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Dueling Planets at the National Geographic Explorers Festival by Judy Newton
Review by Judy Newton
SFRevu *Essay  
Date: 31 July 2017

Links: National Geographic Explorers Festival /

I promised myself that I was NOT going to make the obvious joke about the "war of the worlds" at the National Geographic Society in Washington, DC one Saturday in June. It was hard to resist, though, because the symposium was arranged to showcase major thinkers discussing opposing priorities for exploration of Earth and Mars.

Hall with Planets
Red Planet vs. Blue Planet: Where Do We Explore Next? part of the Explorers Festival 2017, featured three heats, er, sessions, each composed of an illustrious group prepared to discuss the issue from different angles. On each, there were ocean experts and space experts, but they didn't come out swinging. They didn't even raise their voices. There were all too civilized for that! But no matter--the audience's attention was held from the first minute to the last.

Now, I have to admit to a certain amount of hero-worship concerning some of these folks. Bob Ballard! Sylvia Earle! Joel Achenbach! Ira Flatow! And, just for icing, the two rock stars of science: Neil deGrasse Tyson and James Cameron in conversation. I experienced the charisma of NdGT from only a few feet away, but alas, did not get to meet him (not even a press availability - he's that famous).

But there were new personalities to discover on each panel. The first, Leaving Terra Firma, was moderated by Joel Achenbach, the Washington Post's science writer. Dr. Ballard (best known for his discoveries of hydrothermal vents and the R.M.S. Titanic) and (Astronaut) Colonel Chris Hadfield were joined by Steve Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars, and my new she-ro, Bethany Elhman. She described her job as, "I'm the Mars Rover's back-seat driver." Her background is in geology, and she wants to know why Mars went from Blue to Red.

Leaving Terra Firma:
The discussion ranged from near-term developments in undersea exploration to a heartfelt belief that Elon Musk will take us to Mars. But the most encouraging revelation was Dr. Ballard's: his continental-shelf mapping project corps will consist of 55% women. Indeed, "The most important thing to do to save the Earth is the empowerment of women," especially Third-World women. Yeah, brother!

The second panel, A New Human Tide, featured five participants, all new to me. They were clearly all in agreement that the exploration of the oceans and of Mars could be synergistic. Each had an angle on cutting-edge technology exploitation: Alan Leonardi is the director of NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research; Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium, searches for planets suitable for supporting extraterrestrial life; Constance Adams, NASA Space Architect, designs habitats for space transit and planet occupation; and Joe Quirk works at the Seasteading Institute as an author and "seavangelist."

A New Human Tide Panel
Points of discussion: floating settlements in French Polynesia, algae as a new nutrition source, Buckminster Fuller cages for fish farming; working on space station design results in an appreciation for a diversity of perspective and cooperation. The irony of worrying about protecting life-forms on other planets when we don't do enough to protect them on this one. The sinking of island nations; overfishing. So much to worry about! But there is hope. IKEA, of all places, is running innovation incubators.

There was a break for lunch. I went in search of folks with yellow lanyards, the marker of National Geographic Explorers. I should explain, having buried the lede so deep as to be almost at the antipode, that this event is part of the NatGeo's annual ingathering of their Explorers. These are the lucky bunch of scientists and others whose projects are funded by the National Geographic Society. Earlier in the week, they had been presenting reports on their results, and many of them were in attendance on Saturday. The iconic yellow frame of the NatGeo Magazine was echoed, not by coincidence, by the yellow around their necks.

I found Joe Grabowski, Explorer in Chief of his organization, Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants. What do you do? I asked. He arranges for schoolchildren to have "virtual field trips" anyplace in the world, with researchers, adventurers, and conservationists as guest speakers.

Joe Grabowski
And Beverly Goodman, a marine geo-archaeologist. She is based in Caesarea, Israel, excavating the ancient seaport and reconstructing history, through the context of the artifacts she finds. She also has a weird sense of humor (see picture).

Beverly Goodman with frenemy
After lunch came a highlight of the program: a live taping of Star Talk, Neil deGrasse Tyson's late-night talk show. His interview of James Cameron ranged through the beginnings of Cameron's twin passions of science and drama in high school, dropping out of college to drive a truck, becoming fascinated by remotely-operated vehicles - getting 20th Century-Fox to pay for their development for use in Avatar- name-checking Chesley Bonestell's rocket ship design, among much else.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson and James Cameron
Also: NASA needs to send storytellers to Mars. Europa should be everybody's favorite moon since there could very well be life there. NdGT interjected: "We'd have to call them Europeans!"

The last panel, No Place Like Home, was moderated by Ira Flatow in a funny tie, and featured Sylvia Earle, NatGeo Explorer in Residence and eminence grise, profound, charismatic; dominating the panel discussion and probably any other milieu - the audience was rapt and silent whenever she spoke. Here is some of what she said:

No Place Like Home Panel
"We change the nature of Nature at our peril. We think, what can we do to the planet and still get away with it? Take care of it, your life depends on it! We make this planet less hospitable for life, while we try to make the red one more. We know how to kill things, we need to know how to care. The kids are the future.

"We know the chemistry of the oceans is changing. This was unthinkable when I was young - they were just too big. Can we replicate life elsewhere? It hasn't worked out yet! Only 3% of the oceans are protected. We need science to be cool and elevate the truth into policy."

I should mention that there were two others on the panel, Kevin Hand, a planetary scientist, and Jane Root, filmmaker.

Can Earth be saved, or will we all hope to emigrate to and exploit Planet B? Some solutions were postulated, but many questions remain. All in all, a fine way to spend a Saturday for a science/science fiction fan.

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