How The Mars Society Launched An Out Of This World Virtual Event — With Elon Musk
Democratize access to scientific education on a global stage
For the last several years, the people of planet Earth have been navigating a Fourth Industrial Revolution, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF). The idea is that humanity is experiencing a, “fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.” Within this context, there’s a natural social pressure to increase the pace and scale of STEAM education (science and technology, interpreted through engineering and the arts, based in mathematics).
“All of us are responsible for guiding its evolution, in the decisions we make on a daily basis as citizens, consumers, and investors,” wrote Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the WEF in 2016. “To do this, however, we must develop a comprehensive and globally shared view of how technology is affecting our lives and reshaping our economic, social, cultural, and human environments.”
Organizations, like The Mars Society, are mission-critical to making scientific knowledge accessible. Since 1998, this volunteer-run, non-profit organization has been devoted to the exploration and settlement of the Red Planet. The Society has been directly involved in advocating support for government-funded Mars research, as well as the creation of private sector commercial space ventures.
One of the organization’s goals is to bring the topic of space exploration to a wider audience. In addition to conducting public outreach and advocacy, The Mars Society hosts events, such as Mars analog simulations in the Utah Desert and Canadian Arctic, as well as an annual University Rover Challenge and The International Mars Society Convention.
“Education is a big part of what we do, especially with regards to this complex area of science,” says James Burk, Director of Information Technology (IT) at The Mars Society. “I think it’s important that people, like me and my fellow colleagues, continue to work to garner interest and facilitate understanding in the power of science for the general population, as well as remove any barriers to broadening public knowledge and support for the space program, by making complicated technical concepts easy-to-comprehend and its role in the future of humanity a discussion for everyone.”
Even as the world navigates a global pandemic, The Mars Society has remained committed to its educational mission. In 2020, the group used Attendify’s virtual event platform to host its 23rd Annual International Mars Society Convention. The worldwide virtual event featured more than 150 speakers and attracted 10,000 attendees from across the globe.
Create a one-of-a-kind virtual event experience & community
For the past 22 years, the Mars Society Convention has taken place at various university and convention venues, the majority located in the greater Los Angeles area, which is near SpaceX and The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as well as several major airports. Because of the popularity of the event, which attracted 400 people per year, Burk and his team had not considered moving its educational programming online.
But in 2020, Burk and his team had no choice but to take their event digital.
“We are committed to our educational mission,” Burk says. “We were committed to hosting a conference that the world had never seen. We were willing to put in the work, especially after noticing that other groups had canceled their events.”
As a first step, Burk vetted several dozen virtual event platforms. He compiled a list of 30, or so, technologies for creating , managing, and running worldwide virtual events.
One of Burk’s goals was to create real-world engagement in a virtual setting.
“We wanted our attendees to have multiple ways of engaging with one another,” says Burk. “Along with its ease of use, best-in-class user experience, and its fully integrated platform functionality, the features within Attendify were very important to us.”
In particular, Burk and his team relied on the following features within Attendify:
- Intuitive User Interface. To ensure that it was as simple and straightforward as possible for attendees to join, attend, and engage with their virtual conference, they relied on Attendify’s event platform, which was designed to be easy and intuitive to use while ensuring a great attendee experience for technical and non-technical users alike.
- Interactive Community. Using Attendify’s customizable profiles, attendees, speakers, and sponsors could easily share their bio, photos, and links to social media profiles. This capability made it possible for people to make meaningful connections with one another and fostered a similar sense of community that’s inherent to in-person events. Within the platform, attendees were able to connect, network, and even discuss potential joint projects with one another via private chats & channels.
- Hybrid Accessibility. Because the Attendify online and mobile platform is fully integrated, event participants were able to attend, engage, and interact at the Mars Society conference—from any device —desktop or smartphone. This was important to Mars Society, because it allowed for their attendees to seamlessly participate with their conference anytime, anywhere, and from any device.
- Live streaming integrations. With Attendify, the Mars Society team was easily able to integrate all of their worldwide virtual event sessions into one centralized conference hub, where attendees could not only see all available tracks, manage their individual agendas, and interact with town hall community content, but where they could also join, engage, & participate in Q&A for all live, interactive presentations, breakouts, and keynotes — seamlessly within one single platform.
- Continued platform access. Attendees will have access to the Attendify platform, and all conference recordings, until the next Mars Society event takes place. With this level of ongoing access, this year’s attendees will be able to leverage the platform for continued networking, conversing, and engaging with one another around the worldwide virtual event’s on-demand sessions and content.
“People were impressed with how much content there was,” says Burk. “The event ran smoothly, and there were no technical glitches along the way.”
Capture the interest & imaginations of people from all walks of life
With a virtual event format, The Mars Society was able to capture the interest and imaginations of an attendee audience 25X larger than prior years’ in-person events. To remove any obstacles, especially in light of the hardships of 2020, and to fulfill their philanthropic mission, which aims to help the general public comprehend the power of science and space exploration, the non-profit decided to make their worldwide virtual event free to attend, with an optional donation.
They hadn’t anticipated that the overwhelming popularity of their conference would lead to a meaningful influx of donations, both large and small, nor a significant increase in new lifetime members, as a result. These donations allow the Mars Society to continue their legacy of supporting STEM education, providing scientific education to the public, and funding initiatives critical to continued space exploration and Mars missions.
Taking their conference virtual also meant they could more easily attract highly sought-after speakers than was previously possible in prior years of the convention.
“A lot of people in the NASA community want to speak at our event, but they can’t always travel,” says Burk. “It was a lot easier to get people to commit [to a virtual event]. They didn’t have to deal with the logistics of scheduling in-person travel, staying at a hotel, coordinating PowerPoint presentations, nor coming to the USC campus and finding their day-of presenter location.
When Elon Musk spoke in his conference session, even giving a high school student a chance to have her question answered, more than 100,000 additional people from around the world also turned in via simultaneous livestreaming on FaceBook and YouTube.
Other notable speakers included:
- Jim Bridenstine, Administrator of NASA
- Dr. John Grunsfeld, former NASA Astronaut
- George Whitesides, Chief Space Officer of Virgin Galactic
- Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of New Horizons Mission
- Elon Musk, Founder & CEO of SpaceX
Given their widespread popularity and demand, these are individuals that Burk and his team would have been less likely to feature as speakers, otherwise.
“One of the things that was really important to us with putting on The Mars Society conference was that people still felt like it was an in-person event, where attendees could meet each other, start projects together, and make meaningful connections.”
In the future, Burk and his team plan to create more virtual and hybrid event experiences to complement their annual conference.
“We had 400 people at past [in-person] events, and what this experience has taught us is how powerful virtual event experiences can be,” Burk says. “Why would we want to go back to that? Next year, assuming a best-case scenario—wherein we’re all vaccinated and able to safely have conferences again, we’ll likely have a hybrid experience where people can attend both in-person and participate virtually from all over the world.”