‘Ad Astra’ Creators and NASA Scientists Discuss The Future of NASA and Science Fiction

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Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Last week, Nerds had the pleasure of attending a series of panels about the future of space travel hosted by NASA and the minds behind the new space epic Ad Astra (starring Brad Pitt!) at the Fox Studio lot in Los Angeles, California.

The first panel was moderated by Ad Astra screenwriter Ethan Gross, and was titled “From Apollo to Artemis: Back to the Moon”. The all female panel (woot woot!) consisted of: Lara Kearney (Deputy Program Manager, Gateway Program), Nujoud Merancy (Chief, Exploration Mission Planning Office), Jessica Vos (Orion Crew Systems Engineer) and Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson.

Image courtesy of Brittany Knupper

They spoke about NASA’s plan to establish the “Gateway Program” – a satellite platform that can orbit both Earth and the moon, in a figure eight pattern, with the ability to launch Landers anywhere on the moon’s surface – with the goal of eventually establishing enough infrastructure to create a stepping stone to traveling to Mars. They also described NASA’s new plan for sustainability in order to achieve their ultimate goals for deep space travel. This includes developing reusable Landers and using resources already on the moon. They have detected what they believe to be frozen water underneath the surface and are experimenting with ways to convert that water into both oxygen (for breathing) and hydrogen fuel. NASA is also researching the south pole of the moon, not just to look for resources, but also to study how the human body exists long term in space – specifically the effects of microgravity and radiation exposure. Radiation is still the biggest risk for human missions to the moon and beyond. Astronauts endure two weeks worth of radiation exposure when traveling to the moon, but a trip to Mars entails two YEARS worth.

This new Moon Mission, dubbed Artemis (though the actual ship will be called the Orion), will be fully autonomous, meaning that the ship is capable of piloting without a human crew. In fact, it’s first launch will be done without one as a test of the new auto-pilot program. But perhaps the most exciting (to me) aspect of the Artemis Program is that Tracy Caldwell Dyson will be the first female astronaut to set foot on the moon! The first manned launch is scheduled to take place in 2024, and when asked “what’s the first thing you’re going to do when you land on the surface?” Caldwell replied “Celebrate! And then do a lot of hard work!”

Artemis will also see a continuation of the international, and corporate, collaboration that NASA has established. However, despite working with SpaceX, they did clarify that there will be no commercial flights for the foreseeable future. (Sorry Elon!) They also touched on other experiments – like 3D printing food and suspended animation (as it relates to surgery and medical practices, not deep space travel) but emphasized that those were not NASA’s main focus at this time.

The panel ended with a discussion about why space exploration is an important endeavor for human kind, even with the problems our planet is currently experiencing at home (like climate change.) Tracy Caldwell Dyson summed it up best when she said “Once you go to space, you develop a deep love for the planet that you live on, and also a feeling that you need to work harder than ever to save it. And it stays with you for a long time. I think that if more people could experience that (looking at earth from space) they would understand. If we are going to fix this planet, and if we have to leave it, we as humans all have to do it together.” She finished her plea for human cooperation by describing her first time looking out the stars from the vantage of space “In space, if you look at the stars long enough you can see that they are solid orbs, and you can sense the depth between them. The first time I looked at them, I started crying – which because it’s space, meant they came out of my face in globs.” It was a humorous and heartfelt end to the discussion.

Image courtesy of Brittany Knupper

The second panel, titled “Ad Astra and Deep Space” was moderated by director James Gray. The panelists included: Laura Kerber (Planetary Scientist, JPL), Rob Manning (JPL Chief Engineer), Steve Lee (Curiosity Rover Deputy Project Manager, JPL), and Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson.

The second panel was quite lively and jovial, perhaps inspired by the larger than life personality of Gray. He started off hot by asking them what happened with the discovery of possible microbial life on Mars and why aren’t more people talking about it. They explained that it’s still something that NASA is investigating and that even with improvements in their technology they are still trying to figure it out – that’s why they want a manned mission to Mars! Rob Manning went on to state his belief in it’s possibility by exclaiming “Life is tenacious! Life COULD travel across the solar system! Life can survive!” His enthusiasm was tempered a bit when they discussed the Drake Equation and Fermi Paradox (pertaining to life existing elsewhere in the galaxy). They had to admit it is strange that if there is life elsewhere, why haven’t we heard from them by now? “Are they really that busy?” (A quip from James Gray).

They also spoke about the effects of current Science-Fiction and near-future fiction on their current projects and goals. “We, (NASA), get very stressed out when movies like Gravity, or The Martian, or even the Andromeda Strain come out, because then we have to spend millions of dollars on more research to prove to the public that those sorts of accidents won’t happen!” (Steve Lee).

But back to Mars and Deep Space travel! They discussed their plans for getting humans to the red planet, and some of the challenges they face – like Mars’ atmosphere. “Mars has enough of an atmosphere that we have to deal with it, but not enough for it to actually do its job.” (Steve Lee). Their plan is to send a new Rover, along with a helicopter-drone, to Mars in 2020! Curiosity discovered that the Gale crater on Mars once contained a lake that had actual, liquid, drinking water and they want to see if any of that water might still exist beneath Mars’ crust in a frozen state. This prompted Gray to ask his next hot button conspiracy question: “Lava tunnels! Are they bogus? Do they exist? Will they help us colonize Mars?” They laughed, but essentially said not to their knowledge, but again a manned mission will help them know for sure.

They were then asked why manned deep space missions are so essential, and if they are worth the money and risk. Tracy Caldwell Dyson answered: “It’s human nature. Looking at it through a lens will never satisfy us.” The 2030s is NASA’s estimated (and optimistic) goal for getting a human on the surface of Mars. And if that is a success, their next step is to try landing on asteroids (for mining purposes) and also potentially (like in the far, far future) landing on Titan.

Bringing it back around to science fiction and Ad Astra, James Gray referenced Dyson’s earlier statement about crying in zero gravity with a little anecdote of his own: “We shot this beautiful scene where Brad Pitt cries in space and he told me I had to take it out because he was supposed to be in zero gravity and his tears wouldn’t fall like that but I said “No! The acting is too good! They stay!” So I’m sorry in advance for this inaccuracy.” They then began talking about the ways that the geography and geological makeup of Mars differs from Earth in surprising ways. For example, Mars has sunrises and sunsets, but because the red dust and dirt absorbs all of that side of the color spectrum, sunrises and sunsets appear blue! “Oh no, we didn’t get that right either!” (James Gray).

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

They ended the panel by discussing which science fiction movies inspired them to work for NASA. Laura Kerber said the animated film Titan AE, Rob Manning said 2001, A Space Odyssey, Steve Lee mentioned 2001 as well but also Star Trek: the Motion Picture, and Tracy Caldwell Dyson said Star Wars and also The Right Stuff!

Overall, it was a fascinating and inspiring afternoon! Not just seeing a panel of all women scientists discussing huge space innovations, but also learning how much of this is planned for just a few years from now! In NASA terms, that is right around the corner!

If you enjoyed this panel recap then you better stay tuned for my review of Ad Astra, coming soon!

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By Britt
Britt is a Los Angeles based writer, burlesque performer, and life long nerd. A former drama kid turned playwright and classic ambivert, (shout out fellow ambiverts! There are dozens of us! Dozens!) her love of books, snacks, and cats makes her a Ravenclaw with Hufflepuff leanings. She is a voracious reader, writer, and unapologetic binge-watcher. Her lifelong obsessions include Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, Arrested Development, Neil Gaiman, and Frank Herbert's Dune series. Her current obsessions include: Sherlock, Black Mirror, The Great British Baking Show, RuPaul's Drag Race, and Counterpart. She will also gladly talk people's ears off about graphic novels if they let her, which they usually don't. Find Britt on Twitter @MsGeorgiaOQueef
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