Dueling Planets at the National Geographic Explorers Festival
by Judy Newton
Review by Judy Newton
Date: 31 July 2017
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.
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.
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."
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.
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:
"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.