The Planetary Society.
Founded in 1980, The Planetary Society was the dream of Dr. Bruce Murray, Dr. Carl Sagan, and Dr. Louis Friedman. The three men were seeking to create a privately funded, non-profit organization devoted to the exploration of our solar system, as well as popularizing education in space science. I joined as an average, non-scientist space geek and sci-fi nerd back in 1996, because membership in the group isn’t exclusive to scientists, engineers or astronauts; the Planetary Society is open to anyone with curiosity about the cosmos, and to those who want to do whatever they can to advance the exploration of our solar system. Check out their home site at planetary.org
Some of the Society’s high profile members include scientist/TV personality Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astronaut Dr. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (Gemini 12, Apollo 11), director Steven Spielberg (“Jaws,” “E.T.”), actors Kate Mulgrew, Robert Picardo, Tim Russ (“Star Trek: Voyager”) and John Rhys-Davies (“Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Lord of the Rings”). Our CEO is author, advocate and engineer Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”), who is also the host of Netflix’s pop science series, “Bill Nye Changes The World.” Over 40 years later, the Society’s legacy continues with the successful launch and deployment of our privately-funded solar sail mission, Lightsail 2 (which uses light pressure from the sun for propulsion), as well as instruments on other spacecraft, including the multiple Mars Rovers. The Society has also put together some really nifty parties, called Planetfests, to celebrate these robotic space missions. I’ve attended a number of these Planetfests, and they are a blast.
One of my first Planetfest memories took place on the night of January 4th, 2004. I drove to the Pasadena Convention Center (before it moved to its current location across the street), and attended multiple panels with various guest speakers, including my favorite author, Ray Bradbury (“Fahrenheit 451,” “The Martian Chronicles”), whom I actually had the chance to meet that night during a brief break in the scheduling (I also got his autograph; he was a very generous man). I would also meet Robert Picardo (Star Trek) and the affable John Rhys-Davies (“Sallah” from the Indiana Jones movies) as well.
Later that night, we were all collectively biting our nails as we awaited word from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Mission Control Center, a few miles away, for confirmation of the Spirit rover’s successful landing. After a 20-odd minute delay due to a communications relay snafu, we got the word: Spirit had landed on Mars! The room was a deluge of relief and joy. I practically floated home from Pasadena that night… I mean, I’d just attended a space party with Ray Bradbury. After 8 or so years as a Planetary Society member, the Planetfest of January 4th 2004 was a genuine highlight. It was a magical evening for me that I will never forget.
Another Planetary Society-sponsored event took place on September 29th, 2009, at the AMC Theater multiplex in downtown Pasadena, where astronaut Dr. Edwin Buzz Aldrin (Gemini 12, Apollo 11) was giving a talk and video presentation (including his rap video with Snoop Dogg), as well as a book signing for his autobiography “Magnificent Desolation.” That night was also very memorable as I got to ask the first question during the Q & A following his presentation (I asked for his thoughts on using manned Orion capsules for asteroid rendezvous) and I got to meet and shake hands with him later on. I shook hands with the second man to walk on the moon! Yeah, that was another one of those nights I’ll never forget…
The Planetfest that took place over the weekend of August 4th-5th, 2012 celebrated the landing of the nuclear-powered Curiosity rover on Mars. Curiosity is the direct antecedent of the current Perseverance rover, which is scheduled to land this Thursday, February 18th (see bottom of this column for Planetary Society online viewing party details).
Over that weekend in 2012 (at the new Pasadena Convention Center), there were a flurry of guest speakers, including Society CEO Bill Nye, sci-fi author David Brin (the “Uplift” trilogy, “The Postman”), author/engineer Robert Zubrin (“The Case For Mars”), Robert Picardo (Star Trek), Ann Druyan (producer, writer and widow of Carl Sagan) and a surprise unannounced guest appearance from actor/writer/producer Seth MacFarlane (“American Dad” “The Orville”) who was there to announce his continuation of Carl Sagan’s classic book and television series “COSMOS,” which would star Neil deGrasse Tyson (and can be currently streamed on Hulu). There was also a lovely video tribute to Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, who passed away weeks before.
The 2012 Planetfest also had a magnificent collection of space artwork in the lobby, and several guest artists, including Rick Sternbach (COSMOS, Star Trek); one of the founders of the Astronomical Artists’ Association. Several space entrepreneurs also had their own wares on display, including my first look at a prototype of SpaceX’s manned “Dragon” capsule, which is currently operational and successfully delivering crews to the International Space Station!
Planetfest 2021: To Mars and Back Again–a COVID-Safe Celebration.
In the wake of the current COVID pandemic that has killed millions of people around the world, this year’s Planetfest 2021 couldn’t afford to be the usual “meet-and-greet” in-person galas that they’ve been in years past, but that restriction didn’t stop the Planetary Society from hosting a nice little party, nevertheless. The Planetary Society partnered with Zoom and Whova teleconferencing to host a variety of discussions, workshops and informative videos commemorating the arrival of three spacecraft to the red planet Mars, as well as a celebration of future space missions in the years ahead. Not an ideal circumstance of course, but reduced-price tickets (around $20 for Planetary Society members) allowed access to the entire weekend package, including interactivity with group discussion Q & A sessions, as well as exclusive access to video content and workshops (some of which will be released to YouTube in a couple of weeks).
With your ticket and free download of Whova to your computer/phone/device, you got the menu in the above graphic, which featured a lists of the agenda (panels, videos, workshops, etc), attendees/speakers, sponsors, exhibitors (to buy commemorative event items and cool space merch) and even interactive messaging. Not quite brushing elbows, but in the age of COVID, you still get a chance to ask questions and interact with panelists, as you would at a traditional, in-person Planetfest conference. When I clicked on the “Agenda” menu, there was even a kindly warning that the Whova hosting audio was sometimes glitchy on my Mac’s browser, and recommended that I switch to Google Chrome. They even offered a quick fix if the audio cut off during the livestream.
Note: My audio did briefly cut out on several livestream events, but it was easily fixable by simply re-clicking on the video stream, and then clicking the “Join Computer Audio” icon once again. A minor inconvenience, not too unlike video projector and microphone failures that all-too-often plague in-person conventions as well (goodness knows I’ve seen my share of those). Par for the course.
Planetfest ’21 kicked off around noon on Saturday February the 13th, and here I was, in front of my computer ‘attending’ a Planetary Society conference dressed in my grungiest clothes, trying to peddle off some extra COVID-gained poundage on my home Exercycle as I listened to Bill Nye kick off the festivities, which included video highlights from the 2019 launch party for Lightsail 2. In my 20-odd years of attending sci-fi fantasy conventions and Planetary Society conferences, I’ve never attended a live event while peddling on an Exercycle before; this certainly is a most unique time in which we’re living, isn’t it?
One of the first livestream events I visited was “Exploring Past, Present (and Future?) Habitats of Mars,” which was presented by Dr. Bethany Ehlmann, President of The Planetary Society, and Professor of Planetary Science at Caltech, Pasadena. Dr. Ehlmann gave a overview of the Perseverance Rover’s intended landing site at Jazero Crater, which was believed to be a lake some 3-4 billion years ago in Mars’ history. Dr. Ehlmann also explained that Mars’ warm and wetter period developed far earlier than Earth’s, due to its smaller size and more rapid cooling. Unfortunately, Mars’ lower gravity and lack of magnetic field didn’t allow it to retain the thicker atmosphere it enjoyed in earlier epochs. As a result, its thinning atmosphere locked most of the remaining water into the soil and in the planet’s polar caps, where much of it remains today.
It is hoped the Perseverance rover, and its helicopter probe companion, Ingenuity, will find conclusive proof of the water that once filled the depths of Jazero Crater. As we see on Earth, where there’s water (even acidic water), there’s life. While present life on today’s dryer, radiation-soaked Mars is highly doubtful, it’s hoped that perhaps evidence for past life may be observed (directly or indirectly) with this mission’s instrument suite. Another innovation for the Perseverance mission is that it will carry collection vessels for soil samples, which will be retrieved from the surface by a future mission and returned to Earth laboratories for analysis. The next best thing to being there in person.
To Seek Out New Life…
One of the videos I sampled in the Agenda Menu was a discussion called “Are We Alone? The Search For Life.” Attending the online discussion were Britney Schmidt (Associate Professor, School of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Institute of Technology), Heather Graham (Group Lead, Network for Life Detection, NASA), Tiffany Kataria, Research Scientist, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech and Betul Kacar (Professor and Lead Principal Investigator, University of Arizona, and the NASA Astrobiology Consortium).
The group’s lively discussion centered on the prospects for life elsewhere in our solar system, including the possibilities for life within the subsurface oceans of outer planet moons, such as Jupiter’s iced-over oceanic moon of Europa and Saturn’s icy volcanic moon of Iapetus. While these moons are remote with frozen surfaces, there is enough gravitational tidal friction between these moons and their dominant gas giant parent planets (Jupiter, Saturn) to create warm, liquid water oceans beneath their surfaces. The presence of these once-hypothetical oceans have been largely confirmed by instruments aboard the Galileo, Juno and Cassini missions to Jupiter and Saturn. And (once again) where’s there’s water, there’s usually life, at least by our home planet’s precedent.
Another fascinating panel, “Beyond Mars: Exploring Other Worlds,” went live at the same time, but could be viewed in full later. The panelists included Jason Davis (Editorial Director, Planetary Society), Dipak Srinivasan (Engineer, Johns Hopkins University, Applied Physics Laboratory/APL), Brett Denevi (Planetary Geologist, Johns Hopkins University, APL), Joseph O’Rourke (Assistant Professor, ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration), and Maitrayee Bose (Assistant Professor, Arizona State University, School of Earth and Space Exploration). One of the highlights of the discussion was the NASA Europa Clipper, a mission to Jupiter’s water-encrusted moon currently under development by John Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory; the mission will hopefully launch on a privately developed rocket (such as SpaceX’s Falcon) in 2024.
The Fleet’s In!
This year’s Planetfest was a celebration of multiple international missions to the planet Mars, including first-ever Mars missions from China and the United Arab Emirates. All three have arrived or are arriving this month, February of 2021; certainly an auspicious month for Mars exploration, unlike any other in recent memory.
The first of this current Mars-bound fleet to arrive at its destination was the United Arab Emirates’ Hope spacecraft, an orbiting mission which inserted itself into Martian orbit on February 9th. The orbiter is an ambitious leap for the relatively young space agency; which was only founded in 2014. Mat Kaplan, of Planetary Society Radio, interviewed Andrew Jones (a contributing Society editor based in the Netherlands) and the Director of the Hope Spacecraft Operations, Omran Sharaf.
Sharaf beamed with pride as an accompanying video detailed the development of the Hope orbiter spacecraft. The orbiter will monitor weather and atmospheric conditions of Mars. Hope is also the first mission to return an image from the red planet this month, and we look forward to a wealth of data from this young space agency’s ambitious entry in the Mars’ 2021 fleet.
China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft, which inserted itself into Mars orbit on February 10th, consists of several components, including an orbiter, a deployable camera, a lander and a rover. If the rover is successful, China will be the second nation in human history to operate a robotic rover on the red planet! One of the beautiful things about space exploration (much like research in Antarctica) is that international tensions and other issues are sometimes put aside in the shared human dream of spaceflight. The Planetary Society was formed during the height of the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union (the core of which survives as the current Russian Federation) were fierce enemies. Planetary Society founders hoped that a private, non-profit group could somehow bypass those political tensions to work directly with other space advocates/agencies across the world. To a degree, the Society was successful, as the current best wishes for CNSA’s success with Tianwen-1 demonstrates.
One of the later livestream events also featured a 2020 video clip of Planetary Society Senior Editor and planetary geologist Dr. Emily Lakdawalla. Dr. Lakdawalla gave an up-close and personal look at the Perseverance Rover in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory “clean room” as it underwent final testing before its shipment to Florida for launch. During the presentation, she pointed out many of the upgrades made to the rover since 2012’s prototype rover Curiosity, such as better cameras, communications, and an unprecedented imaging system capable of recording the EDL (entry, descent, landing) phase of the mission. The Perseverance Rover, and its helicopter companion Ingenuity, are the United States’ entry in humanity’s Mars spacecraft fleet of 2021. Like Curiosity, the rover will be delivered to the surface of Mars via the proven ‘sky crane’; a rocket-braking system that will gently lower the rover to its landing site at Jazero crater.
During Dr. Lakdawalla’s presentation, I got a sense of deja vu, as I’ve been to the JPL clean room on two personal tours of Caltech, including one back in December of 2002, when the solar-powered Mars’ rovers Spirit and Opportunity were being prepared for shipment to Florida as well. The rovers were cocooned inside of their “petals” which were designed to protect them during their EDL phase; inflatable airbags within the petals were designed to cushion the impact of the rovers’ arrival. We also got to see a rover prototype (which was not going to Mars) being tested in the “Mars room”, a large indoor diorama simulating the Martian terrain (even down to the red rust coloring of the soil).
At 5:30 that first evening, there was a celebration hosted by Bill Nye called “Beyond the Horizon,” which was a combination party/membership-drive/fundraiser for the Planetary Society. A nice ‘breather’ to revel in this exciting time for space exploration.
First off, you haven’t truly lived till you’ve heard Bill Nye doing a duet with Neil deGrasse Tyson, and the two of them sang “Beyond the Horizon” together; it was like seeing your two favorite science professors getting a mite hammered together on karaoke night, but with better sound and editing. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting both of these guys, and I can vouch that they are wonderfully personable men. In the summer of 2012, my wife and I met Dr. Tyson at our San Diego Comic Con hotel restaurant, where he graciously came to our table and took a photo with us. I will never forget his warmth and his great laugh. TV’s “COSMOS” (watch it on Hulu.com) couldn’t have a better spokesperson to carry on Carl Sagan’s goal of popularizing science for a new generation.
Note: The Planetary Society’s own goal of popularizing space exploration (and science in general) is more important now than ever in the United States, after the beating science took under the now-departed Trump administration; that team’s lack of understanding for basic epidemiology arguably killed tens of thousands of people during the current COVID pandemic. Too many Americans were following the scientific lead of a president who stared directly into a solar eclipse (without eye protection); something your average ten year-old knows not to do, let alone a person with access to the best information in the world.
Part of the celebration also involved a bit of fundraising as well as a membership drive, and that campaign was spearheaded by the Planetary Society’s Chief Operations Officer Jennifer Vaughn, who in addition to her work in space science, is also an accomplished dancer with her own dance studio workshop in L.A (Live Arts). She deserves a major shoutout for her tireless work. Once again, if you’re interested in becoming a member of the non-profit Planetary Society, here’s the link: planetary.org.
Dr. Bruce Betts, the chief scientist for the aforementioned LightSail program, also gave an entertaining video presentation on “Hunting For Dangerous Asteroids,” which reflected his work in creating science books aimed for younger readers. During the presentation, Betts used animation to imagine how a space program might’ve helped the dinosaurs avoid extinction 65 million years ago. The video also provided information regarding the current options for avoiding an extinction-level event ourselves, including nuclear detonations to deflect or (if absolutely necessary) obliterate an Earthbound asteroid. Destroying an asteroid outright with nuclear weapons would be arguably unwise (contrary to the movies), since the obliterated total mass of the object might still careen towards Earth. Another proposed option involved using rockets planted on the mass to push it into a collision-free orbit. Pro-tip: the earlier we detect such an object, the better our options.
The Trek Connection.
Of course, no mention of real-life space exploration is ever truly complete without some connection to the Star Trek franchise, right? I mean, after all, it’s only… logical. Sorry—had to go there.
One of the Planetary Society board members is none other than actor Robert Picardo, who is perhaps best known for playing the sometimes ill-tempered “Emergency Medical Hologram” on Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001). Picardo has had a genuine lifelong curiosity for science and space exploration, and he read a “Rare Letter from Star Trek Creator Gene Roddenberry,” which was found in a box of old Star Trek scripts from the various TV shows. The video can be seen in its entirety here.
There was also a video presentation called “Behind the Scenes of Space TV,” where Picardo got a chance to talk one-on-one with writer/producer/director Brannon Braga about their time working together on Star Trek: Voyager. In a refreshingly frank conversation, the two opened up about how utterly absurd many of the show’s ideas seemed on the page until they were willed into reality on the soundstage. They also discussed the many times the show had to cheat scientific accuracy (and sometimes common sense) in order to make an unwieldy premise workable for a one-hour TV show. Braga has also worked on writer/actor/producer Seth MacFarlane’s aforementioned revival of “COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey,” as well as MacFarlane’s sci-fi comedy series “The Orville,” which gently ribs the Star Trek franchise while still offering thought-provoking material as well (both series can be seen on Hulu.com).
Actor (and Planetary Society member)Tim Russ, who plays the Vulcan tactical officer “Tuvok” on Star Trek: Voyager, also gave a short but heartfelt presentation on “What We Can Learn From Star Trek”; a video promoting the series’ forward-thinking progressivism which served as a beacon to inspire and entertain generations of future scientists, astronauts, medical professionals and even everyday dreamers like myself. I once had the pleasure of briefly meeting Russ at a Planetary Society event in 2008, during a celebration for the Mars Polar Lander, Phoenix, which found directly observable water ice at the Martian surface (literally beneath its ‘feet’). I very much remember Russ reading a passage from Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles” at that conference (“The Martian Chronicles” is one of my all-time favorite books).
One of my personal favorite segments was Planetary Society Radio host Mat Kaplan’s separate conversations with authors Kim Stanley Robinson (“Red Mars,” “Green Mars”, “Blue Mars”) and Andy Weir (“The Martian,” “Artemis”). Weir wasn’t able to join the conversation with Kaplan and Robinson as originally scheduled, but Kaplan did record a separate 40-minute conversation with Weir earlier.
Both Robinson and Weir spoke of the influences of pulp sci-fi on their more scientifically accurate Mars stories, such as the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs (“Princess of Mars”) and Robert Heinlen (“Podkayne of Mars,” “Starship Troopers”). Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy has become something of a gold standard for current sci-fi novelists who aim for scientific accuracy within their space adventure scenarios.
As much as I deeply respect the standard-setting works of Kim Stanley Robinson, my favorite of Kaplan’s discussions was his side interview with the affable, witty and self-deprecating Weir. I’ve been a huge fan of this relatively new author’s work since I first read “The Martian” in the summer of 2015 (a few months before the the movie adaptation came out). Weir’s first-person story of stranded astronaut Mark Watney was the book I’d been waiting for ever since I saw the Viking lander’s color images from Mars (as an eager nine-year old space geek in 1976). The sardonic wit and everyman qualities of astronaut-botanist Watney opened up the science behind surviving the red planet to the layman reader as well. It’s like The Mythbusters’ guide to surviving Mars (including lots of duct tape).
I’m also a fan of Weir’s followup novel, “Artemis” (2017), which is essentially an “Ocean’s Eleven”-style caper taking place on a late 21st century moon colony. Petty smuggler Jazz Bashara gets involved in a murky corporate sabotage operation way above her pay grade. While Bashara is very different from NASA astronaut Mark Watney, they share a delightfully blue sense of humor. Well worth reading as well. During his conversation with Kaplan, Weir dropped a few tantalizing hints about his new novel, “Project Hail Mary,” arriving in early May (I’m already reserving my copy, thanks…).
This week marks the arrival of the Perseverance Rover and Ingenuity helicopter at Mars. Needless to say, the Planetary Society will be (virtually, safely) celebrating this momentous event as well.
The Planetary Society’s Perseverance Landing Watch Party kicks off on Thursday, February 18th at 11:30 am Pacific Standard Time. Steel your nerves for the “seven minutes of terror” during the spacecraft’s EDL phase through the Martian atmosphere (always a nail-biter), as we wish the best for the rover and its “Ingenuity” helicopter companion (the first attempted helicopter flight on another planet). Perseverance will join the Chinese Tianwen-1 (orbiter/lander/rover combo) which is already in orbit of Mars, as well as the United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiting spacecraft, which arrived last Wednesday.
This new fleet at Mars joins the Curiosity rover, which is still kicking after nearly nine years on the red planet, as well as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which arrived in March of 2006 and is expected to run through the end of the 2020s. As Andy Weir noted, “Mars is a planet currently populated entirely by robots.”
There were many other programs, discussions and options available for this online Planetfest ’21 celebration, but those were some of the highlights for myself. I’d never attended a virtual conference or convention before, but this was a promising start. Maybe COVID hasn’t completely wiped out my convention-going schedule after all…?
To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are around 483,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, several vaccines have been developed and inoculations have began, but it will take months for mass distribution throughout the population. Even with vaccines, the overall situation is far from safe; many unknowns remain regarding coronavirus (can may be vaccinated and unwittingly carry or spreadcoronavirus). So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much
Take care and be safe!