Volume II, Issue III Autumn 2003

Former astronaut calls for moving humans beyond near-Earth orbit

LaBAULE, France

Congressional committees are expected to hold hearings this fall after the release Aug. 26 of the report by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board of the Columbia spacecraft disaster. The report was highly critical of the U.S. space agency, NASA, which it charged with being permeated by a "fly at any price" culture that ignored safety.

Former astronaut Rusty Schweickart has some ideas for those committees. He says, "This pause in the manned space program would appear to be an excellent opportunity to rethink things about 'why are we doing this, what are we doing, should we keep doing it, what should we do instead?'"

He's not against space flights. He is against the uncritical rote pursuit of whatever has been in NASA's mission book. The next step in space, he says, should establish the infrastructure to move the human environment beyond low-Earth orbit.

The way to do that, he says, is to focus on asteroids – to shift the NASA space program away from the moon and Mars and instead use asteroids as a cheaper resource and supply line for moving people into a new stage of existence beyond Earth.

Rusty Schweickart shows off a T-shirt with Le Petit Prince on asteroid B612
Rusty Schweickart shows off a T-shirt with Le Petit Prince on asteroid B612

Photo by Lucy Komisar
Schweickart, a trustee of California Academy of Sciences, divides his time between San Francisco and The Hague. He spoke recently at the annual meeting of Forum 21, a gathering in France of Americans and Europeans who meet to discuss key issues in science, politics and culture. The conference was started in 2001 by Paul Weinstein and Abby Hirsch Weinstein, Americans living in Paris. He is president of Rive Droite International Investments and she is a journalist. The Forum met this spring in LaBaule, on the Atlantic coast of Brittany.

Schweickart was the lunar module pilot for the Apollo 9 space flight, March 3-13, 1969, logging 241 hours in space. It was the third manned flight of the Apollo series and the first manned flight of the lunar module. During a 46 minute space walk, Schweickart tested the portable life support backpack which would be used on the lunar surface explorations.

He was backup commander for the first Skylab mission of spring 1973. Following the loss of the thermal shield during launch, he took charge of development of hardware and procedures to erect an emergency solar shade and deploy the jammed solar array wing, which transformed Skylab from a near-disaster to a successful operation. He received the NASA Exceptional Service Medal for the Skylab rescue.

At Forum 21, Schweickart laid out the reasons for moving the human environment further into space.

He said, "The human environment, which has been relegated to the surface of the Earth, a bit on the surface of the waters and a little in the air, has within the last 30 or 40 years extended into near-Earth space, into what is called low-Earth orbit. I'll extend that definition out to the geostationary orbit where all the communication satellites are."

Near-Earth space, said Schweickart, is now "essential human territory – it affects your pocketbook and mine, your cell phone and mine, it is part of the everyday environment: economic, financial, technical, engineering, business, jobs."

But he wants to move beyond near-Earth to the exploration of asteroids.

He said, "We're talking about working with NASA to have "beyond low-Earth orbit for human flight. That means let's head to the asteroids instead of their current idea of let's go back to the moon or lets go to Mars. This is what I call the Goldilocks principle. Going back to the moon is 'been there, done that'; it's too small a bed. Going to Mars is too big a step. What's just right is going to an asteroid. This is a nice, comfortable intermediate destination. It takes less energy, therefore less money to go to an asteroid, if you pick the right one, than to go back to the moon. So let's do that."

There have been several suggestions written to NASA, Congress and the administration by Schweickart and others. He has gotten no response and knows of no others who have.

Asteroid Gaspra
Asteroid Gaspra as viewed from Galileo

Courtesy NASA
There is also a theoretical purpose. He said, "Asteroids are a heck of a lot more interesting than the moon. They have a lot to do with the origin of life. We don't quite know where life came from or how it evolved, but we do know that asteroids had a lot to do with it. We also came out of this process, so we want to understand asteroids – how were they made, where did they come from, do they have life embedded in them? They certainly have the components of life."

Second, they are resources, said Schweickart. He said a major expense of operating in space is moving supplies and equipment up from Earth. He said asteroids could be used to develop supplies (especially fuel) and even support life.

He gives a crucial reason for facilitating space exploration of the kind that could extend the human environment beyond the confines of the Earth. He declared, "Survival of this life experiment will ultimately depend on us being able to diversify life to other places, not just on this single vulnerable planet. So there is a functional, evolutionary reason for exploration."

The reason, he says, is the threat from asteroids that could crash into Earth. He explains that asteroids have not just shaped life once it emerged, but periodically wiped it out. He said, "I call it the cosmic gardener. The tree of life grows on Earth, and from time to time this crazy cosmic gardener comes in and cuts off the tree of life – whack – in crazy slashes. Then it grows up again in many new diverse forms. Then – whack – comes another slice from the cosmic gardener." This has happened many times in the evolution of life here on Earth.

"We're now on the top of the food chain. The dinosaurs used to be. We don't want to be like them. They got taken out of the food chain by the impact of an asteroid about 65 million years ago. That's very recent in time, not like back at the beginning of the world. If the Earth were formed January 1 a year ago and now its December 31, midnight, the dinosaurs got wiped out late on December 27, just a couple of days ago."

Low-Earth orbit
The view from low-Earth orbit

Courtesy NASA
He said, "You can have quite a few social and political catastrophes without eliminating humanity, but one of these guys will eliminate everybody at the same time. Each of you has about the same probably of dying as result of asteroid strike as in an airline accident. However, unlike the airline accident, everyone goes at once!"

He said, "I'm interested in seeing that we have enough time to diversify humankind throughout the universe by protecting the Earth so we have a chance to do that. The requirements for ultimate survival of life as we know it is protection from these things that occasionally hit us to enable us to have the time to go out there and roam around, live out there – at least for vacations," he quipped.

That issue of extending the realm of humans in space is being taken up in NASA where, he said, "There are people talking about beyond-low-Earth orbit as a concept, as an organizing principle. The idea is we should be extending our thinking about the human sphere of activity beyond low-Earth orbit. Not just an occasional spacecraft being shot out there, but having an operational environment which exists beyond low-Earth orbit."

He said this would require new technology, "because it costs much too much if you're going to rely on chemical energy to try to set up operations at those distances." Those new technologies will be ion propulsion or plasma propulsion, which are extremely efficient propulsion systems. He explained, "It's as if you took your 20 mile-per-gallon car and didn't go from 20 mpg to 27 or 30 but to 200 or 300 mpg. So you're talking about a major improvement in efficiency." These engines will be powered by massive amounts of electricity, which could be done efficiently only with small nuclear reactors.

He said, "The technologies will enable us and our grandchildren and generations beyond to begin moving out from Earth in a cost-effective way."

Ion EngineIon Engine
Courtesy NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
And those powerful engines make possible another idea Schweickart has: to push away an asteroid headed for Earth. He is chairman of the B612 Foundation, whose purpose is to significantly alter the orbit of an asteroid in a controlled matter by 2015. B612 is named after the asteroid of Le Petit Prince – The Little Prince – in the story of that name created by French novelist Antoine de St. Exupéry.

Schweickart said, "We don't want to simply sit back and wait for an asteroid to hit us. We want to demonstrate before one hits us that we have the capability to move it in a controlled way so it not only doesn't hit us, but that it doesn't come back to hit our grandchildren." He said the plan was to pick an asteroid, "one that's not anywhere near going to hit us, so in case we push it the wrong way, we're not going to end up in trouble."

The asteroid would be about 200 meters in dimension. It would be moved by a plasma engine associated with a nuclear reactor – both about the size of a small dining table. He said, "Go out the street and look back to this hotel. The asteroid we're talking about pushing is about twice the size of the hotel, and it's spinning slowly so that every 6 hours it turns and faces the ocean. That's what we're going to push with this spacecraft as a demonstration that humanity has the capacity to insure its own future from this particular cosmic threat."

"We are talking about the birth of life into the larger universe out of the womb of Earth. This evolutionary process of humankind is married to a technology which enables this moving out, protecting "mom" at the same time as we move out and grow up into the larger universe."

Is NASA likely to follow such suggestions? Schweickart said, "A lot of people have been justifiably critical of the space program, that it's lost its vision. We've been flying the space shuttle and going up and making the space station, but nobody quite knows why we're making the space station."

But he was pessimistic any change in direction would happen. "I suspect the main business is going to be to get back to flying, to get back to the International Space Station," which is being constructed largely with parts delivered by the space shuttles.

"But one would hope if there is some rethinking going on."

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