From the plenary talks to the track sessions to the panel debates, ideas were shared and concepts taught by engineers, scientists and enthusiasts. Presentations included: Massive surface-to-space "guns" to launch cargo into orbit; techniques to store rocket fuel in orbital depots; space navigation using X-ray pulsars; even how to grow tomatoes in Martian greenhouses using Martian soil. The topics were as varied as they were immersive.
Although there were a fair number of advanced concepts (our friend Richard Obousy was even there to give a talk about the awesome Project Icarus), most of the presentations applied technology we have access to today, furthering humankind's reach into the Cosmos.
Heated debates about how a Martian society might function erupted in the corridors. Spirited discussions were held at impromptu meetings in the venue's bar and restaurant. Everyone was buzzing with the excitement that the next few years could (could) see an injection of global interest in sending a manned mission to Mars.
Why? For starters, representatives from Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) were there discussing the private sector's plans to develop the means to send humans to the Red Planet.
This comes hot on the heels of Musk's grand announcement that SpaceX has its sights set on Mars. Naturally, enthusiasts have latched onto SpaceX's dreams, and for the first time I heard serious discussions about using commercial heavy lift rockets to take habitats to the Red Planet's surface.
Whether or not this goal is achieved in the near-term isn't important at this stage - after all, the private sector has yet to begin sending cargo to the International Space Station, let alone begin launching astronauts - just the fact the subject is on the table is silver lining enough.
Asteroid or Mars?
Also, the end of the Shuttle Program was seen by many as overdue - perhaps NASA can now focus on pushing the human spaceflight envelope beyond low-Earth orbit?
Unfortunately, President Obama's direction for NASA's next big "envelope-pushing" manned mission was met with skepticism at best. At worst, the plan to send astronauts to an asteroid "by the mid-2020′s" was met with outright hostility.
One convention delegate, associated with a NASA contractor, went so far to tell me that he thought a manned mission to an asteroid was "reckless" and the very notion that astronauts docking with a near-Earth asteroid would be useful was "a complete lie" and "just a way to distract the people from wanting a lunar or Mars goal."
Along similar lines, Zubrin remains outspoken about his criticism for the space propulsion "silver bullet" that promises Earth-Mars transits of 39 days. I am, of course, referring to the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) being developed by former astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz. Before this year's convention, Zubrin challenged Chang-Diaz to attend a debate on the technologies behind VASIMR. Alas, a public debate didn't happen.
The sticking point with VASIMR is that it would require so much energy to function, it would need a space-based nuclear power source vastly bigger than anything we've seen in space before. The technology may be there, but this form of plasma propulsion appears to be bolted firmly to the laboratory floor. Therefore, according to Zubrin and other critics, until some as-yet to be imagined alternative power source is invented, VASIMR is a project that will suck up funds with no hope of actually making a difference in space, let alone facilitating a manned mission to Mars.
The Life Incentive
The fundamental question being asked during the convention was: "Why send humans to Mars?" After all, it would be an expensive, high-risk endeavor; why put the lives of men and women on the line to begin an extended human presence on, what appears to be, a dead planet?
First and foremost - and potentially the sole reason (in my opinion) why we might see a sudden political interest for a manned expedition to Mars - is that we don't know if the Red Planet is dead. Even if it doesn't host life now, did it in the past?
And this is one thing the space community (mainly) agrees on; robotic missions are not going to find definitive proof that there are, or were, basic lifeforms on Mars. Human ingenuity will be invaluable for an extended and expansive Mars biology-hunting mission.
Coincidentally, Mars was thrust into the mainstream media when, right in the middle of the convention, news about observations of suspected salty water flowing across the Martian surface was announced. Once again, the potential for Mars to spawn its own form of life (or is it a shared form of life?) became the key topic for discussion. Local media seized the opportunity and descended on the Mars Society Convention to see what the experts thought.