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.

Around 10 a.m., the event staff cued the swelling string music, and Obama took the stage. He launched into his stump speech with relish, hitting his usual notes: that Americans need something to believe in, that the country can once again lead the world "by deed and by example," but that each and every citizen has to demand a change. It seemed like promising talk from the candidate who has often been compared to John F. Kennedy -- could he be made to see that Mars could be the symbolic achievement of his administration?

According to Zubrin, a firm presidential commitment is the only thing that will plant American boots on Martian soil. "We could be there in 10 years," he says. "From a technical point of view, we are much better prepared to send men to Mars now than we were prepared to send men to the moon when Kennedy announced the goal in 1961," Zubrin says. "And we were there in eight years."

President Bush has earned the Mars Society's gratitude with his "New Vision for Space Exploration," announced in 2004, which directed NASA to send Americans back to the moon by 2020, with Mars as the next goal.

But Mars advocates are dismayed by the long timeline, and since 2004 they've had to repeatedly lobby Congress to keep the appropriations flowing -- with mixed success. Right now, the House version of next year's budget would prevent NASA from spending any money on programs that are exclusively focused on sending humans to Mars. Zubrin called this "trench warfare," and says it happens every year.

With the program's future perpetually in doubt, the next president's stance on space exploration becomes all-important. If he or she doesn't endorse Bush's plan, it could go back on the shelf for the length of the new administration.

Obama's speech ended to rapturous applause, and the rock-star candidate began working the line, shaking hands and signing books across the barricade. Carberry was in position. Over the Stevie Wonder song blasting from the sound system, Carberry blurted out his question. "I'm with a group called the Mars Society, and we'd like to know: Do you support the policy of journeying back to the moon and going on to Mars?"

Without a blink, Obama was ready. "I'm inspired by the idea of going to Mars," he replied, projecting friendly sincerity. "I'm also mindful of the budgetary constraints. So I won't give you an answer right now."

Carberry followed up -- could he give him some reading material, and make an appointment to speak with someone from his policy team? "Absolutely." The folder was passed off to one of Obama's staff, and the candidate moved on.

And that was it. Perhaps 15 seconds of quality time with a man who could be president. Was it worth it? "This is the first indication that anyone's gotten about what Obama thinks about space," Carberry says happily.

Next target: Hillary.

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