Year 2036: Mars colonization and a date with destiny

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson host of the NOVA scienceNOW PBS program

From a half billion kilometers away, the message was powerful. In 1994, fragments of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet slammed into Jupiter. The earth-size fireballs ejected into space were captured and relayed back to be seen again and again in Internet replay. The message: we need a foothold in space if our species is to survive.

The late Carl Sagan quickly seized on the importance of this event. Sagan called again for a grand mission to colonize other planets, a bold step that would insure that the life found on other planets would be our own.

The asteroid 2009 DD45 whisked by weeks ago, traveling within 48,800 miles of Earth. It is not the feared extinction rock. A close shave to be sure, the flyby would have little impact on our collective consciousness. The space ball measured about the size of three city buses and packed enough energy to level a major city and then some.

Another rock made headlines in recent days when it exploded over Africa. This was the first that scientists were able to track as it came on a trajectory to earth.

Sagan might have remarked on the occasion of the more recent events, these are chilling reminders that a rock with our name on it might be out there gradually circling the solar system until…

An impact by an asteroid of size – say more than 7 miles wide – with an entry attitude of nearly 45 degrees is depicted in film carried on YouTube. (List of YouTube selections follows story.) Six times in the ancient past, earth was struck. The consequence was extinction.

There has been in recent years discussion of nudging a meteor larger than 1 kilometer off its collision course. In 2007, the Deep Impact mission embedded a washing machine-size projectile in the interior of comet Temple and ejected comet material into space for study. We possess the technology, it seems, to mitigate or possibly deflect certain annihilation.

As Voyager reached the rim of the Solar System, Sagan persuaded his team to turn a Voyager camera back toward the sun and snap that breathtaking view of the earth that is seen in his book Pale Blue Dot. Barely a mote of dust, Sagan called earth. It seems remarkable from that perspective, anything could find its way here. But one day, we could be in the wrong place when another asteroid appears menacingly in the sky. It could be one of the many city size rocks among the Near Earth Asteroids. On that day, there will be no place to hide.

Sagan was the eloquent scientist who took the unusual career trajectory of public outreach while others toiled mainly in research. His early career consisted of making models of the atmospheres of Venus and Mars. He was a tireless spokesman for interplanetary exploration. His books, his famous PBS series Cosmos, his many public appearances and his work with NASA largely came when space accomplishments had become routine.

Technological advances are still headlines, but nothing has approached the scale of heralded scientific feat that was the Apollo lunar landing. Competition for technological superiority in the last century came at the point of a Cold War missile. We were willing to take bold steps back in the days of Sputnik. Perhaps the chill in the air on an October night of sky watching was really a nagging fear that U.S. leadership could not be taken for granted.

The frequent guest on late night’s Johnny Carson show might have been as much showman as scientist. He did with his musings stir up great passion for science. The Cornell professor left us to ponder the measure of our existence, pointing us toward the stars and reminding us, too, that destruction was the other side of the cosmic coin.

Today, NASA ventures on, searching for life on Mars and sending cameras again and again into Jovian space. Exploration continues, and men will return to the Moon. As we take these first tentative steps, something seems to have gone missing.

Progress to other planets can’t occur fast enough for some. Even in the midst of severe recession, it doesn’t seem all that bold a declaration to think that Mars will soon show footprints of another astronaut. Indeed, tomorrow’s NASA is taking shape. Surface-to-space shuttles will make the Discovery look like dad’s Buick, right down to the thin skin made with material made possible with nanotechnology. Arthur C. Clarke dreamed that an elevator made of diamond-like material would carry people and payloads into orbit. The possible seems all the more probable today.

Year 2036: Mars colonization and a date with destiny

Impact: Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet, which appears on the NASA-Jet Propulsion Laboratory website:


Thinking small

The journey to the stars will take a path through the universe of the very small. Missions to colonize other planets will depend on our ability to manipulate atoms. Nascent sciences will answer the questions that have so far kept our feet firmly on the ground. Everything from spacesuits to re-entry vehicles and optics can be dramatically improved with nanotechnology. A cadre of entrepreneurs has taken up the task. (See DaVinci Institute schedule information below.)

At this moment in history, the concern is not that we won’t have the skills, resources and knowledge. The concern is for the collective will, which seems to be flagging.

There are conflicting signs to be sure. As the U.S. education system prods youngsters to perform better in science and math, there is plenty of evidence that the public hungers for science, as the NASA Ames Research Center in California can attest. More than a quarter million tour the facility in a year. A muffled and huge explosion of articles on nanotechnology has occurred on the Internet. Millions are drawn yearly to museums. Even fans of the fledgling social media share photographs of Shuttle launches. Interest in science might appear to some to have never been greater.

With his PBS series Cosmos, Sagan’s enthusiasm has infected a billion viewers. The series, based on Sagan’s book of the same name, had Sagan dazzle us with astronomical facts and stir up our great need to wonder and to explore. The television series is a brilliant tribute to an accumulation of knowledge – and now is mostly out of date.

Distrust of government and media

When political leaders have spent money, it has neglected communications that would more actively engage the public. Funding for public broadcast has faded at a time when outreach may be more important. As work on the nanotechnology R&D funding wrapped up eight years ago, concern was expressed the environment of increasing distrust of government and the media have put nanotechnology on a collision course with public opinion. As some would note at the time, the communications work is inadequate.

The headline yesterday about nanotechnology’s potential harm to the environment has an ominous ring. Public distrust, fanned only a little, may bring some ambitions for nanotechnology crashing to earth again. Nanotechnology’s dreams could remain just that – dreams.

We need another Sagan, someone interested in explaining the view to the future. That someone is the already well-known Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the NOVA scienceNOW PBS program.

Author and speaker Tyson is the recipient of the Space Foundation’s 2009 Douglas S. Morrow Public Outreach Award, which is to be presented today (March 30, 2009) at the 25th National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, CO.

Tyson had Sagan’s attention early on and Sagan tried recruiting him to Cornell, but instead chose Harvard and study of astrophysics. Tyson also is president of the Planetary Society, which was founded by Sagan.

The final frontier

Tyson has taken up the mantle of educating and explaining science with alluring skill. In one of the NOVA series, he says we should use transponders to increase the accuracy of tracking asteroids. Apophis, a rock the size of the Rose Bowl, takes a perilous arc approaching earth in 2036. Wouldn’t it be great to know with precision exactly where that mass will be on its approach toward earth?

NASA is studying a concept that still has its skeptics, Tyson among them. In fact, NASA sponsored a contest that has produced, so far, at least one working prototype of a space elevator but no winner. A Seattle area company is working on producing a model that can lift a payload into air traffic space – quite a bit shy of NASA’s goal, but a start. The makers are convinced that one day its work will marry with a propulsion system for a sea-based cable that would extend 64,000 miles into space.

Super-strong, super-light weight nanomaterials make a space elevator possible. Tyson’s skepticism is unrocked by the demo now available for viewing on YouTube. (See information below.)

This project and projects like it could form the stepping stones for travel to Mars and then eventual colonization. Tyson, President Bush’s selectee to a commission that defined the future of the space industry, appears to be the defacto front man.

Perhaps yet another Sagan is staring into a telescope right now. Maybe, just maybe the next Sagan will post a 3-D YouTube video some day with musings for the billions tuned in to consider, maybe in the year 2036 when Apophis is nudged a degree to miss the Earth. Inhabitants will stare breathlessly from Earth – and Mars – as a great mountain of rock whisks by and a future in space is assured.

Author: Raymond Alvarez

Raymond Alvarez is a communications consultant specializing in nanotechnology. A contributing writer and editor to the DaVinci Institute, Alvarez uses the pseudonym NextwaveRay on Twitter. A star gazer, the closest he has come to space is shaking the hand of (the now late) Harrison Schmidt, one of the last men to walk on the moon.

On April 6, the DaVinci Institute “Night with a Futurist” series will take a close look at “The Business of Space 2.0”: the next generation of space entrepreneurs, a speaking event in Westminster, CO. In the Apollo Era, products like Tang and Space Food Bars gave hint that technology could trickle into commercial use. Today, that trickle has turned into a torrent of new products, said Tom Frey of DaVinci.

Space Foundation Recognizes Neil deGrasse Tyson with Douglas S. Morrow Public Outreach Award:

Not space, but a company has a prototype space elevator. A skeptical deGrasse takes a look:

Check out:

Get a lift with chatting up the space elevator:

Hit or miss, a look at asteroids:

Origin of the universe:

Reviews of NOVA programs