Russ: Welcome back to The BusinessMakers Show brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business. Our guest today: astronaut Rusty Schweickart; best known as the lunar module pilot on the 1969 Apollo 9 mission. That was the first manned flight test of the lunar module, preparing it for the guys that go to the moon later. He’s also co-founder of B612, the initiative focus on protecting the planet from asteroids. Rusty, welcome to The BusinessMakers Show.
Russ: You bet. So, we’re going to talk about protecting the planet from asteroids.
Rusty: Right. Planetary defense.
Russ: Planetary defense. (Rusty: Right.). Okay, you gotta get that naming right these days. (Rusty: Right) That’s cool. Cool name. But before we get to it, you’re—we’ve had 3 other astronauts on the show first and I always like to ask a first astronaut question. It’s mind boggling to me how a human can handle the whole process of blasting off, going into orbit, coming back.
Rusty: Right. First, we call it launching. (Russ: Launching, ok) Blasting off, (Russ: blasting off, ok) that’s a little frightening.
Russ: Well, describe the launch though, that’s the part that I think would just be over the top.
Rusty: Well, I mean, the launch on Apollo—back in the Apollo days, so on a Saturn V, was different from the launch on the space shuttle, which is I think what all the other (Russ: that’s right. They were all space shuttle astronauts) people, yeah they’re all on the space shuttle, and they’re very different. I mean, the space shuttle had solid rocket boosters on the side of the main shuttle engines. Solid rockets are noisier, they shake a lot; there’s a lot of vibration. On the Saturn V, that was a liquid fuel rocket all the way (Russ: Right.). We didn’t have separate booster engines. So, the only real shaking we had, which was more a little bit like if you’re on a high speed train and you can feel it occasionally sort of go back and forth. It’s a very subtle, it’s actually a solid feeling, it’s not a rattle or something like that.
So, initially taking off, you you could feel that and you could hear the rocket engine noise reflecting off the ground and coming back in from the air outside; not coming up through the stack. So, as soon as you got at the top of the launch tower, maybe a couple hundred feet in the air, the sound dropped way down because you were far enough away from the ground that the noise wasn’t getting to you. And after the first 10 or 15 seconds, it was almost completely quiet and very steady.
Russ: Wow, but you’re—the g-force is pretty incredible, isn’t it?
Rusty: Well, no because the Saturn V looked like it barely got off the ground, and that’s what happened. It barely gets off the ground. So, you’re accelerating barely above (Russ: Okay.) what we’re experiencing now, 1 g. Now, once you burn down millions of pounds of fuel (Russ: Right.) in a couple of minutes, (Russ: Right.) now you’ll weigh a lot less and so you—yeah, you’re accelerating and then you start getting pressed back into the seat. But you only feel the really heavy gs just before a staging; just before you exhaust the fuel. (Russ: Okay.) In the beginning, it—you barely get off the ground so it’s not that much acceleration.
Russ: Gah, I thought the Saturn V was gonna be worse (Rusty: No!) than the shuttle.
Rusty: No no no. It’s a myth that we propagate to get, (Russ: ha, okay great.) for hero status.
Russ: Great, well I gotta ask you one more question, too before I cut—but the lunar module, I mean, you were on the flight, was the first one that went up with everything there (Rusty: Right.), You actually docked up in space (Rusty: Yeah.) and got outside.
Rusty: And undocked and went away (Russ: Oh wow.) which is the scary part, cause we didn’t have a heat shield.
Russ: Wow. How far away did you get?
Rusty: 120 miles.
Russ: My goodness. Wow. Alright, so (Rusty: And we got back.) Right, that’s important (laughs), that’s real important. Okay, but now to today, and your initiative today. Tell us about B612 and how that started the idea process that triggered it and just the whole thing. It’s a fascinating topic and I think there’s a lot of people that think, well, we’re not gonna get hit by an asteroid. I would think you probably think differently, right?
Rusty: Well, I it’s not a matter of thinking differently, it’s you know differently (Russ: Right.). I mean, let me first start out: B612 Foundation, by the way B612 Foundation was actually started on October 14th, 20—2001, which is, you know we just passed our 14th birthday. And, it was actually a bunch of us, about 25 or something like that of us were brought together by Ed Lu actually here at The Johnson Space Center for a get together. All of us, Ed knew. I mean, Ed knew us all, we all knew each other, and all of us were aware that we were finding, NASA was finding more and more asteroids, but nobody was doing anything about, what do you do when you find one with your address on it? (Russ: Right.) And so the, the whole purpose of that initial meeting in 20, uh 2001, was to answer two questions. Number 1; was there anything that could be done about it?
Technologically, could you do something about an asteroid if you knew it was heading for an impact with the earth? And the answer to that was yes. The second question we asked was, can we, the 25 of us, some of us working for NASA, some of us—I was in the California government at the time, or no, I guess I had just left there. Um, but people all over the place; engineers, astronomers, astronauts, uh a few managers. The question was, what could we do? And we realized the only way to do anything was to have—to form an organization. And so we recognized we had to form a non-profit organization; 501(c)(3), you know private charity, with the purpose of developing the technologies and the techniques in order to protect the Earth from asteroid impact.
Russ: And there wasn’t anybody else doing anything about it.
Rusty: No. NASA was not doing, NASA was finding them but not doing anything about, what do you do when you find one that’s headed our way? And we recognized unless there was somebody really dedicated to that, you don’t do that accidentally, so I mean, but that’s—so we formed a 501(c)(3), which in terms of dealing with government entities, which of course is what we had to do with NASA, and for that matter with the international community, you call yourself an NGO; a Non-Governmental Organization. And what you’re doing is overseeing what’s being done, suggesting things that ought to be done, and then pushing people to do them. (Russ: Right.) And that’s what we do (Russ: Okay.), as well as developing uh, thinking about, working on, and developing the basic techniques of deflection. I mean, doing something about a pending impact you call deflection. The question is you deflect an asteroid away from an impact when you see one that’s going to impact.
Russ: Well, and from what I read, you guys concluded you could deflect (Rusty: Yes.). Right. But there are probably several alternative ways to deflect em, wasn’t there?
Rusty: Yes, and one of the things that we decided from the very very beginning, from the outset, was we’re not talking about blue sky technology. We’re not talking about inventing some warp drive, you know (Russ: Right.) 50 years from now, after 18 gigadollars of investment (Russ: Right.), you know. We’re saying look, what we’re interested in is protecting life now, potentially, from an impact which we may discover at any time. So, the only, what we’re looking at is ‘now technology;’ that is what technology exists now that can be used to protect life if we find an impact that we’re headed for an impact with an asteroid.
Russ: And now the beginning was in 2001 (Rusty: Yeah.). There’s surely been some quite significant improvement since then, perhaps?
Rusty: Not much. And frankly, nothing is really required. The technologies, which we realize could be used and then worked out. I should say something here. Part of the issue, in fact one of the biggest elements of the issue here is not so much the technology as the orbital dynamics, and the techniques, and the environmental situation; where you have asteroids orbiting the sun along with the planets; an intersection of orbits. I mean, you know, when an asteroids orbit crosses the orbit of earth, you can have a three-dimensional intersection; not one that goes like this, but one that’s right there. Ok, a three-dimensional intersection, and if that’s the case, then it’s simply a matter of time before they’re both in the intersection at the same time. (Russ: Right.) But, the orbital dynamics of what you have to do to cause that not to be the case, if you find that it is going to be the case, the question is what do you do?
And that whole issue of understanding the orbital dynamics, we found, was as much of a challenge, and as much misunderstood even by astronomers and space people as anything else. The technology to deflect it when you understand what you need to do is not that difficult, and we have technology available today. I want to add right away, it has not been demonstrated. And, even though we have refined the techniques and understand that it can be done, it’s extremely important that we demonstrate it before we have to use it to save lives (Russ: Oh yeah.). And that has been one of the biggest challenges, and we’ve not, let me say, seen a receptive audience; either in NASA, or in the Congress, or in the Administration, or in other governments around the world; even though it costs $1.98. This is not expensive. We don’t want to develop new technologies; it’s very inexpensive.
Russ: It’s probably gonna take a collision to get these—and we had one, didn’t we recently?
Rusty: We had one (Russ: In Russia.) a little over two, two and a half years ago on the 15th of February.
Russ: Did that spark interest from these people that need to be interested to fund it?
Rusty: Well, there were congressional hearings afterword; a NASA administrator was brought up, and the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Presidential science advisor was brought up; all kinds of people testified including Ed Lu, who was, you know co-founder of B612. And, of course, the congressmen, to be perfectly honest with you, didn’t understand what was being said (Russ: Right.). And I’m not so sure that the NASA administrator really understood it all that well, but the fact of the matter is that after a couple of weeks, the hearings stopped and nothing changed.
Russ: Wow. It kind of evaporated. (Rusty: Yeah.) A couple of questions about this, the orbital dynamics; when we know one is gonna cross, how fine-tuned are we to know where, I mean there’s so many moving parts. Do we, do we have the ability to know; wow, it’s gonna hit this place, it’s gonna hit Omaha, Nebraska, or do we just know it’s gonna hit the globe?
Rusty: You have no idea what a good question that is. You can, when you, the whole process here is early warning, which comprises finding an asteroid in space, which astronomers are doing all around the world every night thousands of observations of asteroids every night, okay, and I’m not exaggerating. But when you find a new asteroid, what you do is get enough measurement of where it is, tracking it with telescopes, so that you can determine its orbit (Russ: Okay.). When you determine its orbit, which means mathematically (Russ: Right.) you have an orbit, then you can predict ahead of time, is there a three-dimensional intersection. If there is, the earth is going to be going through that intersection every year; at the same date, same time, ok. Once around the sun and you’re back there. The question is, when the earth is in the intersection, which it is for 8 minutes every year, where is the asteroid in its orbit.
And if it’s a three-dimensional intersection it’s only a matter of time before it’s also in the intersection that same time that the earth is, that same, during that same (Russ: Okay.) 8 minute period. Now, your question is very important. How well do you know that? And it turns out that any measurement, anybody who is a legitimate scientist understands there is no such thing as a perfect measurement (Russ: Right.), you know. I weigh a hundred and uh seventy five point two pounds (Russ: Right.).
Well, is that 75.22137 or you know what, so there are always little errors in every measurement that you make, in any science. Now that’s, those are extremely small, but that makes a little bit of a fuzzy location, and when you project ahead 20 years, which you have to do because a deflection is not something that happens instantaneously. You have plan for it, build a spacecraft, launch it, deflect, let the deflection take effect, okay? That’s about a 20 year period. So when you project ahead 20 years and say, where is that asteroid? It turns out that instead of being here in the orbit, it’s sort of from here to here. You don’t quite know. It has a low probability of being here, and a low probability of being here, and a little higher probability between them. Well now between them, the earth is a small dot in that line of uncertainty.
The irony in this saying is that when you have to make the decision to protect the earth from this impact, 20 years ahead of the time when it will actually happen, that line is, generally speaking, the size of or bigger than the earth. Which means you have to decide whether or not to spend a half a billion to a billion dollars to mount a deflection mission when you don’t know, not only whether, where it’s going to hit on earth, but even whether it’s going to hit the earth (Russ: Wow, okay). But if you wait, it’s too late and you can’t stop it. (Russ: If you wait.) So that’s the challenge.
Russ: Okay, if you wait because you don’t know, and then, you know, 5 years goes by and you–
Rusty: Then I hope everybody in the world rips your head off as a politician who can’t make up his or her mind
Russ: Right, but does it reach a point where you would say, wow, now we know definitively it’s going to hit us (Rusty: and it’s too late.) and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Rusty: Duck (Russ: yeah, duck, that’s it), right. Now, that’s the only—what you’re left with in the end is evacuation of where it’s going to hit, which you will eventually know, but it’s too late to deflect. So, now if it’s a small asteroid, it’s a very small one, which of course are the most plentiful and the most probable that are going to hit, then you can probably evacuate a city in the same way you can evacuate Houston if a hurricane is coming or something. (Russ: but if the large ones..) But if it’s a larger one (Russ: wiped out the dinosaurs.), if you, well you can wipe out not just a whole city, you can wipe out a county, you can wipe out a continent. And, of course, if they get up to a little over a kilometer in diameter, you know, half a mile to a mile in diameter, now you can have effects around the whole world. I mean, and ultimately, you know, you got the dinosaurs—
Russ: Wow, so the one that hit—
Rusty: Wait a minute, I wanna—before we go anywhere, Russ. I want to, I want to emphasize to people: that’s not what we worry about. That happens once in a million years. But what happens every 50 years is we get hit by something like what hit Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013, and can kill people.
Russ: How, what was the size of that one?
Rusty: Well that one was only about 20 meters in diameter, actually 18-20 meters in diameter; about that size. But that, coming down at the speed that an asteroid hits the earth was 30 times larger in terms of the energy released than a Hiroshima bomb; nuclear bomb.
Russ: Did anybody know that was coming?
Rusty: No. No. It, It’s too small. We can’t find things that small in space, and it’ll be a long time. But things we should be finding in space are the ones that hit in Russia, again, in 1908, with the so called Tunguska impact. And that was about twice the diameter; about 40 meters. But of course twice the diameter is 8 times the volume, so I mean, you know it’s 8 times bigger even though it’s only twice the diameter. So, the Tunguska impact is the kinda thing, which if it happened near a city, it would destroy everything in a whole city. I mean, it would kill everybody—any city on earth. Now, cities aren’t everywhere on the planet. I mean, you know, the oceans are 70%, cities are sort of few and far between, but nevertheless, that’s the amount of energy you’re talking about. And those, if we do the job right, we could be finding right now if we launched the right kind of telescope.
And that’s what we’ve been pushing NASA and other space agencies from all around the world to do and they have not been doing it.
Russ: Okay, so so launching a telescope, now you mentioned earlier that there’s thousands found every day? Or–
Rusty: The size I just mentioned, the 40 meter jobs; there are a million of those. We know what the population is statistically, but you can’t deflect a statistic, you have to have a real thing that you’re deflecting. So what we have, and so far with the good work that NASA has been doing, has done, in finding the big ones, like one kilometer in diameter, they found 97% of that population, which is terrific. We’re not going to get surprised by a big one. But one that is like the Tunguska event that could wipe out a city, so far NASA has only found 1%; less than 1% of those. And so the important thing is to find the 99% of things that size and larger that we have no idea where they are right now.
Russ: Okay. When you said a while ago there’s lots of them identified almost daily, I mean, I just envision there’s a, you know, kind of hobbyist astronomers who have, are looking at the skies all night. Do people like those find them, and see them, and report them? Is there a big database somewhere?
Rusty: In the early days, and by early days I mean in the last 10 years, the answer—15 years, the answer is yes. Amateur astronomers, in addition to the professional astronomers, you know, who are funded to do these things, but amateur astronomers played a pretty impressive role; not so much in finding them, but once the professional astronomers find them, the amateur astronomers can pinpoint them. They have a, they look through a straw. What the professional astronomers do is look in a big area. When you’re searching, you use a wide field, but when you want to precisely pin down the orbit, which is where the amateur astronomers came in, you’re using a soda straw, and you find precisely where that is. Then you can predict whether or not something; where it’s going to be in the future and whether or not it’s going to hit the earth (Russ: Okay.).
But today, since the big ones have been found, largely, we’re find– the challenge now is finding the smaller, but very dangerous ones, and much more plentiful ones that are out there, and the amateur astronomers have a much harder time because, you know, they look through a straw, but if the thing is small, you know these things are about as bright as a briquette of charcoal. Ok, so they don’t reflect much sunlight. But if you can get a telescope into space where we can use infrared light, which picks up the heat, the temperature of these things, the heat of these things. A briquette, a black briquette gets pretty damn hot in space, as your black car does here in the summer, right? Okay, so they radiate a lot in the infrared, but you can’t see that from the ground, so you have to have a space telescope, and that’s what we’ve been working on.
Russ: And that’s what B612, that’s…
Rusty: 3 years ago Ed Lu, who is now the CEO, shifted the task to doing what it appeared that NASA wasn’t and might not be able to do, which is to find the 99% of these asteroids that are dangerous that we haven’t found yet (Russ: Okay). And that’s why we need an infrared space telescope.
Russ: Okay, so, so, Ed Lu was with you in the beginning. You were a co-founder, and you were the leader of B612 (Rusty: And then I led it for 11 years.). 11 years. (Rusty: And then Ed has led it for the last 3 years.) Okay, but it sounds like you’re still pretty passionate about it, too (laughs).
Rusty: Look, I can, I can talk about this in my sleep and I can talk for 8 hours. So, I mean, you know, it’s, it is, this is, conceptually, this is simple. Conceptually this is the highest priority for everybody; it’s called survival. (Russ: Right.) And what we’re talking about is survival of life on earth over the long term. It ought to have a very high priority and it has an extremely low priority in governments, because governments, like corporations, have short time horizons (Russ: for the next election.). Which the next election 2-4-6 years, something like that. If it’s something that we’re talking about ensuring that humanity, that life on earth persists over thousands of years into the future; our children, and grandchildren etc., and it’s cheap. This costs next to nothing. We’re not talking about a huge development program. This is using existing technology.
The challenge is assuming the responsibility to do this job of ensuring that life survives here on this planet.
Russ: And so you’re saying it should be a higher priority than looking at going to Mars or even going back to the moon.
Rusty: Going to Mars is wonderful. I love space science. I love knowing that there’s an ocean under the ice on Europa, you know, in Saturn’s orbit. But that is what I call mind candy. This is survival. Mind candy comes second or third priority, not first priority. But if you look where NASA is spending its money, it’s on mind candy. And as I said, I love mind candy. I love astronomy. I love space exploration, you know, and space science, but especially when survival costs less than one half of 1% of NASA’s budget, that ought to come first.
Russ: You’ve got my vote. (Rusty: Right.) Let’s say, Rusty, somebody is watching the news– (Rusty: What we need is your vote multiplied by two billion.) let’s just say that somebody’s watching right now who knows somebody who knows somebody that would really be interested. Is there a B612 website that they can go and kind of get connected, help the cause?
Rusty: Yeah, there is b612foundation.org. And, uh, I’m not sure if the sentinel.org site is still up or not but b612foundation.org, b-6-1-2 foundation, all one word, .org. This is not something anybody should lose sleep over. This is not something you should worry about, you’re about to die or anything of that kind. That is a gross exaggeration of the situation, but in the same way that you and I and everybody watching this program has insurance on their car, you put down a little bit of money so that if case something happens in the future 10 years from now, you’re going to be able to buy the car, or you’re not going to get sued, or you’re going to be able to handle it. That’s the kind of thing we’re talking about. This is buying life insurance for life on earth.
Russ: Sounds like a good deal to me (Rusty: Me too.). Rusty, I really appreciate you coming in and sharing this with us today (Rusty: Thanks.), thanks so much.
Rusty: I appreciate it.
Russ: And that wraps up my discussion with Rusty Schweickart, the astronaut who’s out there helping protect us from asteroids. And this is The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business.
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