NASA and the Life Cycle of Science and Science Fiction

At first glance, the panel description for Thursday evening’s “NASA: Turning Science Fiction into Science Fact” seemed like a bit of a dog’s breakfast—moderated by Jay Ferguson, otherwise known as Stan from Mad Men, featuring a zippy pre-recorded video briefing from the International Space Station, and including not only NASA scientists Amber Straughn (astrophysicist at the Godard Space Flight center), Kevin Hand (astrobiologist and planetary scientist), but also Adam Nimoy (son of actor Leonard Nimoy, currently developing a documentary called For the Love of Spock about his father and his most famous character), and Adithya Sood (producer of The Martian).

How, one might wonder, was this all going to come together?

Quite well, as it turns out. Ferguson turned out to be a sweetly goofy science and SF nerd, whose Star Wars posters now adorn the walls of his son’s room and who went to Space Camp as a kid; he admitted to being more starstruck by astrophysicists than movie stars and that his dreams of becoming an astronaut had to be let go when he discovered he couldn’t fly a plane without being sick. And the ensuing discussion ranged over the interplay between science and science fiction, how one has always driven the other, and the need for a greater public understanding of and enthusiasm for what scientists—in particular those of NASA—are doing, and why it’s important.

After showing a trailer for The Martian, Ferguson asked Straughn and Hand to talk about how science fiction influenced their work as scientists. Straughn talked about growing up in rural Arkansas and the beauty of the night sky, and the way that both SF and NASA “strive for great things, they’re all about imagining a better future.” Hand confessed that, growing up in rural Vermont, he always wanted to be Elliott in ET, and was always looking in the woods for the spaceship that unfortunately never showed up. He also talked about how he would like to see the subject of his own research—icy moons like Europa and Enceladus—become better-known as NASA sends robots out there to see what lies in the water under the moons’ icy shells. Sood quipped, “I’m going to echo that because we need a sequel to The Martian.”

Sood himself came of age on Star Wars and described 2010: The Year We Make Contact as a personal guilty pleasure. He traced his own fondness for science to memories of learning about the Voyager spacecraft on the TV show 3-2-1 Contact! and listening to the news of the Columbia landing on an AM radio. “By the way,” he added, “AM radio is what we used to learn things before the internet but after the telegraph.”

Ferguson then asked Nimoy why he thought his father and Star Trek inspired so many people. Nimoy, in working on the documentary about his father, has interviewed many people in the process, getting into what people think about why it resonates, and he pointed out that it portrayed a 23rd century where the future was good, and that was a positive message in the midst of the Cold War and the social unrest of the 1960s. He also added that the show had inspired a lot of tech that was invented for Trek to function has become reality—the communicators are not unlike our mobile phones, and personal computers are part of our lives. Hand said that piece of as-yet-unrealized Trek tech that astrobiology would love to see was a tricorder—an instrument that could definitively say that you had found a life form.

Sood talked about The Martian and noted that “NASA is excited about movies that make NASA look awesome.” He felt that one of The Martian‘s strengths as a book is its “commitment to reality,” the drama inherent in science that actually exists, and he was excited to make a movie that actually takes advantage of that. He also described it as “a love letter the NASA, to science, to stick-to-it-iveness.”

The conversation then turned to the subject of life on other planets. Hand talked about the data from Kepler, which has given confidence that earthlike planets exist, but it’s going to take a long time to get there without warp drive. In the meantime, they are pushing forward with robot explorations of worlds with liquit water, such as the aforementioned Europa. Recently, NASA greenlighted a program called Europa Clipper—to be renamed soon—which will reveal much about Europa, but as the equipment is tested on Earth, it will also reveal much about the parts of Earth currently deep below the ocean surface, as well as lakes under the Antarctic ice sheet. “Can I come?” Ferguson asked. “Sure, if you can get funding,” Hand replied.

Straughn talked more about how the Kepler telescope has enhanced understanding of planetary systems, and how those discoveries are just the beginning. NASA’s TESS telescope will look for relatively nearby exoplanets, orbiting brighter stars that are closer to us, and the James Webb telescope, which launches in 2018, can study in detail atmospheres of exoplanets. Webb can take spectra of the exoplanet atmospheres, which helps find water vapor in planetary atmospheres—leading to yet more data towards identifying earth-like planets.

Ferguson couldn’t help asking about the recent photographs of Ceres. Straughn deferred to “the planetary scientist,” Hand, who thinks it’s salt deposits, possibly from water previously extant. Sood laid it all out, saying that he thinks it’s proof of an advanced alien civilization—”I suffer no professional penalty if I’m wrong.” Nimoy: “I can’t follow up on that one.”

At this point the panel turned to a heartfelt discussion of Leonard Nimoy and how Spock became such a powerful cultural icon. Adam Nimoy talked about how when his father passed away, he was struck by how the mourning was not just for the man who played a pop-culture icon, but also for the man himself, and the entwining of the man and the character kept both going. He found it interesting that so many segments of society have claimed Spock as their own. The science community admired his logic and cool head, and noted the significance of his command position and the fact that the scientist would take over the ship when Kirk went down to planets. “That’s the way it should be,” said Hand.

Nimoy noted that his father reminded him that Spock was the only alien on the enterprise bridge crew, and his struggle for integration with the crew echoed Leonard Nimoy’s own childhood in Boston as the son of Russian immigrants. He also talked about how Leonard Nimoy was much loved by the show’s female fan base, and how when “The Naked Time” aired, there was a deluge of letters from women who wanted to echo Nurse Chapel’s confessions of love for Spock.

When asked if Leonard Nimoy had an interest in space, Adam Nimoy replied, “That would be logical but that is not what went down.” Despite the space race of the 60s, it never really came up at home, and science was not Nimoy’s forte. Though he had a very fine mind, he didn’t have a formal education. After Star Trek, he was constantly being shown research by scientists he inspired—to which is response was “his stock phrase”: “You’re on the right track.”

After a brief sizzle reel for For the Love of Spock (narrated by Zachary Quinto and warmly received by the audience), Ferguson asked, “What’s the over-under on when we come up with a teleportation device?” Hand answered that while he couldn’t say anything about teleportation, he did encourage everyone to “appreciate that for the first time in the history of humanity, we have the tools and technology, we know how to do the experiments to go out there and see whether or not life does exist beyond earth. Never before has humanity been able to do this kind of exploration. And so this life cycle of science and science fiction, it’s important that we help buoy each other because we can do it, but we need the public to be engaged in it, we need the public to be excited about it, we need schools to be teaching it, we need the next generation to be coming up, making the films, developing the instruments, building the missions, so that we can make these discoveries, be it in our solar system or beyond.”

Karin Kross loved 3-2-1 Contact and was unreasonably excited when it got mentioned here. She is attending her seventh SDCC, and she, her husband Bruce, and her friends Shellie and John are posting about SDCC at nerdpromnomnom. She can be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter.


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