Interview with Kent Nebergall

HH: Well, we’re here today with Kent Nebergall. Hi Kent, how you doing?

Nebergall: Good.

HH: So could you tell us a little about your background?

Nebergall: Well, I got really into space stuff when I was about seven . That was when Apollo-Soyuz was going on back around 1975 and my dad, who was a banker at the time, in a past life was a test pilot on the B-47, so we were rushing home from school and watching TV and absolutely fascinated with this; peppering my dad with questions. Because of his background, he was answering all of them and then I started just plunging into the base sections of the the school library and public library and eventually I got into computers instead because, you know, what are you going to do? And that was also computers were just starting to take off when I was in junior high so that seemed like an interesting future as well. So I went to college for business administration and was a tech writer for a while and then ended up being a business analyst, which I do in my day job.

However, about 12 years ago I bumped into Robert Zubrin at a science fiction luncheon where he was promoting the fact that they were going to be doing there luncheon in Chicago near where I live. So I went to the website and I entered a Mars essay contests and got honorable mention and something related to Mars was part of my prize winnings. And then they said, “We’re going to do a competition to design the Earth return vehicle,” which was the thing that flies to Mars, makes its own fuel then flies back to Earth. So very challenging part of the whole operation. And one that was shown theoretically possible. This was a way to get a little bit more knowledge base there. And I pondered it for about two weeks then I finally decided my inner 12 year would never forgive me if I didn’t try and five finished, and of the five it was a person in England, a PhD and Aerospace Engineering in Colorado Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and me pretty much operating on my own. I’m proud of those five I won and I was probably shocked just as anyone else. I got my award at the next convention and presented a couple of papers. And that was 12 years ago and I’ve been presenting papers in their sights and I’ll also present next year and it’s been a very, very interesting voyage and I’m also doing the professional level papers with PhDs. I think just because I’m a native English speaker, but I’ve got some good ideas.

HH: So I understand you did three presentations at this most recent Mars Society convention.

Nebergall: Mm-hmm.

Historical Cosmology, Human Identity & Exploration

HH: So you did one on historical Cosmology, human identity and exploration. Could you tell us about that?

Nebergall: That was a paper that — I’d done a lot of technology concepts over the years for space settlement or for Mars exploration, but I also have a love of history and theology and religion and things like that. So when the 100 year starship had their initial conference and they were asking for abstracts I put in three abstracts for starship related and space settlement related things and I thought just as an aside I would do one on cosmology and it was… Low and behold that was the only one they picked. So I was in this room at this very prestigious convention for — Stewart Brand was the moderator, the guy who wrote the Whole Earth Catalog and who was an inspiration to Steve Jobs, who passed away too, about two weeks after this. And I gave th paper, and what it consisted of was an understanding of how our language in our culture in the West is oriented around the ideas of what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to explore? What does heavens mean? And by tearing those problems apart in terms of the creations in the Bible and also the creation stories from Greek mythology and how those two philosophical underpinnings underlie all of our Western languages, all of our western university education up until the end of world, what do we mean when we say that we’re human. A lot of us don’t even understand any of these ideas means. So when you see somebody in a discussion on something and they say, “Oh, well we’ll have to clean up those nonfunctional orbiting satellites out there because they’re all debris,” and my response for that and typically is if you found a cave in your backyard with an intact perfectly pristine viking pit, would you call the archaeologists or would you call recycling company? Because there’s a certain attitude that anything human in the heavens is in nature, and that’s not in the Christian tradition, it’s actually out of the Greco-Roman tradition. Heroes in the Greek traditions always went horizontally. They never went vertically or if they were rewarded in the afterlife it was in a better neighborhood of things. Almost nobody actually went into heaven. That’s a very generic Christian concept. So it was basically finding and appending some of the attitude and trying to essentially reverse diagnose some of the difficulties in how we think about things today.

HH: I see. Well, I think you did mention the Roman Empire and that in your talk and there are people who see the US as going the same way, what do you think of that concept?

Nebergall: The idea that empires or civilizations eventually reaching a state of collapse, there’s the generic high school version that is apathy, atrophy, anarchy; the idea that first there’s a central malaise of culture where people just don’t try anything and they just don’t care and then eventually things fall apart. And we had a brush with that in the late sixties, early seventies and I think we had… I think, in some ways we keep going back to that. There’s a certain kind of culture that seems to pull us in that direction. One of the advantages of space flight is that that is one way for a civilization to break out of the downward cycle. Spain, just before the new world was governed was in a much different state, close to collapse. They had just managed to survive the Moorish invasions and they had a lot of internal issues. Once they started realizing there was a new world with opportunities and resources and folklore and a new place to explore and a new adventure and something to think about, something to dream about. That’s when European civilization and Italy 1500 really started to take off. So one of the advantages of space flight is that it gives that vision of a new frontier. We don’t have new frontiers in the current world, because if you go into new land there’s always somebody there who not just already living there, there’s the polar regions who were in the same situation 100 years ago, unclaimed land. We’re starting to have a solution to that again. We don’t want to repeat that loop because that loop leads to a lot of chaos and human suffering. So that’s kind of one way out; I think we can get into a new vertical mindset of being in space as a new frontier but not only enriching those who go into space but those who remain behind and benefit through the technology. And we have a former culture.

HH: Okay. So I understand you also gave a presentation on bridging robot and human exploration. How do you think robots and humans can work together to improve the exploration of the environments like Mars?

Nebergall: The actual talk I gave was about the idea — it was a specific technological proposal and what it was was that right now, if we made some major discovery on Mars, we have science at the speed of bureaucracy so it would take about seven/eight years to get a probe designed and approved by NASA and go through all the committees and you physically built, and then launch windows are 26 months a part. So even if you had the probe built you wouldn’t necessarily be relaunching for another two years. The idea that I was proposing was having a large science platform mostly based on existing technology that would just stare at Mars and look at other things that are in the atmosphere or on surface. You would have a data center essentially on the spot and on the side facing Mars and have a way to block the cosmic rays to keep it from unnecessarily flipping bits, because radiation hardened electronics are expensive and slow and for a data center like that you need something small, fast and affordable. They needed to be protected from cosmic using technology. So the idea was that one platform would orbit Mars and look for anomalies, the computer would figure out if those anomalies or something officially out of the norm, it would physically configure a probe to analyze it, then you have a second interior vehicle that goes 100 minutes after the first vehicle that could put the appropriate instrumentation into the capsule and ready the capsule with improvements to launch the capsule. And then if there was an event where it could go in and it would actually launch an aircraft or land or hover over the region and see what the thing was.

And so, instead of a 10-year delay, you had a hundred minute delay. And to put that in perspective you could accomplish more science in one day than you could otherwise because you’re going in more often. Now that’s assuming that Mars cooperates and gives us something interesting to see every day or that you can have that many capsules on hand, but it was the idea of, let’s just compress this down so that if there were something just compatible, we could be there almost immediately. And the way that bridges to a human civilization is that if you have human beings running around and somebody needs rescue, we’re running out of oxygen we need something right now, this could just as easily be used as a rapid surgeon that can respond more quickly to a crisis. And, because you’re mapping the entire planet in great detail every day, it would also give you the ability to know what was coming in terms of weather and they’ll also have cameras looking backwards as well as forwards so you’ll be able to anticipate a meteor collision headed your way so you wouldn’t be caught caught off guard by a meteor collision. So it was pretty pretty slick arrangement in terms of trying to move the way we think about Mars to Mars and do a better and faster job of exploring it.

HH: And I believe you mentioned in your third talk a structured settlement from astronauts in space and that we could learn from the past eight years and build a more meaningful presence in space.

Nebergall: Yeah, it was kind of a whirlwind when I give a lecture. It tends to feel like drinking from a fire hose because I tend to go through about a slide a minute. And what I was basically getting at is that when you went from the original humans in Africa to Europe and Asia you had a very small inclination of suddenly you have to deal with winters and suddenly you have to deal with other things like that and so we ended up with a very short step to walk up, but in that short step we invented agriculture, we invented shelters, we invented fire, we invented metallurgy. And that was the technological enablers to conquer the Earth surface then, when we started to do things like polar regions with the intimate tribes and so forth that was another technological step. Then when we went through the seafaring race between the Polynesians and the European explorers, the Chinese explorers, that was another step of how do we live in the oceans essentially for months and months at the time? How do we repair ships that will get to a completely unknown land with completely different species of trees and so forth? But every time you go through one of these higher steps the technological benefits doesn’t just apply to the settlement civilization but also applies to all of human civilization. So I talked about that and I also talked about the way various technology comes and leaves and complex names and how technology doesn’t go away. It tends to back onto each other and I gave them a pretty good talk on, what exactly is technology? If there’s a new energy source that could make use of Einsteinian equations and matter given its informational arrangement? Usually, it’s a combination of the three.

Generally if you have the situation there — there’s a new energy source to generate technology from behind in the manufacturing technique. It can take the other energies and make them more efficient. What does imply for the future, that next big jump to becoming spacers?

So it was pretty much a very deep down analysis of the various innovations and why we have this gigantic technological dump from the Wright brothers that suddenly leveled off. Why did it flatline? If that curve continue going up, we would have had starships if that’s how fast the technology is going to move, but we don’t have starships. There’s a predictable math… I think around the edge of the advent of the individual companies like SpaceX.

HH: So what did you think of the Mars Society convention overall?

Nebergall: Overall, it’s very good. You don’t have to be a scientist to present there, that’s why I got started. It helps, I mean, we had NASA speakers, we had an Apollo 17 astronaut, we had a lot of people just like me and just like you propose talks and go in. And just over the last 12 years of going to these conferences and presenting ideas, I’m now no longer quite an amateur; I’m actually doing professional papers with some of the Ph.Ds here. So for the armchair rocket scientist, I think it’s just ideal for you to get into this sort of thing and not just speculate over a beer or whatever but actually have an idea, think it through. And we have in this little

tablet computer I’m talking you on there’s more power than NASA had in the 1960s, when the were putting people on the Moon. And am I using it to actually watch videos or am I actually working on something that has potential to save lives?

I’d prefer to do the latter, that videos have their place, but you know sometimes you gotta think outside the little box. I like the idea of going these conventions. It’s become my hobby, it’s become my vacation anything to go to whatever space convention and you can see and talk to the interesting people and listen to other interesting people and really welcome others who are interested in Mars.

HH: Awesome. So on I understand you recently joined the Mars Society steering committee. What can you tell us about the future plans or any current projects?

Nebergall: Currently, we’re working on — we just finished, and I was on the crew that went out to Utah last weekend to build the new greenhouse. Our old one had a bit of a fire so we had to scrap it and build a brand new dome, basically, a 16 foot high, 24 foot diameter dome. It’s going to be the new greenhouse and there’s a two story facility there for simulating astronaut operation. There’s an observatory. There’s a very similar facility up in the Canadian Arctic. We have been planning on doing a one-year stay at the Canadian Arctic facility. We have done a four-month stay, in fact, if you look behind me on the wall here there’s a flag that flew at that Arctic facility and signed by the original crew there. They got it at an auction and had it framed.

The next project will take one of those crews and have them at Mars Desert Research Station in Utah for 80 days and stay for a very long period time. Normally, a crew goes for about two weeks and this will be a new experience in 80 straight days in a Mars-like environment. So that’s going on, we built the greenhouse, as I mentioned and then the other major operation that the Mars Society does is called the university rover challenge and universities from around the world will build a rover for about sixteen thousand dollars of their own money and they will drive it by remote control with essential telepresence with a laptop screen or headset or whatever, and they will drive it through various challenges, either on operating switches trying to find a lost astronaut, we’re thinking about climbing a cliff this year, driving through difficult terrain and they’re forming an obstacle course and this has gone from very simple operation of usually plywood boxes and bicycle wheels to a really complex course Within three years we have really gotten some good rovers but they took a CNC machine and they carved a rover is not unlike Spirit and Opportunity on a budget I mean that’s a few thousand dollars. It was good construction using building materials where every piece was like a plastic, a clear plastic sheet that folded into notches on another clear plastic sheet and that was their frame and their suspension around the walls. It was very robust yet lightweight. There was another group who had one that actually bend in the middle in order to be able to go over rough terrain and once it got high center they actually just bend it and kept going without slowing down much. What started out looking like amateur work is now looking better and closer to professional quality. We’ve been doing this for eight years now I believe, and they’re actually starting out with the more challenging courses.

We’ve got dozens of teams kept showing up so we’ve just started university challenges in Europe to prequalify some of the teams who might have to travel the farthest and encouraging science and technology with students and not only engineering students, art students or other students who just are really enthused about this, who put in the time and effort to work on these rovers.

HH: So have you ever been a part of a crew at the Mars Desert Research Station?

Nebergall: When I won that competition back in 12 years ago part of my prize was to go out to the Mars Desert Research Station. At the time there was twice as many people climbing Mount Everest as have been down to RS back then. Now it’s like the other way around. But back then I was the astronomer of the crew. I was basically in charge of the observatory. So somewhere around here I have my certificate from that. I’m the guy in the background but there’s more pictures of me.

So that was interesting. Two years ago I was commander of going to Mars Desert Research Station. We had a two pack crew going to the MDRS. We didn’t have any press embeds this time, but we had a much more challenging set of experiments that we were doing, either members of my team or scientists back in Europe who wanted data for their research. We had about 20-30 contributors on it, but it was my first real experience that was presented at a professional conference. And since then I’ve been back every now and then.

HH: So what are some things that people can do to support the Mars Society or Mars exploration in general?

Nebergall: Well, the website is, and just go there and check it out, of course you can donate. You know, where’s the fun in cutting a check. If you have strong interest in becoming more than just an observer, if you have ideas, if you have talent, if you’re — and it doesn’t matter if you’re a mechanic or a plumber or anything, you know, there’s stuff at the station you can do as part of a crew and go out and participate. Like, right now I think in two more weeks there’s going to be an engineering team go out and prepare the hab for the next year of scientists. So that’ll help not only with science but also when you turn on the stove, when you turn on the lights and make sure the toilet flush and that sort of thing.

And when we get on Mars science process, we have all our physical limitations. If you have a life skill that is a value on earth there’s probably in a way that either by volunteering some of these efforts or also presenting papers or contributing, that sort of thing. Just being aware of what’s going on and look at the Martians coming out. Just being the guy who knows the answer to the questions of how to grow food can be valuable.

When I was getting ready for my second trip out there as commander one of my crew members sent me a copy of the Martian back so I could read it and I was so impressed with it. I emailed the author and said, “have you been to the Mars Desert Research Station?” I don’t remember exactly what I said but that’s essentially the gist of it and I think there’s going to be much more focus on Mars in the next couple of decades. When we were out building the dome we had several Russian photographers show up and just taking pictures of everything. And when I was there the first time we had one family show up here we think. We had three different groups come through in just in two days that we were there, just curious with what we were doing. There’s always something to do. The beauty of engineering space projects, even if you just do the same things I do and write papers, you go from looking at problems like modern people do to the way with people looked at problems for the last 6,000 years, 10,000 years, with the idea that gravity is a constant, with the idea that atmospheric pressure is a constant. When you take those away and we look at things from a different perspective when the same flow, just have different results, and I can take the exact same vehicle on the surface of Mars and fire the engine and take a slightly different route than someone else did yesterday. It gives you a stereoscopic perspective, but suddenly somebody opened the other line and you don’t just solve Mars problems that way, you solve any problem this other way. So for any engineering students or anybody who solves problems for living, when I was a business analyst I also figuring out some of the ways that perspective vision is important in business and working and just being able to get through life. I highly recommend people take this challenge.

HH: Awesome. That’s about all I’ve got. Anything you’d like to add?

Nebergall: I think I’ve said everything that I had in mind. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you.

HH: Thank you.

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