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IMG_1444 Mars team panel

Mars 1 Dream Team panel. Left to right: writers Bob Mahoney, William Ledbetter, Patrice Sarath, Alexis Glynn Latner, and aeronautics/astronautics professor Sigrid Close.

The organizers inteded this panel for discussing what specific people should be on the first team sent to Mars; presumably those would be people we all have heard of, otherwise how could we have a meaningful discussion? But the moderator Patrice Sarath thought this approach would be unproductive. She suggested instead that we talk about what mix of skills we would need to take. Yes, the usual -- doctors and engineers, and enough duplication of skills, so that the expedition would not be doomed if one of the experts die. But then we got into discussion what is more important to take: specialists or generalists? (Assuming that we can't take plenty of both.) An audience member argued that if you needed specific scientific advice, the Earth with its expertise would be just a 20-minute time lag away. So it's more important to take jacks of all trades that have a strong enough understanding of anything mechanical, can work with their hands and fix anything. Sigrid Close, a professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University, said she had those kinds of graduate students in her lab. Some of them could construct or fix equipment for launching into space out of materials bought at Target, or just literally from stuff laying around on the table. Donald Rumsfeld's famous phrase about "known unknowns and unknown unknowns" was floated here, and with both kinds of unknowns such people would be truly indispensable.

Sigrid Close also expressed her admiration for science fiction writers, as they inspire scientists every day. Oh, and she says she still doesn't have a sufficient answer for the question she gets asked a lot: why do we want to send humans into space? Perhaps she doesn't think that "for humanity's survival" is a good enough answer. But the audience protested that one doesn't need any other reason for going into space than because it's there. Bob Mahoney says we do these things because we like to be entertained, and achieving difficult goals is entertaining to humans.

Aside from mixture of skills, the panelists discussed what else should we have a mixture of -- perhaps genetic diversity? A mixture of genes to guarantee survival of a colony? Some say such a group should have at least 2000 people. Others pointed out that we can bring frozen eggs or embryos, so gene diversity need not affect decisions regarding what mix of people to bring. Also, there are completely different considerations going into how much and what kind of people to bring if you are just sending the first wave of colonists, with a plan for subsequent waves to come later.

IMG_1444 Mars team panel