Mars and Milton Keynes

I’ve never been that bothered about going to Mars, not since I was a teenager who traced spaceships out of Di Fate’s Catalog of Science Fiction Hardware, anyway. But when I was in Houston I was surrounded by people who were fanatical about sending people to another planet, an experience that made me wonder why I wasn’t bothered about something they were obsessed with.

So I thought spending a day in Milton Keynes for The Mars Society UK’s symposium, ‘Mars on Earth: Life on Mars,’ might be enlightening particularly as Robert Zubrin, the evangelist behind a (relatively) cheap method of getting to Mars would be speaking. He was, by some way, the most entertaining and inspiring of the speakers to talk to the hundred or so men and a handful of women. He carelessly threw each acetate on to the OHP’s surface as if to confirm this rousing speech had been delivered to many roomfuls of obsessed men around the world and that he could now enthuse the faithful with little effort. By the time he’d finished delivering the sermon, polishing it off with a few slick jokes, Matt and I were sold. “When can we go?” we thought. It all made perfect sense, every possible problem had been envisaged and redundancy was everywhere (never mind the slightly worrying matter of generating gravity in the lander by swinging it in a circle on the end of a mile-long tether).

Bob (we like to call him Bob, now we were all part of one big family heading for Mars in cosy sardine cans) had a friend who was also entertaining. Charles Frankel told us all about spending 11 days in a fake habitation module with Bob and four other highly-qualified folk, as part of the F-MARS Arctic Simulation. Every day they’d don space suits and venture out into the barren arctic crater, devoid of life except for a Discovery Channel film crew, and hunt for dull fossils in the dull rocks. He managed to make it sound like a real adventure, although it seemed more like a publicity stunt than a valid scientific study (Big Brother probably gave us more data about locking people up in a closed space than these brief “missions”). But again, “when can we go?”

There is, of course, a but. The British speakers managed to destroy any enthusiasm for our new found quest. While we could imagine Bob commanding a triumphant journey into space, he must have been silently sobbing deep tears of despair at the sight of his British peers. OK, Colin Pillinger, Lead Scientist on Beagle 2, was an entertaining speaker, and he knows Blur, but he seemed too kindly and bumbling to ever get a bucketfull of sensitive components to the surface of another planet unscathed.

It was downhill from there unfortunately. David Cullen told us far more than anyone should ever want to know about biosensors, sorry, molecular sensors — he wanted to make this careful distinction, although it was entirely lost on me. He did manage to tie the lecture in to Mars by the end, which was, admittedly, an achievement. Bo Maxwell, who is something big in the Mars Society UK (perhaps he aspires for the full “Bob”) told us about European plans to catch up with America in the demanding race to generate publicity for Mars missions: Euro-MARS, another fake habitation module decorated with the essential sponsors’ logos. There are currently two choices for a location: Iceland, whose temperature and landscape approximates that of Mars; or a spot in southern Spain where temperatures are nothing like Mars and the crew may be poisoned by old insustrial contamination. If you want to get to Mars, you have to be prepared for such dilemmas.

There were two more British speakers who dragged down the side’s batting average. The first, billed mysteriously as “PreCon Structures Ltd., Special Announcement,” was almost eagerly awaited. Maybe we’d all get a free habitation module! A free ticket to Mars! Maybe we’d blast off there and then, leaving a small room-sized hole in the National Hockey Stadium and Conference Centre!! Unfortunately, the special announcment was not quite so special. It was delivered by the Mars Society UK’s Resources Manager, Peter Loftus, a comparatively young guy in a comparitively out-of-place suit and tie. His enthusiasm for all things Mars didn’t quite sit right, in much the same way that suited drones in 1998 declared they loved this Interweb thing, when in fact it was just the monetizing opportunities that got their mouse fingers twitching.

Loftus showed us a series of Powerpoint slides demonstrating the abilities of another society member to render speculative images of what inflatable structures on Mars might look like. PreCon Structures have, you see, developed a completely new method of creating said structures. You have no idea how incredible this is, what a difference these cheaper, lighter and stronger structures could make to a mission. Unfortunately, neither had the audience. Mr Resources Manager read out a series of slides that sounded like a marketing brochure and then admitted he couldn’t go into more detail because the product was so cutting edge the company didn’t want anyone beating them to it. The audience seemed stunned and offered up a few gently probing questions to which our uneasy speaker responded, “that’s a very good question,” before failing to answer them.

There was one more speaker, Martyn Fogg, telling us all about mathematical models for terraforming Mars. Even without his unfortunate and infuriating stutter he would have lost my distant A-level maths early on, but as Bob himself fell deeply asleep around the same point, I will spare you further details.

Matt and I escaped into Milton Keynes, full of derision for the dodgy Brits and their plucky but doomed plans, and disoriented by Bob’s giddy enthusiasm. This was, though, nothing compared to the disorientation we suffered from navigating Milton Keynes. For our foreign viewers, Milton Keynes is a planned “new town” from a few decades ago, that is a national joke for its sterile road-centered plan and concrete cow sculptures. Unless you live there in which case it is a perfect example of enlightened urban planning.

I must admit that we only saw the part of Milton Keynes between the station and the shopping centre, a business district of large square buildings, differentiated only by corporate logos. And that we saw most of it at 8.30 on a Saturday morning doesn’t help. But still. If you were sitting in one of these offices, looking across the road to the solid grey block opposite you, you’d probably have trouble making out its logo, such is the gulf between them. The roads are wide, two lanes each way, extra little parking lanes, then some parking spaces, then the pavements. The place looks just like those architects’ models of impossibly neat and white constructions, only enlarged to life-size. Vast, windswept, right-angled, lifeless.

Despite this I’m still not sure if I liked the pedestrian paths or not. Many of them are completely separate from the roads, with long skateboard-friendly slopes down to short underpasses, where you expect to see futuristic people in jumpsuits enjoying this pedestrian paradise as electric cars humm quietly above them. The downside though is that streetmaps are useless if you’re walking. Streetmaps show roads, some of which don’t have pavements, and they don’t show the walkways, rendering them worthless as maps. Unable to fit our navigational skills into this new paradigm we ended up pointing to where we wanted to be and walking through gaps in hedges, up verges and across four lanes of traffic to get there.

It really is a far, far stranger place than I imagined. And that’s without making conversation at the train station with drunk and incomprehensible locals waiting for an hour-late Virgin train. London has never seemed so safe and so sane.