Astronauts get down to earth

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By Alan Boyle, Science Editor

Space travelers from around the world are gathering this week to focus on the most precious planet they've ever discovered: Earth.

The planetary introspection is taking place in Seattle during this year's congress of the Association of Space Explorers, which brings together astronauts and cosmonauts from the United States, Russia and other nations. There's only one membership requirement: You have to travel through outer space for at least one orbit around Earth.

"Like any professional society, we have a common bond," said former NASA astronaut Bonnie Dunbar, who served as one of the hosts for this year's congress in her capacity as president and chief executive officer of Seattle's Museum of Flight. More than 50 spacefliers were on the guest list, although some of the would-be attendees were held up by Hurricane Ike and other complications.

During this week's sessions, old friendships were renewed: Billionaire space passenger Charles Simonyi chatted in the aisles with Russian cosmonauts, while pioneers of the Apollo program joshed with space shuttle veterans. "It's not just the formal sessions, but the informal get-togethers are also important," Dunbar said.

Even during the formal meetings, earthly issues were at center stage. Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders retold the story of his 1968 trip around the moon - and the famous picture he took of the Earth above the lunar horizon.

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"I can't claim to be a photographer," he told attendees at the museum. "I took about 20 of 'em, changing the f-stop every time - and they eventually found one that came out pretty nice."

The "Earthrise" photo became an environmental icon, symbolizing the planet's beauty and fragility. Some writers have talked about the "Overview Effect" - the profound change in perspective that comes along with seeing Earth in its totality - and Anders clearly was feeling the effect, even after 40 years. He said the sight filled him with an overwhelming sense of stewardship.

"Apollo went to the moon for political reasons, and also to study and learn about our nearest neighbor," Anders said. "But to me, the most important discovery was planet Earth."

Retired astronaut Tom Jones, a veteran of four shuttle flights, agreed that there's nothing like a spaceflight to give you the feeling that Earth has to be protected. "It's something that every astronaut comes home with," he said.

Jones provided a preview of his forthcoming book, "Planetology," which blends imagery of Earth and other celestial bodies to show the similarities and contrasts in climate and geology. Earth's watery lakes help us understand Titan's hydrocarbon lakes. Insights into Mars' past climate help us plan for Earth's future climate changes. Volcanoes on Earth help us figure out how eruptions work on Io and Enceladus.

So how does the resolve to protect our planet get passed along to the wider world? The spacefliers had several suggestions:

  • Simonyi, a software executive who visited the international space station last year, said the thrill of spaceflight should be shared with those who have been waiting decades to buy their ticket to the final frontier. "We should talk more about hope, and destiny, and vision - and, of course, tourism."

  • Former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn, a Utah Republican who flew into space aboard the shuttle in 1985, called for a campaign to counter the public perception that too much was being spent on science in general and space science in particular. "I'm very disgusted with the past couple of administrations and Congress, that we spend so little on scientific research and development, because of the benefits that come back from it," he said. (This year's NASA budget of $17.3 billion is significantly less than what the Pentagon spends on space ventures, representing 0.6 percent of total federal spending.)

  • Perhaps the most enduring way of passing along the "Overview Effect" is by getting young people excited about space exploration, and the Association of Space Explorers was doing its part on that front this week. The spacefliers spent more time in public outreach - at Seattle-area schools, universities and other venues - than they did being cooped up in lecture halls. "The major portion of what we're doing is about inspiring the next generation in science, technology, engineering and math careers," Dunbar told me.

Is going to space one of the best ways to build support for protecting the earth? Or is it a costly luxury in the current eco-conscious era? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

Update for 8:11 p.m. ET: This afternoon, the astronauts were given previews of what could be coming up on three frontiers:

  • Phoenix Mars Lander: During a teleconference, the mission team for NASA's latest Mars probe talked about their "fairy-tale mission" to the Red Planet's north polar region, with the confirmed detection of water held up as a highlight. The team members have largely dispersed from the mission's science operations center in Arizona, and they've gotten one last mission extension before the Martian winter closes in. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Miles Smith said some instruments will likely have to be disabled by late next month, putting the solar-powered lander into "weather station mode." After that, the climate will only get colder and darker. "We don't expect to be around at the beginning of next year," he said.

  • Return to the moon: Space station veteran Carl Walz, who is now director of the Advanced Capabilities Division for NASA's exploration program, brought his fellow spacefliers up to date on the multibillion-dollar effort to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020. He said the prototype for a small pressurized lunar rover - basically, an enclosed cab mounted on NASA's Chariot chassis - would undergo engineering tests next month at the Black Point lava flow near Flagstaff, Ariz. He also said NASA favored a leg-and-wheel concept for mobility on the moon, exemplified by the Athlete experimental vehicle.

  • Five-month round trip to asteroid? Former astronaut Tom Jones recapped studies that looked at the possibility of going to an asteroid using the space hardware developed for moon exploration. The judgment so far is that such a mission might be doable, although the crew would have to be pared down to two or three astronauts. One leading scenario would provide for a five-month mission to the near-Earth asteroid 1999 AO10: Launch would be set for September 2025. The astronauts would arrive at the asteroid in early 2026 for a two-week expedition and would return to Earth in February 2026. (This scenario is discussed in depth in Air & Space magazine.) Jones said such a mission could yield valuable insights on how to extract resources from an asteroid, or even divert a space rock if it threatened Earth. "It's the right way to protect our planet," he said.