I Love Mars, and I Vote

It's barely 8 a.m. as Chris Carberry stands in the middle of a field in the early morning sunlight, shivering slightly. He's waiting for Barack Obama, who is due to speak in about two hours. Obama volunteers are wary. Could Carberry be a researcher from the Clinton campaign? Or a dangerous nut? No, Carberry is a motivated man determined to see through his mission: to find out where each of the presidential candidates stands on Mars.

Carberry is the political director of the Mars Society, a nonprofit group that pushes relentlessly for human exploration and settlement of the red planet. He's the point man for Operation President 2008, in which Mars Society members lie in wait for presidential candidates at campaign stops in the early primary states, then leap out to pop the question: As president, would you send a man to Mars?

With a day job in Boston, Carberry is well positioned for jaunts up to New Hampshire. In the last two presidential election cycles, he says he met every major candidate. He took a short stroll with John McCain, and got kicked out of an event by Al Gore's secret service contingent. He got a surprisingly eager response from Alan Keyes, a blank stare from Bill Bradley, and a vague thumbs-up from Dick Gephardt. Now, with the 2008 primary campaign well under way, he's on the trail again.

"This is an exceptional situation that happens every four years," says Robert Zubrin, founder and president of the Mars Society. "The one time the presidential candidates are actually in contact with the American people is in the primary season. As the fields narrow, it becomes harder and harder to get close to them."

As the sun crept across the field, Carberry joined the line forming at the gate. He has made good progress already this year, he says, and rattles off candidates' responses to his overtures. "I know McCain is very enthusiastic about space -- he is a fan of space, of exploration," Carberry says. "Romney and Giuliani both said they're not sure, they haven't fully investigated the issue."

Such answers may seem like meager dividends. But advocates say that asking the candidates about the red planet can at least convey "that this is a topic about which a non-zero percentage of the voters care about," as Mars Society member Armin Ellis wrote in a blog entry. In other words, Mars enthusiasts may not be a crucial voting block, but at least the candidates know they exist.

When the gates opened, Carberry walked swiftly across the field to the barricade in front of the stage. He would be about 10 feet from Obama during the speech, but didn't plan to shout out or cause a ruckus. In the age of YouTube, he says, the candidates are terrified of an embarrassing moment. "Getting past the giggle factor is the first step -- we have to show that we're sane, serious people," Carberry says.

With yearly overall budget of about a quarter million, the Mars Society not only runs outreach efforts like Operation President, it also operates "Mars analogous" research stations in the Utah desert and the Canadian arctic. Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin sits on its steering committee, and so did NASA's current administrator, Michael Griffin, before he took the top NASA post.

But its real strength is its 7,000 passionate and devoted members in 80 chapters across the United States and worldwide. Zubrin says that while the group gets some large grants from science organizations and space agencies, members' donations make up the bulk of its funding.

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