Last week, my friend Matt McKenna invited me to Dent Space, held for the first time this year at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.
Talking space both thrills and intimidates me. That's why navigating a space conference and star-talking with experts in the field is, for me, a great opportunity to sound like an idiot while becoming less so.
Walking in, I was aware that we have been sending men to space for 50 years, that we are yet to identify any signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life and that life on Mars is soon-to-be a thing.
I toured the main floor, which can best be described as a grown-up science fair. I made a few new friends, like Joe. He created Sam, a company he named after his younger brother, which sells smart, electronic toy blocks. His electronic LEGOS took a photo of me, tweeted it and started a toy car with the push of a button.
Jeff Dillon showed me a toy that makes him the "real life Iron Man.” I played with a tiny rover that hops, created by Stanford students. Beyond the VR games and the futuristic toys, the most exhilarating part of the talk was seeing so much diversity and especially seeing more women than men speaking on stage -- not what I expected from a space conference.
Dent Co-founder, Jason Preston explained that was exactly what they wanted to do "to bring together people who might think they have nothing to offer to the space industry with experts" and in that diversity, see magic happen.
I must agree that although some of the talks required remembering what you learned in high school physics, most made you want to explore a space-related career switch.
One of those compelling calls to bring space closer to us non-stronauts came from Will Pomerantz, VP for special projects at Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. In his talk, he reminisced on the first time he was told he couldn't go to space because he lacked perfect vision.
Then he expanded on commercial space travel for (nearly) all, brought to us by his boss at $250,000.
"So, it’s a lot of money although the next cheapest ride is about 70 million, so we brought the price down,” Pomerantz said. "I think what is fundamentally very interesting about the industry again is we’ve found a way to transition people from just being fans, or watching it on TV or having posters in the wall, to actually being involved."
The company "has already sold more tickets to space than people have been in space," Pomerantz said.
That's 555 people in space, versus 700 Virgin Galactic tickets sold in 58 countries, so far. I offered him an earlier ticket to space via Universe Sandbox an HTC Vive Virtual Reality experience where you can create and destroy planets.
I asked Seth Shostak, the senior astronomer at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute about the likelihood of extraterrestrial life and beyond life, intelligence.
“Life started on Earth very quickly, geologically speaking, and that does suggest that it wasn’t very hard," Shostak said.
Now that we know that planets are so common, Shostak’s hopes are up.
Should we be afraid? Stephen Hawking has famously warned us about sending messages to aliens, who would likely want to conquer and colonize us.
"I don't worry, because we’re already broadcasting into space,” Shostak said. “Not deliberately, but all our radio signals. Those have been leaking into space for 70 years. Any society that’s advanced enough to threaten you, you know, they can pick that stuff up.
“We’ve already told them we’re here."
Many speakers addressed the likelihood and relative proximity of intergalactic travel. However, it became clear to me that the most exciting, attractive and earliest adventure every astrophile is focused on is our upcoming colonization of Mars.
By the early 2030s we will get to the Mars vicinity, then set up shop around the planet's moons and eventually land on Mars towards the end of that decade, if not longer, Shostak said. I asked about the cost and he explained that the NASA funding is but a tiny percent of the entire federal budget.
"It turns into generating money for the economy, every dollar spent in NASA returns $7 to $14 return on investment,” Shostak said. “I don’t know any other government agency that actually makes money for the industry."
So, why does it matter? With all of the problems we have yet to solve on our pale blue dot, to quote Carl Sagan, why are we setting our sails out to other worlds?
Several experts spoke about the need to do it as a means of survival in the face of our planet's imminent demise. Marshall Smith, in charge of putting together the systems that could one day take us to Mars, gave me a glass-half-full version of that.
“I think we’re creatures of exploration. That’s the human spirit, you know, we never want to stay still, we want to move on,” Smith said. “I believe, and that’s my personal opinion, we have become more than a one-planet species. We need to stretch out and establish ourselves, and that’s actually what’s in the legislation that was passed.
“To put humans into space, not to go and come back, but to go and sustain life in space and to continue that journey.”
Perhaps, my favorite explanation of the importance of looking out to space, came from a new friend I made at the conference. Meaghan Kennedy is famous for making piñatas. She’s not a space expert. She was shyly quoting a woman astronaut who she heard speaking at the conference.
“The more we learn about space and what is possible, the more compassion we’ll have for what’s happening here on our own planet.”