A Night on Mars

"Mars has a lot of lava tubes from when it was geologically active. You can go in there, spray plastic on the walls to make it airtight, and you've got a house," says Gerry Williams, co-founder of the Mars Society's San Diego chapter. "The Mars Society is an international organization of space advocates who want to see people living and working on Mars," Williams explains. Williams has hosted "Mars Movie Night" once a month since November 2001, when he screened Total Recall for the Mars enthusiasts. On Friday, December 21, he will show Postcards from the Future, a 38-minute movie about an engineer who sends video postcards to his wife on Earth over a span of 20 years while he is stationed on the moon.

"I choked up at the end, which is pretty rare for me," says Williams. "It was very believable and, pardon the expression, very down-to-earth. The big thing that was missing is that right now we do not have the political will to [embark on such a mission]. Nixon canceled the last three Apollo missions to the moon. He went for a space shuttle instead of putting a Mars mission together -- if he had gone with the Mars mission, we would probably have been on Mars by 1985."

Williams says the timeline of the film is unrealistic. "We won't see a guy going to the moon and going to Mars and then to Titan [one of Saturn's moons]. You'd see his daughter going to Mars, maybe, and then her daughter going to the moons of Saturn."

Williams says he would love to be one of the first colonists on Mars and that he's frustrated by the lack of progress in space exploration over the past three decades. "When I was in junior high and high school, we were landing people on the moon, and I thought, 'Hey, this is pretty cool -- I'm going to be able to vacation on the moon someday.' Now it's 35 years later, and we don't have the technology to go back to the moon right now."

Saturn V rockets were used to launch the Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972, after which they were retired. "They basically turned them into lawn ornaments at three of the NASA centers in the South. When they got rid of that Saturn V, they lost the capability of sending people back to the moon." Williams says that engineers would have to start from scratch using old blueprints to be able to build new rockets capable of reaching the moon.

Using current technology, there is a 1-in-25 chance that the space shuttle will explode during launch. "I would take that chance," says Williams. "There are a couple of us in the Mars Society, especially the older folks, who say they would go to Mars on a one-way trip, knowing they'd never come back." For others, the dream of Mars does not involve risk: "One member is a lawyer, and he said he'd love to go to Mars, but after they developed it a little bit and he could stay in a four-star hotel."

Williams believes that privatization of space exploration is the fastest way to get humans on our sister planet. "There's the joke of the $600 toilet seat. The government has so much bureaucracy and infrastructure that to put a toilet seat in an aircraft carrier -- in the end, the cost is about $600. Whereas if you contract it out, [a private company] could just run to Home Depot and buy a toilet seat and install it for much less." Adds Williams, "At least 20 different companies are planning on launching their own private rocket ship in the next three years."

Jim Benson, who helped build the engines for Burt Rattan's SpaceshipOne (the first privately funded aircraft to achieve a manned suborbital space flight and winner of the $10 million X Prize for this achievement) has started the Benson Space Company in Poway. "Benson is designing his own rocket ship to get into the tourism business and is planning on building that ship so it can eventually achieve orbital flight and be able to supply and crew the space stations."

According to Williams, Benson also hopes to capture an asteroid and lay claim to it. "You could have more nickel in that asteroid than is being used on Earth right now," says Williams. "Once you start tapping into the resources that are out there, there's pretty much unlimited potential. Here on Earth we're worried about running out of oil, a biological by-product. If they were able to prove there was oil on Mars, we'd probably be there tomorrow." -- Barbarella

Mars Movie Night:
Postcards from the Future and Tom and Jerry Blast Off to Mars (a feature-length cartoon)
Friday, December 21
7 p.m.
Studio 106
2323 Broadway
Golden Hill
Cost: Free (please RSVP; seating is limited)
Info: 619-723-3456 or www.marssandiego.org

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