Former NASA astronaut and international space station crew member Edward Lu has a new calling. As chief executive of the nonprofit B612 Foundation, Lu is overseeing a relatively modest $450 million project to fly an infrared space telescope, called Sentinel, that would hunt for potentially dangerous asteroids.
The foundation takes its name from French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella “The Little Prince,” about a pilot who crash-lands into the desert and finds a young boy who has fallen to Earth from his home world, a tiny asteroid called B612. Saint-Exupéry’s story, ostensibly written for children, is about bringing meaning to life. Lu’s mission is to save it.
Lu spoke about the project and NASA’s plans to visit an asteroid with SpaceNews correspondent Irene Klotz.
In testimony at a recent congressional hearing you said you think it’s important for the human spaceflight program to do something inspirational. Do you think bringing an asteroid into an orbit near Earth and sending astronauts to visit it fills the bill?
It’s a great concept, but the thing that’s going to distinguish it is going to be in implementation. There are a lot of great concepts out there. It’s how you do it that’ll be the make-or-break thing and I don’t have the details. I don’t know if those details exist yet.
What do you think the value is of having astronauts go to an asteroid, versus doing the whole mission robotically?
There are some outstanding questions of what the role of humans would be in this and I don’t think those have been addressed yet.
When you first heard about this, what did you think?
Just curiosity. I wanted to know more.
You left NASA in 2007 and went to work for Google. What eventually drew you to the B612 Foundation?
The B612 Foundation has been around for a long time. We started it more than 10 years ago, originally with the intention of working on technology to deflect asteroids. Searches were ongoing, but we needed to figure out ways to deflect asteroids. What became clear is that the searches were not going to go down as far as they needed to go and that the technology to deflect asteroids is generally agreed to exist, even though it hasn’t been tried and it does need to be tried. We realized that nobody was going to do the surveys down to the smallest sizes that needed to be done.
Right now the Spaceguard Survey, which is a wonderful thing and has been very successful over the last 15 years, has cataloged more than 90 percent of asteroids that would clearly wipe out humanity. But what about those that are just shy of that, your 500-meter asteroids, your 800-meter asteroids, your 100-meter asteroids — your city killers, which are even smaller than that? We’re woefully incomplete in finding and tracking those. And you can’t deflect an asteroid that you haven’t found yet. We can’t stress that enough.
How long have you been involved with the foundation?
I started working with the foundation when I was still with NASA. Basically, it was like an academic group. We would use it to write academic papers. We switched gears about a year and half ago when the realization came that all of that technology to deflect asteroids is worthless if you can’t find them.
What did you do at Google?
I ran advanced projects there, the imaging and mapping for Google street view, Google Earth, Google Maps, even the book-scanning stations for Google Books and energy projects like Google PowerMeter. I had a whole lot of different projects, all sorts of cats-and-dogs types of projects. It was fun. It’s a great place to work.
Why did you leave?
Sort of personal reasons. I just realized that I was on the road too much, wasn’t seeing the family, and started asking where I would be in five years. My wife and I decided, “Hey, we’ll be a lot richer and I wouldn’t have seen the kids in five years and well, what’s life all about?” There are plenty of other opportunities.
Why did you decide to work full-time for B612?
B612 has been going on all these years, but what actually got me back into it was when [foundation co-founder and Apollo astronaut] Rusty Schweickart said he wanted to step down as chairman — he’s almost 80 — and I had gone back to give a talk about asteroids to my old friends at Google. This guy comes up to me afterward and he goes, “If that’s what it takes to save the world, why don’t you just go ahead and do it?”
If you think about it, it’s something that could have more benefit for humankind than anything else that anybody else is doing anywhere on this planet. You don’t know. There are a few things that you can do where you can legitimately claim that this could be the most important thing on Earth right now. This is one of those things.
When you look at the odds of the large impacts — city killers or larger — they are a lot higher than people realize. There’s a 30 percent chance of a city-killer-size asteroid hitting Earth by the end of this century. Why are we letting that happen?
How do you plan to raise the $450 million to build, launch and operate the Sentinel telescope?
This guy at the Google talk told me he had just contributed a fairly good sum to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which is raising money to build a new wing, and that wing, he said, is going to cost over $400 million. Just the wing of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He goes, “It’s pretty typical for private fundraising projects. Look them up. At any given time in the United States, there are 50 to 100 projects of that size or larger.” He was right. Sort of this light went off and I called up Rusty and the other members of the B612 board and said, “We should look into this,” and we realized A) yes indeed we could build the spacecraft — we knew the right people, we could put together a team; B) we could do this under commercial terms, fixed-price contracts, not cost-plus; and C) we’re not even large for a philanthropic project. This was all doable, so a year and a half ago, we made the decision, “Let’s go do this.”
Part of the NASA 2014 budget request is to double the amount of money spent on asteroid searches. Does this step on your project’s toes?
No, they’re trying to do something totally different. The money that was proposed was to find targets that would be suitable for that particular mission. And those targets are very, very small — 7 meters. It would fit inside a room. Seven-meter asteroids are not the kind of thing that we’re looking for. These asteroids that they are looking for also have to be the ones that meet a whole lot of requirements, like they have to come close by Earth between certain dates so that there are launch opportunities. They have to be traveling very slowly, with respect to Earth, so that you can have a hope of bringing them back, etc. Those aren’t the ones that are threats.
But isn’t the technology to find these asteroids the same as what you need to find the potentially threatening ones?
Not exactly, no. What we’re trying to do is map all the asteroids that are threats — or the largest number that you can — because you have to find every single one and calculate its orbit to know if you have a threat. We’re trying to build the comprehensive map of the locations and trajectories of where all these asteroids are. It turns out that we will, as a result of that, find many of these small asteroids that meet the conditions that they want. They, on the other hand, are looking for one or two examples that they can go visit. For that you don’t need to track all of them. Technically, you’d go about it differently.
Do you think NASA will be able to find an appropriate asteroid?
It remains to be seen what their strategy is going to be. That is not clear. All that we know is that it’s going to be difficult for them to find targets. They haven’t really announced anything yet how they plan to do this.
We do have a Space Act Agreement with NASA. The Sentinel telescope is going transmit its data down through the NASA Deep Space Network. It is an in-kind contribution, and according to our agreement we will share the data with the public.