On December 12, Better Futures host Michael Laine sat down with Mars Society’s executive director and long-time volunteer James Burk. The two followed up an earlier conversation on the Dare Greatly show.
Burk broke down his early days as executive director, before talking shop on some of the future-forward projects the Mars Society has on the books.
“I’ve been a volunteer for about 25 years, until about a year ago when I was hired on to be the director,” Burk said.
He explained that over that last quarter century he had acted in volunteer roles, rising through the ranks to the society's webmaster. The society had many acting executive directors over the years, but all were volunteers before he took the full-time role.
On his blog, Burk writes in-depth about those 25 years of service. He highlights a life pursuit of “cutting-edge technology," and how it led him to where he is today.
As a high schooler, Burk went door to door championing environmental causes. From college, he got a job with Microsoft. He underscored that it was shortly after he took the Microsoft job that he found the Mars Society.
The mission objective of settling the Red Planet fascinated Burk. He became a founding volunteer member. In its early days, Burk was the advocate for the society’s web presence. Now, all these years later, Burk leads the society as the first-ever paid executive director.
“The board chose me. And I’m very grateful and thankful and I’m just trying to do a good job,” Burk said.
Over the years, the project has steadily increased its high-level of recognition as a Space community leader. Even as recently as Burk took the helm, Mars Society has grown.
Because the Mars Society is an entirely publicly funded organization, Burk said it is important to scale all projects based on fundraising successes.
Some years are better than others. With the pandemic's impact, the Mars Society faced some setbacks. Burk explained, however, that the funding status has returned to a normal situation.
"We try to keep things flat. We function on a shoestring budget in general. Our station in Utah–we've run that for 20 years," said Burk.
"We keep it up and running; we put a fresh coat of paint on it and new floors in it. But, in general, we're not hiring a professional company to come out and do that," he explained.
Burk then went over one of the highlights of recent Mars Society support.
“A year ago, we got a big donation from Blue Origin’s Club for the Future,” said Burk.
Mars Society, the largest non-profit focused on Mars exploration, was selected as one of 19 Space venture entities for the prestigious STEM donation from the Blue Origin rocket company's STEM club. The highly coveted Club for the Future grant is a wealth that Burk says is an honor he is grateful to receive.
“As they were deciding which nonprofits to give it to —when they got to us, they were meeting with Jeff Bezos. They said, ‘do we really want to give it to the Mars Society… we’re usually focused on the Moon. Jeff said, ‘Nope, give the Mars Society one of these. They’re part of the Space community and we don’t want to discriminate.’ So, yeah, we’re grateful for that,” said Burk.
Burk said that Club For the Future is also open to collaboration with the Mars Society. With 6,000 employees, Blue Origin is making steady headway in rocket innovation. The two entities are a natural hand-in-glove fit. Blue Origin has asked Mars Society to involve their employees in some of Mars Society's STEM promoting activities.
Mars Society is being careful about budgeting the Club for the Future grant, as the organization views it as an endowment. While they have big plans for the use of the funds, the Mars Society project budgets scale from donations.
The show's conversation then switched over to the recent Mars Society conference in Arizona.
Laine and Burk discussed Mongolia’s presence at the conference. Mongolia’s official Mars program is now also the recognized regional chapter of the Mars Society.
The Mongolian Mars mission is one of deep cultural significance for Mongolia. Together, Mongolia’s Mars project and the Mars Society are scaling an analog testing site project in the Gobi desert.
Burk spoke on Mongolia’s ancient nomadic and warrior society.
“A lot of that carries through to the modern Mongolia. They are very independent, hard-working people," said Burk, explaining the cultural significance of the country's Mars project.
“Robert was invited by them to come out and scout out analog stations in the Gobi desert,” said Burk, referring to Mars Society founder Dr. Robert Zubrin.
“They are essentially planning a nomadic Mars analog station that you could pack up and move to another part of the Gobi,” said Burk. He then gave details of the sophisticated greenhouse innovation the Gobi desert analog site will use.
The conversation also covered future goals. Burk confirmed new mission funding efforts are in the works. Mars Society plans to return to its Arctic test site in 2023. However, Burk explained that these new missions will be contingent on fundraiser outcomes.
Image credit: Gobi Desert, Mongolia.Date 8 August 2018, 17:00:42, Richard Mortel, CCA 2.0 Generic
Text feature created by Rachel Brooks, Next Dawn.