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The Wrong Stuff

Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart takes on Hollywood's poor science

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The United States, which has for decades been a leader in space technology, has been deflecting the issue. There is nothing in NASA's charter about public safety, and that's precisely what deflecting an asteroid is all about. With budgets slashed in recent months, it's not likely more funding will become available within the agency, so money would have to be reassigned.

"There is no tax dollar that is not competed for ferociously," says Schweickart. "And this is a new kid on the block; it's something that happens once every several hundred years, and the public doesn't really understand it. So why should NASA get into a losing battle?"

These are topics likely to be touched on at the talk in San Rafael, interspersed with clips of Bruce Willis and friends trying to blow up an asteroid by burying a nuclear bomb within it, thereby saving planet Earth. It's an unusual program on its own, let alone one led by the Apollo 9 astronaut known for, among many other accomplishments, taking the first untethered space walk.

The program is part of the Rafael's "Science on Screen" series, sponsored by two nonprofit groups, which present programs like this across the country. This is the third program of this type at the Smith Rafael Film Center this year, says director of programming Richard Peterson. "It's a nice thing for us to do something different and something thoughtful like that." He hopes there will be more programs like this coming this year.

"Films are, by and large, for entertainment," Schweickart says. "There's certainly no obligation in film to legitimately portray science. At the same time, film is such a powerful medium that it miscommunicates science to a lot of people, and that presents a very serious problem for science in the sense of people misunderstanding—because of film, in some instances—the reality of the world."

This could lead to disbelief of government officials, Schweickart cautions, and belief in conspiracy theories of hidden or untrue information. Films he discusses include Meteor, Melancholia, Deep Impact and Armageddon. He won't go into Hollywood films about astronauts (although he does refer to The Right Stuff as "pure poppycock").

Asteroids hitting the earth are not uncommon. "We get hit about a million times a night," says Schweickart. Most of them burn up in the atmosphere, leaving a bright tail, which we call shooting stars. But larger NEAs could make it through with devastating results. If AG5 were to hit, the impact would have more power than 900 of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima.

"[In general] nobody ever thinks about it because it's supposedly so far away from us," says Peterson. "But I'm glad to know that are people thinking about it."

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