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Ed Lu, The Ultimate Modern Day Explorer

Aired February 17, 2013 - 14:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE NEXT LIST. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. This week I'd to introduce you to a real life asteroid hunter, Ed Lu.


ED LU, FORMER NASA ASTRONAUT AND CURRENT CEO OF THE B612 FOUNDATION: I feel like we've been offered the chance to positively change the course of humanity. How can you turn that down?

SANJAY: Ed Lu is the ultimate modern day explorer probing all that is unknown from outer space as an astronaut with NASA to deep see with autonomous robots.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think he's adventurer, a futurist, an explorer.

GUPTA: But right now, Ed's biggest and most urgent mission is to build a space telescope that will protect the earth from asteroids.

LU: A one kilometer-asteroid, if it were to hit the earth -- it would wipe out civilization.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You got to find them before you can protect yourself from them.


GUPTA: You may not think the earth needs protecting from asteroids, but then again, neither does this guy. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta and this is THE NEXT LIST.


LU: My name is Ed Lu. I'm a former NASA astronaut. Now I'm the CEO of the B612 Foundation. The B612 Foundation's ultimate mission is to protect the earth and the way we're going to do that is to find threatening asteroids before they find us. Because they do hit earth and they will again in the future unless we do something about it.

Asteroids hit the earth all the time, really small ones are just a shooting size it seem when you look up the smile. Larger ones like the one that hit about 100 years ago in Siberia, those hit about every couple of hundred years. That wiped out an area about the size of the San Francisco Bay area so there is about 50 percent chance in your lifetime that another explosion on that size is going to happen somewhere on earth.

The basic idea that we're working on is that we actually have the technology today to deflect asteroids if we have adequate warning. By adequate warning, we mean decades in advance and the problem is right now that nobody is really doing a comprehensive map of all the threatening asteroids and so that is our goal.

GUPTA: The chances are small. We understand the concern, but just such a likely thing to happen, at least, you know, for the foreseeable future then what you say to that?

LU: Yes, you can play roulette all day long, but eventually, you get double zero, right? And that's our point is that this doesn't need to be a gigantic government program or we're talking billions of dollars. We're talking about building one spacecraft -- would you want to go to the way of the dinosaurs?

LU: The asteroid that killed off this guy was about 10 miles across. On the day that it hit, it carved a huge crater and all of that rock falling back to earth heated up the atmosphere to about 500 degrees. So what that did was set fire to everything on earth worldwide. And everything burned on earth that day.

We know this because we actually have the fossil record of this. Look at this rock if you go anywhere around the world and dig down to the right level, you'll find a layer of dark rock like that, called the KT boundary.

It's the same layer anywhere around the earth so something worldwide, right. It corresponds with the end of the dinosaurs. Below this there are fossils of dinosaurs. Above this, there are no fossils of dinosaurs. NASA has actually been discovered this and they have funded over the last 20 years a search for the very largest of asteroids.

GUPTA: So they did a good job, you say, of tracking the very big asteroids, but these smaller ones that could cause a huge problem what's happening with them?

LU: Not much. They've never been able to fund a search for smaller asteroids, ones that might only wipe out a continent or collapse the world economy for a century or so. Something we're not looking for, to me that seems crazy. So this is what we are trying to protect.

GUPTA: This is the view you have when you go up?

LU: It's a little higher up than I was so if you look at the green line that's the earth. This is the orbit of every single asteroid known in our solar system.

GUPTA: Swarming around.

LU: It's a busy place. The outer part, this outer bow nut is the asteroid belt. These are near earth asteroids and a lot of them are whizzing past the earth. Using our telescopes on the ground we've only surveys 1 percent of the volume of space. The real solar times has about 100 times more asteroids than you see right now.

These are the 10,000 known real asteroids. The real solar system looks like this, 1 million near asteroids larger than the one which hit in 1908. That means we found 1 percent. The other 99 percent are currently out there but unknown.

Let's look at asteroids five times bigger than all the bombs used in World War II and there's about 1 percent chance that's going to happen in any person's lifetime. That's also your chance of dying in a car accident. It's about 1 percent.


LU: So I'll ask you, do you wear a seatbelt?

GUPTA: I do.

LU: Why? It's only 1 percent chance in your lifetime you're going to get killed by a car. Why would you do that? It's not big odds, right?

GUPTA: It's not but I do everything I can to try and protect myself.

LU: So who is protecting the earth?


GUPTA: Up next, meet the Sentinel, Ed Lu's astonishing telescope that just might save the world.



LU: The plan of the B612 Foundation is to build a space telescope. It's called Sentinel. It will launch in 2018 and it is going to orbit the sun. This is the Sentinel space telescope.

GUPTA: That's basically the size of it there?

LU: Yes, the real one is about the size of say a delivery truck. So it's about 23, 24 feet tall, and about 2,600 pounds.

GUPTA: It's got its back to the moon?

LU: Back to the sun.

GUPTA: Back to the sun and constantly surveying everything around it.

LU: Exactly, because as you know it's hard to look with a telescope in the direction of the sun. The night time sky is in the opposite direction of the sun. The challenging thing about the Sentinel mission is that it's going to be quite far away from earth. It will orbit the sun so that means its distance will vary from the earth, but it will range between 30 million miles at its closest to 170 million miles away from earth at its furthest. That's about 500,000 times further from earth than the Hubble space telescope. We have challenges there, but we can send probes to Mars, we can do this too.

GUPTA: So we can basically see anything that might possibly be a threat to the earth?

LU: That is exactly right. This is what the sky looks like in infrared which is basically heat. Asteroids are very, very dark, they're almost black and therefore they glow in infrared because they're warmed by the sun, and so if you look in infrared, those are the asteroid asteroids.

Over a six and a half year period, it will scan earth's orbit multiple times and map all the asteroids across the earth's orbit. It's going to track about half a million asteroids so each month it's going to discover about 10,000 asteroids.

GUPTA: Each month?

LU: Each month, yes, so which is more than all other telescopes throughout history have combined to discover, so it will do that every month. One of the innovative things I think we're doing is that we are funding this privately.

We are a non-profit foundation and we're funded by private donations. That does not mean that we don't have some government involvement because NASA is for instance a partner of us.

NASA is going to provide the communications and tracking of the spacecraft because they have those facilities already built and in return, we will make all the data publicly available. So our contract with the world as we find and discover these asteroids, all that data is open.

SCOTT HUBBARD, AUTHOR, "EXPLORING MARS": We may be opening a frontier for a new way of doing these deep space missions and nobody's ever done one with private investment, with philanthropy.

LU: I mean, if you look at the cost of a spacecraft that can find the asteroids?

GUPTA: What are we talking here?

LU: A few hundred million dollars. Universities raise it all the time to build a new chemistry building or art museums raise that all the time to build a new wing. That's the kind of scale you're talking about.

GUPTA: So how's it going? Because that's what you're doing now, you're trying to raise that money.

LU: It's going really well. We announced publicly just this last year and we've raise quite a bit of funds and we've been moving.

GUPTA: Ed Lu is at the helm of this.


GUPTA: Is he the right guy?

SCHWEICKART: Absolutely. Ed is terrific. He's a great salesman and now and you got to recognize this is not just a technical issue. There's a whole seat change going on in space now where private enterprise is doing a lot of really incredibly bold things in space.

LU: I feel like we've been offered the chance to positively change the course of humanity, and how can you turn that down? I mean, if you are lucky once in your lifetime, will you ever get a chance like that? And so we feel very blessed that we are here at this right time when we can do this.


GUPTA: What happens if the telescope finds a massive asteroid headed toward earth? Wait until you see what he's invented, that's next.



GUPTA: So how do you deflect an asteroid?

LU: The earth is a moving target. All you got to do is get the asteroid to show up at the collision point. Either move it early or a little bit late. When I was with NASA, I invented with another astronaut, a guy named Stan Love, one of the means of deflecting asteroids, called a gravity track.

And all it is, a small spacecraft that hovers near an asteroid and if you hover near something as long as your jets aren't pointed at it you can slightly tow an asteroid a very, very tiny amount.

But that's all you really need over a period of months to change an asteroid's trajectory enough so that you can cause it to miss the earth. I learned a lot at NASA. It has helped me as we set up the B612 Foundation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three, two, one, we have booster ignition and liftoff of the space shuttle "Atlantis."

GUPTA: What was that first mission like?

LU: It was awesome. You always remember that more than the other ones even though the other ones were great.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We'd like to say it's amazing, I can't believe we're actually here.

LU: The space shuttle mission "Atlantis" in 1997. We went to the Mier Space station. Hi, mom. Hi, dad.

HUBBARD: You could talk to Ed probably for hours and never know that he spent six months on the International Space Station. There have been about 525 astronauts and very, very few have ever spent that much time on the space station. So he's part of a very select group.

LU: I think the highlight of my career at NASA was actually a time of crisis at NASA.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Safety is on everyone's mind since the "Columbia" shuttle disaster.

LU: In 2003 we lost the shuttle "Columbia" so seven good friends died that morning. For the foreseeable future all space shuttle flights were grounded. The only way into space at the time was the Soyuz. No American was trained to fly, we were left what do we do?

Friday afternoon the chief astronaut said to me, we're going to give it a try, put two people on the space station and it's you. So Sunday I was on an airplane. The normal training flow for a cosmonaut flying as the co-pilot of a Soyuz is typically a year or so.

And we had nine weeks so the only way to do that was for me to go morning until night, seven days a week. We fell asleep on the launch pad, that's how tired we were.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Obviously the first few weeks are difficult and I think we're ready.

LU: Myself and a Russian cosmonaut named Yurie Melenchenkov spent six months on the space station. I remember specifically a couple hours after launch where we were now in orbit in the little capsule and I remember thinking to myself looking out the window thinking how crazy is this?

I'm a Chinese-American kid from upstate New York, flying a Russian spacecraft, it's crazy I ended up in that spot. I was a nerdy kid. I grew up in a small town called Webster, New York, which is outside of Rochester, New York.

I was always interested in science, my dad was an engineer. I loved anything that flew and anything that had to do with the skies. I loved airplanes more than just about anything except my family and it depends on whether or not my family is present or not what I say.

This is the airplane my wife refers to as the mistress, and it is the airplane I get to fly on weekends. This is an old flight suit from my STS-106 days, that's our second flight, that's our patch.

My first interest was with the space program, watching the astronauts land on the moon and one of the great measures I have now is that I'm friends with many of these guys. In fact, with the B612 Foundation, I cofounded the foundation with Rusty Schweickart who has been a mentor to me and he was the first pilot of the lunar module, Apollo 9. SCHWEICKART: Ed is a big thinker and because of his work ethic and the education that he's gotten, the way he thinks, he literally has the opportunity to act on that big stage.

CHRISTINE LU, ED'S WIFE: He's just a very humble person and he doesn't feel a need to prove that he's better or whatever to anybody. He's just very comfortable about who he is and I think that's why he's able to do all these things that he does. He's not trying to prove to anybody that he's anybody. He's just trying to be happy and fulfill what his dreams are.

GUPTA: You have a family, your parents obviously, but also your wife and kids. Were you on any missions after you got married?

LU: No, on my last mission I was engaged but not yet married.

GUPTA: Would you still go up, with the family or are you worried about safety?

LU: If I had a chance to go up again I think I might like to do that. Obviously this would be a family decision now.

GUPTA: Mrs. Lu is listening. What is she thinking?

LU: She does have a say in this. We say in our family we have an almost equal partnership where she gets 51 percent of the voting bloc.

GUPTA: I'm familiar with that.

LU: Yes.


GUPTA: Ed Lu isn't just about asteroids. He's also exploring the deep sea with robots unlike anything you've ever seen before. That's next.


GUPTA: Welcome back to THE NEXT LIST. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Hunting asteroids isn't Ed Lu's only passion. He's also got his fingers in other companies that are focused on exploration, everything from a revolutionary new way to create 3-D maps to autonomous ocean robots.


LU: We're here at Liquid Robotics today and we build ocean-going robots that swim on their own and take data all over the oceans in every ocean around the world. My real job here is as an instigator. I'm chief of innovative applications here at Liquid Robots.

These things are just like little satellites. They transmit data up through satellites. They swim on their own, powered by waves. You can change instruments on this, put whatever instruments you want. For instance you can measure water temperature, you can get up to the minute winds, waves, oil in the water, if you're looking for oil leaks, whatever you want to put inside it.

I think this is pretty cool because it is changing the way we measure conditions on the oceans. Right now, if you want to measure the amount of carbon dioxide in the water in some location you have a couple choices, you can measure it from space or you can send a ship or place a buoy there, all of that is hugely expensive.

The other way you might do that is deploy these cheap fleets of robots. Right behind me is the control center where we steer and control our fleets of robots around the world. It's a lot like mission control in Houston.

This is a huge similar between ocean and space, vast areas, relatively unexplored and they're environmentally tough so the way you go about exploring them is actually kind of similar.

HUBBARD: I think he's an adventurer, a futurist, an explorer, not only of space, but of the horizon of technology as well.

LU: Right now we're at the offices of Hover, which is a small startup here in Los Altos in Silicon Valley. My role here is to stay out of their way while they're working. This company makes three- dimensional maps from overhead images, street level images, whatever images you can get.

We can turn those images into three-dimensional models that we can see and update so they are constantly updated using all the symmetry that comes in. The company was started by some Navy SEALs and Marine intelligence officer who was in Iraq and basically what they did was set out to give our troops on the front lines a tool that allows them to understand what they're about to get into.

A.J. ALTMAN, FOUNDER, HOVER: Whether it's military or other sorts of tactical environments like law enforcement they're trying to get a sense of what that place will look like before they get there.

LU: This is A.J. Altman who is our founder here at Hover. I'm going to just ask A.J. to cross the street without getting killed and take my picture in front of the building here. On three, wave. So we just took that picture outside and now what we show you is right here we've updated our model of Los Altos.

And there we are, there's me being held up by the CNN cameraman but you can see the image we took from across the street is part of our three-dimensional model in Los Altos, real time updating of a three-dimensional map.

I'm trying to get to us look at things where can we go with the technology, what can we do with it and provide a little bit of how the space has evolved because I used to do similar things at Google.

In 2007 I came to work with Google, where I ran advanced projects, where we did everything from the imaging systems for Google street view to Google Earth to Google Maps to energy projects like Google power meter.

GUPTA: But when you look at Ed Lu, you hear things like liquid robotics, 3D imaging.


GUPTA: And obviously B612.


GUPTA: What's the unifying theme for Ed Lu?

HUBBARD: I think that Ed is fascinated by the horizon, by what's over the next hill. It could be exploring space. It could be a new vehicle that paddles its way out into the ocean. It could be finding threats to the earth.

LU: I think we're living in a really special time now. For 4.5 billion years this planet has been hit by large asteroids, thousands of times, and we've reached the point where we as a species have figured out the technology that we could actually stop that process on this planet. I mean, think about it.

We're talking about changing the actual evolution of our solar system so it's the plan set no longer hit by asteroids. I feel we are lucky to live today, we are seeing great technical progress. We are seeing things you could in every have dreamed of even 10, 20 years ago and we're part of it. That's pretty profound.


GUPTA: Ed Lu won't stop until his space telescope has found the asteroids headed toward earth. It's a mission few people would even dare to attempt and that's what earns Ed a spot on THE NEXT LIST. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.