time when I’m available – not knowing my job situation after September 30, not knowing my dad’s state, not knowing any of that. When am I available? All the time and never.

I think I’ll ask for winter. It is a desert there, after all. I’ll leave it to Zubrin, which means leaving it to God, but not confusing the two. He’s to assign me where I’d be the best fit, and I’ll have to trust God that that’s what works with his plan as well.

Those who pray, pray for my father. And ultimately for my mother, my brothers and sisters, and I humbly ask, for myself as well.

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