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Defending the Planet

Rusty Schweickart ‘56, SM ‘63, has been to space and rescued Skylab. Now he’s on a mission to save Earth from asteroid destruction.

Some people are known as citizens of the world. Rusty Schweickart ‘56, SM ‘63, is a citizen of the cosmos. Born in Neptune (New Jersey), he piloted the first manned flight of the Apollo lunar module, rescued the Skylab program, and is now devoting his energies to saving Earth from asteroid impacts.

Rusty Schweickart ‘56, SM ‘63 has been to space and rescued sky lab. (Credit: Francis French)

Schweickart was only 16 when he started at MIT. He says he wasn’t a prodigy but got passed through to the third grade when his second-grade teacher died–“stealth grade skipping,” he calls it. He went on to an impressive career nonetheless. Between 1956 and 1963, he logged 4,200 hours of flight time as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force and the Massachusetts Air National Guard–and also managed to earn his SM in aero and astro at MIT.

While working toward his master’s degree, ­Schweickart served as a research scientist in MIT’s Experimental Astronomy Lab, researching stratospheric radiance, tracking stars, and working on stabilizing stellar images. He’d caught the research bug as an undergraduate. “When you get to a place like MIT, you turn a corner and realize you want to learn, to do exciting, original work,” he says. “I gained a deep appreciation for the scientific method. This is a tremendous thing to get–when you realize that what really counts is not just what you think but what you can prove.”

In October 1963, NASA named Schweickart to the space program’s third group of astronauts, which included Buzz Aldrin, ScD ‘63, and Alan Bean. After four years of training, Schweickart was chosen as lunar-module pilot on the March 1969 Apollo 9 mission, the first manned flight with the lunar module. For 47 minutes of the mission’s 241 hours, he was outside the spacecraft. But that almost didn’t happen. The day before his space walk, Schweickart got sick–a serious problem in zero gravity.

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“If you lock yourself up in a space suit and barf, you die,” he explains. “That night, we all wondered if we would have to abort the mission. There goes Kennedy’s goal of getting to the moon. But the next day, I felt much better, and we decided to go for it.” Equipment tests on this flight made the moon walk four months later possible. “The first time you step off the planet into the cosmos is an important event, and you feel incredibly fortunate to be a part of it,” Schweickart says.

Schweickart says that he is often asked what being in space was like. “When you go around the earth in an hour and a half, you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing,” he told his audience at the 1974 conference of the Lindisfarne Association, a New Age think tank and advocacy organization. “And that makes a change. You look down there and you can’t imagine how many bor-ders and boundaries you cross, again and again and again, and you don’t even see them. There you are–hundreds of people in the Mideast killing each other over some imaginary line that you’re not even aware of, that you can’t see. And from where you see it, the thing is a whole, and it’s so beautiful. You wish you could take one in each hand, one from each side in the various conflicts, and say, ‘Look. Look at it from this perspective. What’s important?’”

That unscripted presentation was “probably the best speech I’ve ever given in my whole life,” Schweickart says. “I don’t know where it came from, but when I was finished, half of the audience was crying, including me.”

After his Apollo 9 experience, Schweickart volunteered “to be a guinea pig,” as he puts it, for space motion-sickness testing. By participating in this research, which led to an improved but not complete understanding of the phenomenon, he took himself out of rotation for the remaining Apollo crew assignments. After nearly a year of spending time in spinning rooms and gravitational drums, he had figured out how best to adapt to the space environment. He was subsequently selected as backup commander for the first manned Skylab mission; he and his crew had to be prepared to fly the Skylab 2 mission should anything happen to the prime crew.

When the unmanned Skylab space station was launched in May 1973, its sunshade and solar panels got damaged: a minor part failure caused the sunshade to tear free, and debris wrapped around one of the solar arrays, preventing it from deploying properly. The Skylab 2 crew had been scheduled to launch the next day, but the space station was not habitable. In the absence of a functional shade, the station’s internal temperature had reached 126 °F and would have continued to soar. Schweickart was charged with developing hardware and procedures for erecting an emergency sunshade and with figuring out how to deploy the jammed solar array; both of his solutions worked, ensuring Skylab’s future.

Schweickart led a crew at the Marshall Space Center in Huntsville, AL, that worked around the clock for 10 days to develop a twin-pole spinnaker as a replacement sunshade. On the Skylab 2 mission, NASA sent up both Schweickart’s spinnaker and a “parasol” sunshade constructed by Johnson Space Center engineers. The crew initially deployed the parasol, but it began to degrade within 30 days. They then put up the spinnaker, which proved sturdier. “You’re never certain that what you’ve designed will work, but we were reasonably certain,” Schweickart says. “The crew could not have launched until we figured out how to fix the problem, since they had to carry all the new hardware up to Skylab.” If the repair effort led by Schweickart hadn’t worked, the multibillion-dollar Skylab mission would have failed. “It was very intense,” he recalls. “Some of the people on my team didn’t sleep for 60 hours straight.”

Schweickart’s C.V. is chock full of such extraordinary experiences. In 1979, California governor Jerry Brown named him commissioner of energy for the state. By the early 1980s–well before the iron curtain lifted–he saw a need for an international association of astronauts and cosmonauts. In 1985 Schweickart founded the Association of Space Explorers (ASE), a professional organization that now includes more than 300 astronauts and cosmonauts from 30 nations. In 1987 and 1988, he chaired the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Program Safety Review Panel. Because of his leadership, the program, which oversees all U.S. research in Antarctica, was restructured to decrease the risks run by Antarctic researchers. The panel also recommended that the U.S. keep a year-round presence in the Antarctic. Through his satellite and telecommunications work in the private sector, Schweickart got involved in developing international communications regulations and policies. And along the way, he’s earned dozens of fellowships and awards, including an Emmy (for transmitting the first images from space in 1969) and NASA’s Exceptional Service Medal (for his role in rehabilitating Skylab). He’s been portrayed in movies, is regularly approached by movie­makers, and is on a first-name basis with Tom Wolfe, who wrote The Right Stuff, a nonfiction account of the space program. But nothing on his résumé means more to him than his current work.

Schweickart has launched a campaign to save life as we know it. “No one is looking at how to prevent an asteroid impact, which could wipe out millions of people and affect the global economy,” he says. To help prevent such a catastrophe, he founded the B612 Foundation, whose goal is “to significantly alter the orbit of an asteroid, in a controlled manner, by 2015.” (B612 is the asteroid home of the Little Prince in St. Exupéry’s children’s story.)

Working with several organizations, including the ASE, NASA, and the European Space Agency, Schweickart has raised awareness about near-Earth asteroids (NEAs). He is leading the ASE effort to draft an international treaty on the deflection of near-Earth objects, including asteroids, to be presented to the United Nations in 2009. And he was a guest on a recent episode of Nova ScienceNow that focused on NEAs. “We have probably been hit by objects as big as 100 kilometers, which boils off most of the water in the oceans,” says Schweickart. “The whole evolution of life has been shaped by asteroids and comets hitting the earth.”

NASA’s Spaceguard Survey has already identified nearly 850 asteroids one kilometer in diameter or larger. “But we realized that the problem would be with smaller, far more numerous objects that are more likely to hit Earth,” ­Schweickart says. Schweickart estimates that there is about a 2 percent chance of such a destructive collision happening in this century. “We began working with Congress to bring the discovery size down to 140 meters,” he says. “We anticipate finding 100 times more objects.” Although several NASA-supported research groups, including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, now track close approaches of near-Earth objects (neo.jpl.nasa.gov/ca), B612 advocates not just tracking NEAs but also devising a plan–tested beforehand–to prevent a devastating hit.

Blowing up asteroids with nuclear weapons, Schweickart­ says, is “Hollywood” and the worst thing one could do: “You’ll only compound the problem and aggravate your grandchildren’s lives.” (He has 11 grandchildren and seven children of his own.) B612 has developed two deflection techniques, the newest of which is a gravitational tractor. Ed Lu and Stan Love, who invented the gravitational tractor, are NASA astronauts at the Johnson Space Center and founding members of B612. Their method employs the basic principle of gravity: any two masses attract each other.

“We’ve proposed flying an unmanned spacecraft out to an asteroid and parking it in front of the asteroid. It’s pulling you, and you pull it,” says Schweickart. “Gravitational pull acts on both bodies. We would use a very small pair of ion engines with little thrust [so] that [the vehicle would] hover in front of the asteroid and not fall to the surface. [Park] it long enough, and you get the velocity change you need–even if it’s weeks, months, or years.”

Schweickart is undaunted by the immensity of the task he’s tackling. And although no agency in any nation has yet been assigned responsibility for preventing asteroids from hitting Earth, he’s not daunted by the politics, either. “For the first time, humankind, in conjunction with the machines we’ve built, has the capability to assume responsibility for the continuation of our own future,” he says. “That’s what I’m dedicating my time to–getting our cosmic act together.”

For more information on Schweickart’s B612 Foundation, visit www.B612Foundation.org.

For more photos of Schweickart in space, visit www.technologyreview.com/media/rusty.

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