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Piet's Videoranch Talks: April 22, 2007

|Piet's Videoranch Talks|

Exploring the Solar System

My special guest this week was Rusty Schweickart, an astronaut who flew in the Apollo 9 mission, which was the first manned flight to test the lunar landing module, in Earth orbit. Among the many honors he received is the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Special Trustees Award (Emmy) in 1969 for transmitting the first live TV pictures from space. So it was very fitting to have Rusty be our visitor in videoranch, pioneering live video in a virtual world!

We started off talking about the future of human presence in the solar system. So far, human space flight has been paid for and managed by government institutions. In the long run, there is no doubt that commercial enterprises will dominate the use of space. To enable the transition, some minimum infrastructure has to be put into place. Just as on Earth bridges and roads are needed before businesses can be set up in a newly developed area, we will need to set up outposts in various places.

The obvious place to start is on the Moon. Neither Rusty nor I had any idea, back in 1969, that it would take another half century before a second Moon visiting program would be carried out. We all expected that the Moon landings would be followed by manned flights to Mars and other planets, in the subsequent decades. Fortunately, NASA is now finally moving in that direction, with its Constellation Program.

Rusty talked at length about his experiences during his space walk, when he tested the portable life support backpack. This was the first occasion where a human being had stepped out of a space ship without some type of umbilical cord to provide oxygen and electricity. Instead, he was connected with the space craft only by a tether, which made him completely dependent on his backpack, just as the astronauts on the Moon would be, on subsequent missions.

As for the experience of being in space, Rusty described how it felt to be floating out there, among the stars, without any feeling of enclosing walls or other obstructions. Even the helmet was completely transparent on the front side, so his field of view was fully open to all directions. He also described viewing the world move by underneath and feeling a strong sense of the connectedness of all humans, and of all life, beneath him.

We then talked about the role of asteroids, as places to mine, to find all kind of materials that will be useful for future spaceflight, from silicon to water to metals as well as other substances. Asteroids can also provide convenient places to live or visit, for astronauts. First of all, their orbits bring them much closer to the Earth than Mars or Venus ever do, and secondly, they are easy to visit: you don't have to spend much energy on landing and taking off, in their very weak gravitational field.

In fact, their close approaches is what makes asteroids potentially dangerous. Toward the end of our conversation, we talked about the efforts of our B612 Foundation, to increase the awareness of the danger of asteroid impacts on Earth, and to help develop means to prevent those. Rusty emphasized our preference for conventional ways to deflect the orbit of an approaching asteroid, rather than the use of nuclear weapons. Only in extremely rare circumstances should we consider such a nuclear option, because in most cases their dangers outweigh their benefits.

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