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iPhones today have more capabilities than the entire Apollo program had – Apollo 9 astronaut

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first manned landing on the Moon, and we’ve talked to one of those who actually helped to make it happen – space pioneer, Apollo 9 astronaut, Rusty Schweickart.

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Podcast https://soundcloud.com/rttv/sets/sophieco-visionaries

Sophie Shevardnadze: Rusty Schweickart, great to have you with us today. So can I start with a couple of questions about Apollo 9? This year is the anniversary of the mission that was devoted to preparations for the flight to the moon. But compared to Apollo 8, which was all about trajectory and testing the trajectory, you guys had to do the real stuff, test the equipment, how the models were working with the docking of the models between each other and even last support for your suits - the real stuff. When you were taken off to that mission, how did you estimate the danger? I mean, basically, it's like test a new vehicle only in space.

Rusty Schweickart: Well, the main danger, if you will... I mean, we didn't see it as dangerous. We had done simulations for years. So you're ready for anything that can happen or at least you hope you're ready for anything that can happen. But the main challenge from the standpoint of danger during the mission, among other things, we would separate the lunar module from the command module by a hundred miles in orbit. And of course, we would have to get back and dock successfully in order to return to Earth because the lunar module, while it could land on the moon, it can't land on Earth. And so to get home, we would have to successfully return and dock and join our heat shield again. So that was in the sense of danger. That's what people saw as being very scary. But for us, it wasn't scary. We were clearly going to get back.

SS: It was your heart racing when you were about to dock back on Earth, no?

RS: Oh, well, that's a different issue. That's after successful docking and everything else in the end of the mission, then we would return to the atmosphere, to Earth. And that's always exciting. But that had happened on other flights as well. So that was not new, returning to Earth from Earth orbit, but getting back to the command and service module when the lunar module, which had never been used before, we had to get back 100 miles to a successful rendezvous and docking as if we had come up from the moon. So we were basically testing what later flights would have to do coming up after moon. And that was the first time that I had ever been doing so, that was new. But also when I went outside, that was new too. I was the first one to use the new Apollo suit that had never been used before. So it was a test flight of that new suit which worked beautifully. And it was also a test flight of the backpack that I used, which then people used on the moon.

SS: When you're in space testing all of that amazing stuff and basically laying out the foundation for men to go to the moon, how much depends on you, astronaut, and your skills and how much depends on the genius of a person who designed the equipment and the technology that actually brought you there? 

RS: Well, let me say that if I'm performing a concert of a Liszt Concerto in Carnegie Hall, certainly a lot of the audience enjoyment will be the Liszt composition but only if I perform it well. So it's both the design of the equipment and the execution of its use. Both are part of success.

SS: Such a good analogy. I never thought of it that way. Is it true that you're feeling a bit sick when you were up there?

RS:  Oh, no. I wasn't feeling a bit sick: I barfed twice. 

SS: OK, so you did… It may sound like a naive question but who and when am I going to ask about feeling sick in space: what is it like when you feel sick in space?

RS: Well, it feels subjectively. It feels the same as if you get seasick or if you're susceptible to motion sickness in a car. Motion sickness is motion sickness. So it feels very much the same way. It's quite different, however, because in space there’s no gravity... things don't go down. So you end up with something, here you have to scrape the things off. It's not as physically comfortable as is on the ground, simply because gravity doesn't work with you and separating, let me say, sticky things like when you barf from your mouth. So it's unpleasant. Now, after you do it, fine, you feel better. And of course, after one day of the problem, then I had adapted entirely and there was no problem after that. But it was very disruptive for the one day that had happened twice.

SS: So looking back, you were the one to test the technology that took the man to the moon. 50 years later, if you compare right now to the modern manned spaceflight, is it any different - with minor technical adjustments or is it completely different?

RS: Well, it's not a very good comparison - looking back 50 years at a spacecraft. The technology that was used and that kind of thing from the technology that's available today. I mean, they're quite different.

SS: Is it drastically different? That's what I'm asking. Or is it the same thing?

RS: The physical principles that you're dealing with in terms of maneuvering and all... I mean, the physics is physics, and the physics hasn't changed over 50 years. So the environment itself isn't changing. But the technology which we have available today to execute is quite different. Rocket technology is still fundamentally the same thing. We're a bit more efficient. There are some new materials and that kind of thing, programing, the software aspects are much, much more capable today. In my iPhone, I have a thousand times the capability of the computers that we had onboard the spacecraft at that time. I mean, it's ridiculous that in my back pocket I have much, much more capability than we had in the entire Apollo programme. So things have changed in that sense. But the challenge, the physical environment that you're dealing with - with the vacuum, maneuvering, rendezvous techniques - all of those things are basically the same challenge. You're simply using a more capable tool to do the same job.

SS: After you left NASA, you actually devoted your career to the issue of asteroid danger and defense against the impact. You have even created a foundation. What is it about - asteroids that made you devote so much of your life's work and time to it?

RS: Well, you know, there are very few existential threats to life on Earth. I'm not talking about my survival or yours. I'm talking about the whole life experiment here on Earth. There have been mass extinctions in the past. And the impact that wiped out the dinosaurs 64 million years ago wiped out 75 percent of all life that existed. People hear about the dinosaurs, but it was 75 percent of all species disappeared without impact. So asteroid impacts at the largest scale, which is very rare, that that type of an impact occurs. Nevertheless, there is ultimately an existential threat to life on Earth.

SS: If you put it in simple words, what could it be like? It could destroy a city, a country, a continent, the whole planet? Just shed the light.

RS: We need to be a little bit careful, because when we talk about the potential destruction that an asteroid impact can cause, we're talking about the threat to life. We're not talking about the threat to the planet. The planet will survive. I mean, we don't worry about the planet per say, worry about the life-carrying capacity of the planet, the capability to support life - that can be destroyed. We're very fragile occupants of the surface of this planet. So, yes, a city can be destroyed, a continent can be destroyed, and life on the planet can be destroyed. Civilisation is very fragile, frankly. So it doesn't take much to destroy civilisation. And we can protect civilisation and life on the planet with the technology and the capability we have today. If we do this job correctly.

SS: So how do you imagine an asteroid defense system? Because in my head, I have all this sci-fi films, and I'm thinking it's a ring of orbiting gun satellites like in Starship Troopers or something. What does it look like? Like, do we have technical capabilities for such thing at this point?

RS: Well, first of all, asteroids occasionally hit the Earth - in fact, asteroids hit the Earth every day. We call them shooting stars. These are very, very small asteroids. But a hundred tons of material comes into the Earth from shooting stars every night. So we're always hit by these things. The issue is not are we going to be hit? We're always hit. The issue is how big are they going to be? And the larger you get, the less frequent they are. And so what we're protecting against is the occasional asteroid impact, perhaps only once every 100 years or once every four hundred years. 

SS: Half a millennia. Because the last time it was a huge one in China in the 15th century that killed 10000 people. And there was one in Chelyabinsk that was detected. But what was…?

RS: Yes. The most recent one was the one in Chelyabinsk, which did not kill anybody. But had it come in just a little bit steeper than it became in a fairly shallow angle, had it been a little bit steeper, we probably would have seen a few deaths with that, but that's only about once every 75 years that one of those were hit. More to the point is the one that hit in 1908 in Tunguska, in Siberia. But that one would have come in over a city today. Now there are not that many cities on the surface of the earth. But had it come in over a city, it would have wiped out an entire city.

SS: So what does this defense look like or what is it like? Like, you feel…

RS: You don't build a defense in space.

SS: If translated it to our language, what is it like?

RS: Yes, you predict by knowing that these asteroids are out there, finding them, determining their orbit, I can then predict...They go around the sun the same way that the Earth does, but their paths occasionally cross the orbit of the Earth. And if they do cross the orbit of the Earth, you have a three dimensional intersection. And sooner or later, the Earth and the asteroid will be in the intersection at the same time. It's just like two cars. There are only two cars on the whole planet, not going to often have an intersection. But on rare occasion, you will. And if you could predict that, then you can take action to prevent that asteroid from arriving at that intersection at the same time that the Earth goes through it. 

SS: So how much of exams do you have to do…?

RS: What I'm doing is I'm changing the arrival time of the asteroid. If I know that it's going to be in the intersection at the same time as Earth, five years ahead of time I need to slow it down or speed it up a little bit using space technology, so that it arrives slightly ahead of the Earth or behind the Earth, but not at the same time as the Earth, as a deflection.

SS: OK. So do I understand correctly that you do that by constantly observing where it’s coming from? How do you detect it, like, five years ahead?

RS: Yes, I don't have to constantly observe. If I use telescopes on the Earth to find an asteroid whose orbit does cross the Earth, then by having this in my database, I know I can predict in the same way that I can rendezvous with Mars or the moon or another spacecraft. If I know the orbit something's in, I can then go to meet that, to rendezvous. So if I know that there's an asteroid that is in an orbit, that's going to hit the Earth, I can go up ahead of time and slightly change its orbit so that it doesn't arrive at the same time as the Earth. That's a deflection. We don't have to blow it up. We don't have to change its orbit. We just change its arrival time at that intercept.

SS: So you're not changing its trajectory, right?

RS: Well, you have to be careful. I don't redirect it. I simply make it go faster or slower. That's also changing its orbit. But it's not by turning the direction it's going - it is by making it go faster or slower.

SS: You know, why I'm asking, right? Because, you know, as humans often turn everything good into evil. I mean, can this possibly be used by governments against our enemies, like take trajectory, change it, direct it towards your enemy or something like that. Do you know what I mean?

RS: Yes. This is a question that existed for a long time. There's even a phrase for it, which I've forgotten, but it is not a serious issue. Let me put it this way: it is much easier for me to destroy you or vise versa using other means than to find an asteroid in exactly the right orbit that I can change just a little bit so that it hits you. I mean, I would have that opportunity maybe once every 10 million years. Well, if I want to get rid of you, I get rid of you tomorrow. I don't want to have to wait for an asteroid a million years from now to get rid of you,Right? So this is not a serious issue. In a sort of hypothetical way - yes. I mean, there's a possibility, but it's…

SS: There are easier means to destroy enemies.

RS: Much, much. And much less expensive.

SS: Asteroids - it's a planetary threat, right? So it does require a planetary effort to deal with it.

RS: Yes. And that is the biggest challenge.

SS: It is! Because when I look at global warming, I mean, how much more proof do you need that it's here? And we needed to take care of it, not today and tomorrow, but yesterday. And people are still doubtful about it. 

RS: This is also a very big question. But there are good answers to this. The two issues: planetary defense in the sense of being an existential issue and climate change also an existential issue, are both big and existential issues. They have some similarity. On the other hand, with climate change all of us have to change our behavior to be more responsible for the way we act in terms of our relationship with the Earth and this living system. When it comes to an asteroid defense, none of us have to change our behavior. All we have to do is spend about a billion dollars or five hundred billion dollars on the rare occasion when there is a threat to deflect it. Well, you and I don't have to change our behavior. So, the planetary defense issue is much easier to deal with in the sense of who has to act and how much it's going to cost on rare occasion to save life on Earth.

SS: Who? Is it private business? Is it government? What's your take on it?

RS: That, in my opinion, is in the long run an open question. The assumption right now is that governments will have to act. But that's not a mandate. I mean, it's clear that private industry is developing greater and greater capability in terms of private interests being able to act in space. And this will simply increase over time. So in the long run, when we have to defend a city or something, protect life on Earth from an asteroid impact, it may be the private industry. It can be contracted to do this - to change the orbit of this asteroid. The assumption is it's government. The important thing, however, is that this is not a simple thing. The statement is simple, but it's a complex issue. In a deflection. In order to avoid the risk to everyone, in order to prevent a threat to everyone on Earth we need to deflect an asteroid in that process. People who are not a threat will be a threat temporarily as you're deflecting something. So you cannot avoid other people being threatened in the process of deflection in order to eliminate the threat to everyone. And therefore, this is a geopolitical challenge because various nations have to accept this increase, temporary threat in the process of eliminating the threat to everyone. That's why this is a planetary decision and therefore a geopolitical challenge. The technical challenge is easier.

SS: But you've said the right word: geopolitical. And you know that if it's a planetary challenge, that when countries get together and try to figure out something, the bargaining starts. 

RS: They argue, they debate.

SS: They argue and the bargaining starts. So what do you think: what could special interests or government bargains be when it comes to asteroids, asteroid dangers?

RS: Well, as I said, in some sense of what you're doing is you're taking an impact point somewhere on Earth and you're dragging that impact point off the Earth. But in the process of dragging it off the Earth, you drag it through other places, other countries, other people on the way to getting it off Earth. All of those other countries should have something to say about it.

SS: “I did it first!” “No, I did it first!” “No, I did it first.”

RS: “Drag it that way?” “No, drag it that way.” You see, that's the issue. So to eliminate the threat to everyone, other people have to accept a temporary increase in risk in order to eliminate the threat to everyone. We have to act responsibly for all of life on Earth. And this is going to be... this is the geopolitical challenge. Do we understand that we are all one family to the point where people can accept a slight increase in risk to me or to my country, to my people in order to eliminate the risk to everyone? So we have to act as a planet in deciding to deflect an asteroid. And that is the geopolitical challenge, the technical challenge of deflecting it or being able to predict an impact is simple in comparison with the geopolitical challenge.

SS: So when you flew Apollo 9, it was the Cold War and now there's like nothing really going on. Do you feel like there could be another race into space, but not between the Russians and the Americans, because now we have China. So America, China, Russia or do you think that nobody really cares much about the space anymore? Did we lost the space stream?

RS: I'm no better at forecasting the future than anybody else. But let me say that while in the days of Apollo, 50 years ago, the Cold War was at its height and you had the Soviet Union and the United States competing for technical dominance in the world. There will always be competition between nations. Any if you can identify a difference, the two sides of that difference will always be competing for something: air, land, whatever. So there is always going to be competition. At the same time, I think we have an international space station, I formed the Association of Space Explorers because whether it's a Russian cosmonaut, an American astronaut, or a Chinese astronaut, whoever, we have people who have flown from 37 countries. We come together in the Association of Space Explorers as a group of people from around the planet who have seen this beautiful planet that provides the source of all life for all of us. We're all the same. We're all one family. And that's far more important than the political differences between us or whatever. The International Space Station, I think, is indicative of the trend that when we go out from planet Earth in the future into deep space, whether that's Mars or beyond, we will go as people from Earth, not as Russians, or Americans, or Chinese. We will still be Russians, Chinese and Americans. But it won't be or it will be, and we will go together internationally.

SS: What do you think is humanity’s perspective on space right now? Because there's a lot of talk about Mars exploration and even rendering resources from asteroids. But it all comes down to “it's too expensive”. You know, getting there and doing these things - that’s too expensive.

RS: Let me tell you, what’s much more expensive: if we do not capitalise on all of the energy that's available in space and the materials in the form of asteroid materials or whatever, then we will have to continue digging up the Earth and we will have to continue creating waste on the planet. That in the long run is to the long term future of life far more expensive. Resources in space are going to be available to allow humanity and life to expand out of planet Earth. We have been born into the cosmos. Apollo was a moment of cosmic birth when humanity from planet Earth has first begun to move out. This is like birth and the future of expansion, the long... I'm talking not about you and I or our children or grandchildren. I’m talking about the long term future of life, which is going to emerge out of Earth only if we will make use of the available resources in the space. We are just keeping digging up the Earth...

SS: But how do we get to those resources? How do we make it cheaper? I don't know, like lift that would take you from Earth to the Moon?

RS: The technology will be improving and once you access resources off the planet to expand, you're no longer having to dig up the Earth. That's the long term expense, it is continuing to demand more and more from Mother Earth in order to continue and expand life. If we utilise the resources that are out there, in space, to continue moving outward, it's inexpensive. It's much cheaper than digging up the earth and taking it out of the gravity well of Earth to provide our energy and resources.

SS: Do you think humans could ever tame the space the way they tamed the oceans, or would we have to change our bodies to do that? Do you know what I mean?

RS: I really don't like the word taming the Earth and taming space. We need to understand how to live within the expanding environment that is available to us. In the long term future of life as we move out from Earth, we'll be to utilise and understand and work with the resources of space in order to move outward from the Earth in the future. So it's a matter of learning how to utilise and live with the expanding environment of humanity.

SS: I would talk to you much longer but I know you have to go.

RS: Yeah, we can go forever.

SS: Thank you so much for this wonderful insight. Wish you all the best of luck, Rusty. 

RS: Thank you. 

SS: Thank you.

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