June 26, 2006

By Jill Kramer

Rusty Schweickart tosses off a friendly word of advice: If you’re ever on an asteroid, don’t jump – you may not come back.  And he foresees the day when his advice could come in handy.  Schweickart, the former Apollo 9 astronaut, expects that travel to asteroids in coming decades will not only be a potential boon to humanity; our future may depend on it.

Schweickart hopes to avert the global catastrophe that would ensue if a Near Earth Asteroid, or NEA, hit the Earth.  There are hundreds of thousands of asteroids in our cosmic neighborhood that are big enough to kill millions of people – even destroy most life on the planet – should one of them ever crash.  NASA is already in the process of tracking the biggest NEAs.  Schweickart founded the B612 Foundation to advocate for a project that would demonstrate that we can send a spacecraft up to an asteroid and push on it enough to alter its orbit, deflecting it away from Earth.  While we’re at it, he says, we could be setting up factories and mining the asteroids for materials to use in colonizing space – so that, if we fail to deflect a killer orb, or if we blow the planet up ourselves, it won’t mean the extinction of the species.

Apparently that’s the kind of thing you think about once you’ve stepped outside a spacecraft, 118 miles high, and floated around the world with one hand waving free.  Schweickart did that on March 6, 1969, and it changed him forever.

“He was just out there on a slight tether, so it really was him and the Earth,” says his friend Stewart Brand, president of the Long Now Foundation and co-founder of the Global Business Network.  “And he realized as he was looking at it, that it was looking back and he was the Earth looking at itself, representing all humanity.” Schweickart stunned an audience at an elite spiritual community on Long Island 30 years ago when he recounted the experience.  Shortly after, Brand reprinted the talk in his publication, CoEvolution Quarterly.  These days, however, Schweickart guards the memory, calling it up only on rare occasions like a magical incantation that might lose its power if overused.  We’re fortunate that he shared it with us.

Schweickart grew up on a hardscrabble farm on the New Jersey coast, in a town called Neptune.  He’d always wanted to be a pilot, and he joined the Air Force after studying aeronautical engineering on a scholarship to Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  He married at 22, went back to school for his master’s degree and was selected by NASA for astronaut duty when he was 27.  Six years later, he piloted the Apollo 9 lunar module on its first manned flight. 

After leaving NASA, he came to California and worked in the Jerry Brown administration as the governor’s assistant for science and technology.  He moved to Marin county when his marriage ended in ’85.  He chaired a panel on operations safety in Antarctica for the National Science Foundation, then worked in satellite communications through the ‘90s.  In 1990, he married Nancy Ramsey, author of The Futures of Women and Nuclear Weapons Decision Making.  Between the two of them, they have seven children – five from his previous marriage – and eleven grandchildren – nine of them his.

Schweickart’s given name is Russell, but he’s always been called “Rusty” for his carrot-colored hair, now turned to white.  His eyes are sky-blue, his frame compact; he’s wearing hiking shoes, jeans and a beige shirt the day we meet.  He’s seated in his office, a separate building across a courtyard from his condo, a two-story place in Tiburon with a view of San Francisco and the bay.  His feet are stretched out in front of him, propped on a low coffee table where he keeps miniature models of actual Near Earth Asteroids.  On one wall is a poster of the photo his Apollo 9 crewmate, David Scott, took of him as he floated outside the craft.  His face isn’t visible; in its place is an image of the Earth, reflected on the front of his helmet.  On the opposite wall is a candid shot of him pulling on a spacesuit.  It was taken in 1972, while he was working on the Skylab mission. With his long hair and walrus mustache, he looks like he could have stepped off the cover of the Sgt. Pepper album.

What does the name of your foundation, B612, refer to? 

B612 was the name of the asteroid on which the Little Prince lived in the Saint-Exupery story.  And we decided that was kind of cute.  The Little Prince is our hero,  he was there first.

So your focus, as I understand it, is on the asteroids that aren’t being tracked by NASA, the ones that are less than one kilometer and more than 100 meters. 

Not quite. There are these objects, Near Earth Asteroids, that circle the sun in the neighborhood of the Earth which occasionally whack into us. In the past, dinosaurs and many other animals have been wiped out by asteroid impacts.  Principally, our interest is in demonstrating the capability, using modern technology, of deflecting asteroids that might be headed our way in the future.  We want to show that that is a possibility.  If it’s not a possibility, then you take your gin and tonic and go out and watch the big crash.  But, if it is possible, then you can protect the planet from devastation in the future. NASA is currently charged by Congress with cataloging 90% of the Near Earth Asteroids that are over one kilometer in diameter, and finishing that job by 2008.  They’re about 60% of the way there.  But the objects of that size are not the only dangerous ones.  If one of those impacts, it has global consequences.  But smaller objects still have tremendous consequences.  If it wipes out California, that’s still pretty important.  Even if it wipes out New York City, or Brussels, or whatever, it’s pretty important.  And even if it wipes out 100,000 people in some smaller town, that’s something you would want to avoid, if you could.  Asteroids that are 100 meters in diameter can kill many people.

I read on your website that there was one that was 50 or 60 meters that hit in Siberia about 100 years ago.  And that if it had hit a major city, it could have wiped out a million people. 

Yes, the Tunguska event.  But for anything below 50 meters [164 feet], by and large, the atmosphere protects us.  They burn up, break up.  Once a day something comes in, pieces of which make if through the atmosphere and they end up doing very little damage.

How often does one over 100 meters hit? 

Well, something the size of what wiped out the dinosaurs was around 10 or 12 kilometers [about seven miles] in diameter – that’s huge – that happens every 100 million years.  Something the size of Tunguska, 65 meters in diameter, happens every several hundred years.  So there’s maybe a 30-50% probability that something like that will happen in the lifetime of the average person alive today.  Asteroids between 50 and maybe up to 100 meters in diameter probably don’t make it to the ground.  They explode in the atmosphere.  But the shock wave will still create damage on the ground.  And that’s what happened in Tunguska.

Oh!  The shock wave caused the great fire in the Siberian forest! 

Right.  It exploded about 20,000 feet in the air and the shock wave ended up flattening the forest and setting it afire.  Luckily, it was Siberia.  If it had happened over London, it would have killed everybody in London. 

Well, it seems like there would have been other events documented in history that would have been similar. 

There are many documented events, in the sense of craters that we’ve seen.  In all likelihood, there have been tens of thousands of people, maybe millions of people, who have been killed by asteroid impacts.  But, number one, they never knew that’s what it was.  Number two, we can’t prove that.  Principally, those kinds of deaths have come about through tidal waves created by asteroids which impact in the ocean, which is where they hit 70% of the time.  If they’re over 200 meters in diameter, they’ll create a tsunami.

I wonder if it was an asteroid impact that could have caused the parting of the Red Sea. 

[laughs]  You’re going to have to deal with that, I’m not going to touch it.  But in any event, the biggest events have global impact.  They hit and they throw up dust, vaporized rock, all sorts of things.  The whole globe becomes a conflagration.  The stuff that gets thrown up re-enters all around the world at supersonic speeds and the atmosphere gets to incandescent temperatures, all vegetation flashes into fire.  It’s a nuclear winter kind of scenario.  Now, we can say that none of the asteroids over one kilometer in diameter that we have detected so far will impact within the next 100 years.  We can probably say with great confidence that none of the ten-kilometer asteroids – the kind of thing that wiped out the dinosaurs – none of them will impact the Earth as far as we can see – thousands of years.   However, we know that there is something on the order of 1100 Near Earth Asteroids of one kilometer or greater that are our neighbors around the sun, and we’ve only detected 712.  So any one of the 400 or so as yet undetected could hit us tomorrow.  And we would probably know about it when it hit.  Okay?  We wouldn’t see it coming in, in all likelihood.

It would happen that fast? 

Oh, yeah.  [laughs]  Happen real fast.  That’s why we’re looking.  Because once you detect one of these things, then you know its flight path around the sun and you can project ahead many, many years. We circulate around the sun, they circulate around the sun and they may go by us every ten years or something like that, but at some point, our orbits intersect and we both happen to be at the point of intersection at the same time. And you’re able to plot mathematically that it’s going to hit. Once we detect that that’s going to happen, we can go up ahead of time and push on it so that in fact it won’t hit us.

Do we have that technology now?  Or is it your project to develop the technology? 

We thought when we formed the organization three years ago that we were going to have to make a major push to develop these technologies.  It turned out that, right after we started, NASA announced a new program called Prometheus that’s going to use these technologies, and they will be flying within the next ten years.  The mission that NASA has on the books right now will go out to Jupiter and fly around Jupiter and Europa and the other so-called icy moons of Jupiter and do a scientific survey.  When we saw that, we said, great, we don’t have to push for the technologies to be put together now – what we have to push for is to see that NASA adds another mission to go out to a Near Earth Asteroid.  A convenient, friendly one that’s not about to hit us, one that’s about the right size, and push it – to show that, in fact, humankind has the technology to be able to protect the future of life on Earth.  It’s now a matter of “convincing” NASA to specifically mount one of the Prometheus missions for this purpose.  And there has been resistance to that.  

How will you overcome that resistance? 

We have testified to Congress on it, we’ve met with NASA, we testified just two days ago to the National Research Council who are going to be making recommendations to NASA as well.  So right now, it’s all coming together, but NASA’s got to listen.  But yes, it can be done, and it can be done within the next 10-15 years.  In addition to going there and demonstrating that we can actually change the orbit of an asteroid enough, we also have the opportunity to learn a lot about asteroids, both from a scientific point of view as well as from the point of view of eventually using the materials that comprise asteroids, the “ores,” the soils, for products.

What kind of products? 

Oxygen, rocket fuel, silicon cells built in orbit to bring solar energy to the Earth, things of that kind.  Eventually we’ll be able to mine the materials of asteroids rather than dragging up fuel and oxygen and water and everything off the Earth for activity in space. So whatever you’re doing in space – whether it’s exploration, whether it’s building a colony of people or who knows what – we can literally use materials already in space to make exploration of space and movement out into space eventually much less expensive and much less environmentally damaging to the Earth.  

Tell me more about the idea of solar cells in space. 

There is a concept that has been around for about 35 years called the solar-powered satellite.  The same silicon solar cells you see on people’s roofs that generate electricity can be built in space.  You can have huge structures in space, so you can have a huge array of solar cells that collect solar energy, convert it to electricity, beam it to the ground and you’ve got electricity on the ground.  And you don’t have to dig up oil or coal or corrupt the atmosphere with that kind of stuff.

And you could be collecting solar energy 24 hours a day. 

Yes, you can put them out far enough that you have continuous sunlight.  And you can be mining asteroids for the silicon.  Virtually every rock has silicon in it.  It’s one of the most common elements in the universe.  Almost as a byproduct of collecting oxygen, you can get silicon.  If you have a small factory up there, you can manufacture silicon cells in space.  

Where would you be putting these factories? 

On the asteroid.  You land on the asteroid and you bring your small factory with you and start manufacturing silicon cells or extracting oxygen or whatever.  And once you’re there, it doesn’t cost you anything to get away from an asteroid because they’re so small.  Even a big asteroid is a grain of sand compared with the Earth.  So the energy it takes to get away from an asteroid is nothing.  You can jump and get away from it.  In fact, if you’re on an asteroid, don’t jump!  [laughs]  You won’t come back!

So you must be in favor of privatizing space endeavors. 

You got it. I and many other people testified before the Space Commission and probably half the people who testified, including me, talked about the importance of ultimately having private commercial ventures in space.  Private industry operates differently from government.  And it’s not that one is good and one is bad.  People have to get away from this idea of government being bad and private industry being good – that’s B.S., that’s emotional, political crap.  But they’re different in the way they operate.  When you have even a relatively small accident in NASA, which uses taxpayer money, it’s a big hoo-ha.  The Congress gets involved and every politician starts covering his own butt to make sure that he wasn’t responsible for it -- in fact, he’s going to call for a special investigation.  If it’s a private company that makes a mistake and they have an accident, guess what?  You may not even know it! 

But somebody can die! 

Even if somebody dies!  You know, or you have the opportunity to know, the name of every single soldier who has died in Iraq.  Do you think you can find the name of every single civilian who has died in Iraq?  No.

Right, and that’s a concern of mine. 

[laughs]  Well, you can have any concern you want.  But let me put it this way:  Unless tax dollars are being spent on something, it’s really not the business of the general public.  A company has to be responsible to its investors, and to its employees – you don’t just kill people.  But you do have accidents.  And when you have an accident in private industry, you don’t have a Congressional investigation that takes three years to recover from.  NASA today is in a situation where there’s a serious question in a lot of people’s minds as to whether NASA can do anything imaginative, because they’re so risk-averse.  Besides, NASA doesn’t have anybody to compete against, so they’ll do something the best way they can think of doing it, but there’s nobody that’s trying the other ways of doing it.  Now, eventually, we’ll need transportation into and out of space, and there’s no need for the government to do that.  What Burt Rutan is doing with SpaceShipOne, that’s the very beginning of commercial transportation into space, the equivalent of the Wright Brothers flight in aviation.  In the long run, once we find a Near Earth Asteroid that’s going to be hitting us, I think we’ll probably be asking a private company to go over and push on it.  

Tell me about yourself.  Where are you from originally? 

We lived on the New Jersey coast.  My father was a farmer.  We had cows, we had chickens, we grew hay, we grew vegetables from time to time.  It was a pretty small farm.  I think we had 45 acres.  It was a real scratch job.  In fact, my father ended up having to sell the farm because the land values kept going up because of development all around it, to the point where he was forced to sell it.  Taxes went up to the point where my father couldn’t make a living.  And we never made much of a living.  We were poor folks.  

How old were you when he sold the farm? 

He sold it just about when I went off to college.  Maybe I was 17, I don’t remember exactly.  

And what did he do then? 

Oh, he went to work for a guy laying asphalt in driveways and things.  My father finished high school but never went to college.  My mother never finished high school, she had to go to work before she finished.  In a very real way, we were simple farm folk.

So what were your ambitions when you were growing up? 

I wanted to be two things:  a pilot and a cowboy.

Did you ever become a cowboy? 

Well, I know how to ride a horse.  I’ve come close enough to it that I’m satisfied on that one.  [laughs]  

Well, you definitely hit the target on the pilot thing. 

Yeah, when I went off to college I studied aeronautical engineering at MIT and went into pilot training in the Air Force and flew fighter planes.

You must have had a scholarship.  MIT’s not cheap. 

I did, there was no other way I could have gone.  And I had a big, whopping debt when I got out as well.  I can still remember my family income when I filled out the application for MIT, it was $1800.  That was our annual income.

Let’s talk about the Apollo mission.  You were the first person to ever step outside a spacecraft, weren’t you? 

Almost.  I was the first person to do an EVA [extravehicular activity] without an umbilical to the spacecraft.  I had a backpack on my back which provided all the life support.  Up until our mission, all EVA had been done with an umbilical, where all the life support was provided by the spacecraft.  So I was the first independent entity in space – except for a tether.  I was attached by a strap so I wouldn’t fly away.  

Tell me what it was like, floating out there in space. 

[laughs]  Ah, I hate that question.  We’ve got five minutes – tell me what your life is about.  You know?  You can’t do it.  I can give you all the standard answers:  It’s incredibly beautiful, first of all.  It’s all black above the thin blue band that is the horizon.  The Earth is very, very bright below you.  And you’re traveling over it.  So you’re over the Pacific now and minutes later you’re over the California coast and then you’re passing Texas and there goes Florida and you’re off over the Atlantic.  You don’t feel as though you’re going fast, but if you look down, there goes big pieces of the world.  So you’re aware that you’re going around the Earth, and the horizon of course is curved.  The major purpose of the EVA was to go up the handrail outside the lunar module, hand over hand, and go across the top and over to the command module.

So you’re just holding on with your hands. 

There’s no wind, you’re just floating.

And you’re tethered. 

Yeah, but the tether’s a pain in the ass.  The tether is always flopping around and catching on things.  But the reason for this EVA is that the next day we would separate the two modules and go out 100 miles and then come back in and rendezvous and dock.  That would have to be done at the moon, and this was proving the technology.  And when we came back together, in case there was something wrong with the tunnel between the two spacecraft, the only way you could get back into the command module, which we had to do to come home, would be to go outside.  So I was demonstrating that we could transfer externally.  I started up the handrail and Dave [Scott] was taking movies of this transfer for documentation, and he says, “hey, the camera just jammed.”  So I stopped and Jim [McDivitt, mission commander] said, “Well, I’ll give you five minutes, Dave, to get the camera fixed – Rusty, stay right there.”  So while Dave was fixing the camera, I had five minutes with nothing to do.  So I said to myself, “This is my five minutes.  I’m not going to have this chance again, so let this come in.”  What I wanted to do was to go into maximum sponge mode and just absorb everything.  And I let go with my right hand and swung around to face the Earth, and I was just hanging there, looking at the Earth.  And what happened was, a whole bunch of questions just came right up: What am I doing here?  How did I get here?  What do I mean when I say “I”?  Who am I?  It was immediately clear that this is not me.  Looked at in the large perspective, I’m there because it’s this particular moment in the history of human evolution, our development of machines, which has enabled humankind to leave the environment.  And I’m a representative of humankind, and I’m a representative of life.  This is the beginning of life off this planet, this Gaia, beginning to move out into space. This is what I call “cosmic birth” – the beginning of birth out of Gaia, out of Mother Earth.  And I’m a sensing element for humankind.  I’m there purely by accident.  You could take any single thing I did, a single choice I made in my life earlier and if I had done it differently, I wouldn’t be there!  It’s pure bloody luck! I articulate this now, but all of that became obvious to me then in a nonverbal way.  And then the five minutes was up.  So that failure of the camera was a big thing.

So the experience was on a metaphysical level. 

Oh, yeah, definitely.  Now, a lot of people have made that into a religious thing, or this is a revelation.  Baloney!  It’s none of that.  There was no great white light.  Let me just say, it’s a big environment and if you’re a thoughtful person and you’re there and you open yourself up to that experience, you’re not going to think small thoughts.  It presents the big perspective to you.  Now did everybody who found themselves in that position have that same experience?  Not at all.  I mean, Alan Shepard thought about where he was going hit a golf ball on the moon.