Mars Mission

Mars Mission

Creighton alumnus works for human exploration and settlement of the red planet

By Tim Kaldahl

Michael Stoltz, BA’88, has had a career in fundraising, media and public relations, nonprofit management and government affairs that has taken him around the world. His focus now is even broader. He serves as the Mars Society’s vice president for development. The 18-year-old organization focuses on educating the public about the benefits of exploring Earth’s neighbor and landing people there.

“Probably around the age of 13 or so, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos came out, so I watched every episode of that,” Stoltz says. “That stoked the fire in terms of my interest in space, astronomy and the future of humanity.”

While he was going to high school in Dubuque, Iowa, Stoltz says his plan was to attend Cornell University and follow in Sagan’s footsteps. He saw a future for himself sitting on a hillside in Hawaii looking through a telescope at the heavens. He then adds with a chuckle, “I hit one major stumbling block, which was advanced math. It didn’t click with me.”

At Creighton, Stoltz shifted gears and found himself fascinated by world affairs, the Middle East and the news of the day. He met his future wife, Ravit, an Israeli, as an undergraduate while studying at Tel Aviv University during his junior year and later converted to Judaism. His bachelor’s degree in history led to graduate work at New York University, where he received a Master of Arts in Middle East studies. With his interests and education, and a tip from a friend, Stoltz applied for and got a job as deputy press consul for the Consulate General of Israel in New York City in 1990.

During his time at the consulate, Stoltz interacted with a number of senior Israeli leaders, including Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, helping arrange media connections during their visits to Manhattan. After working there for nearly four years, Stoltz and his wife decided to move to Israel in 1993. Soon after, he found himself working in Jerusalem, in the thick of Israeli politics and government issues, first as a parliamentary aide for Netanyahu and then as deputy director of communications in the Office of the Prime Minister from 1993 through 1999.

“When I got up in the morning, that’s what I thought about. When I went to bed at night, that’s what I was thinking about,” Stoltz says. “To me, it was very important work.”

Astronomy and space, however, always remained an interest. The Mars Society, founded by internationally respected aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin, was an organization Stoltz joined while living abroad. Today, the nonprofit is the world’s largest and most influential space advocacy group dedicated to the human exploration and settlement of Mars, with approximately 10,000 members around the globe.

After his time in government ended, Stoltz moved over to the nonprofit education field and worked as the director of external affairs for Ariel University in Israel. In 2007, he and his family (he and Ravit have three sons) relocated to the United States. His connection with the Mars Society grew. He volunteered to help with communications, and eventually became the organization’s director of media and public relations in 2010 in a volunteer capacity. It’s a hat he still wears (in addition to fundraising), and today he works with reporters and producers from around the world. The society’s big message is that mankind is ready to explore Mars.  

“If we put our minds to it, and our money to it, we could be there within a decade,” Stoltz says. He adds that nothing from a technological standpoint is preventing a manned Mars mission from happening. The society stands on its own, but it maintains positive connections with NASA, the European Space Agency, a variety of U.S. and international research institutions and many pro-space advocacy groups.

“Whoever is interested in getting to Mars, we try to reach out to them and develop a relationship with them,” he says. Zubrin is friends with another notable name in current space exploration — Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, a company that is developing space launch vehicles and recently announced plans for human colonization of the red planet.

Stoltz says the United States could work on its own to reach Mars, but adds that an international effort would help smooth out budgetary issues and help maintain a longer-term exploration goal. The world’s space-faring nations and entities include Russia, Europe, China, India and Japan.

“It would be a lot simpler, a lot more cost effective if we were able to do it with other countries,” he says.

So how would reaching Mars actually work? Zubrin’s “Mars Direct” plan outline is a major element of the Mars Society’s website (marssociety.org). The multiyear effort involves sending rovers, nuclear power reactors and living and work quarters out to Mars in a sequence. The Martian atmosphere would help generate rocket fuel and oxygen, and water would be extracted from Martian soil.

“There aren’t that many places in the solar system that we could call home in the future,” Stoltz says. Getting humanity to a point where it is “multi planetary” could also decrease pressure here on Earth, he says.

In addition to the society’s work advocating for exploration, it also conducts long-term Mars surface simulations at two research stations (one in the Canadian arctic; the other desert-focused in Utah) that help scientists think through the challenges of being on another world. Researchers live in close quarters for weeks at a time at the locations.

Recently, the society started its longest simulation — Mars 160. A veteran crew is now spending 80 days in simulation in Utah completely isolated. The group will then do similar work at the Canadian station next June for another 80 days.

A Japanese television network and a couple of prominent U.S. news outlets have been interested in the project. The Smithsonian Channel is talking with the society about a documentary, as well. “It keeps us busy,” Stoltz says. The society also sponsors notable planetary rover design competitions for college students from around the world. The organization is also launching a U.S. high school student version of the rover competition this year to help promote interest in STEM disciplines.

While Mars has had unmanned rovers land on its surface, the amount of exploration and learning that can be done by human explorers will make a tremendous difference, he says. NASA’s Opportunity rover has been operating there since 2004. Opportunity’s twin, Spirit, stopped working in 2010.

“I’ve heard NASA officials say many times that the amount of ground covered by Opportunity … an astronaut could do that same work within a matter of a week,” Stoltz says.