At six years old, Bethany Ehlmann, fed by a steady diet of science-themed public television shows like Nova and Nature, decided she wanted to become an astrophysicist. “It was probably hearing Stephen Hawking talk about black holes,” she says. In middle school in Tallahassee, Florida, she marveled as the Galileo space probe beamed its first images of Jupiter and its moons back to Earth; Star Trek novelizations and biographies of explorers, not all of them space-bound, sat on her bookshelves. Over time, all the stories inspired Ehlmann to become a pathfinder herself. As a professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology and a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Ehlmann has collaborated on everything from Mars rover missions to groundbreaking studies of Ceres, a geologically active dwarf planet composed of ice, rock, and brines. At NASA, she leads a small satellite mission, Lunar Trailblazer, to map traces of water on the moon. “It’s a very exciting time to be a planetary scientist,” she says.
Space may be a famously lonely place, but Ehlmann needn’t worry—she’s found a group of like-minded pathfinders not only at work but off the clock, too. She is the president of the Planetary Society, a nonprofit dedicated to the promotion of space travel and exploration. Based in Pasadena, the organization boasts more than 45,000 members in more than 100 countries, including Buzz Aldrin, Steven Spielberg, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. The group has three primary goals, each as succinct as it is lofty. Number one: find life. “So much of what we do is just driven by that one question: Are we alone?” says Ehlmann. Next up: defend Earth. In this case, not from sentient, bug-eyed invaders (as thrilling as that prospect might be) but from asteroids and comets hurtling toward your local park. And last: explore worlds. It’s a goal that involves designing and funding space missions as well as lobbying lawmakers to support NASA expeditions to the moon and Mars and beyond.
That last objective can be tricky. “There’s sometimes this idea of, well, we can’t afford to spend this money in space,” Ehlmann says. “But any money we spend is not shot into space. The vast majority of the money on any planetary mission is spent on high-tech science and engineering jobs here on Earth.”
This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
If it’s an exciting time to be a planetary scientist, it’s a boom time to be devising ways to get off the planet. Space travel and exploration is exploding, from the rise of space tourism fueled by private companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX to the recent launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful of its kind in history. The Planetary Society has launched some hardware of its own. In 2019, after two decades of setbacks, members marveled as the group’s LightSail 2, a solar-powered spacecraft equipped with a 32-square-meter Mylar sail, shot into space atop a SpaceX rocket. “It’s still orbiting today,” says Ehlmann. And in February 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover captured the first sounds from the surface of Mars—after years of seeing martian storms and dust devils, now humans can hear them, too—using space microphones the society has been developing and advocating for since 1999.
The organization’s next frontier is the next generation: the society’s first-ever youth membership program, the Planetary Academy, is being rolled out this year “to spark a lifelong passion for space exploration” in kids between the ages of five and nine. Which makes sense, considering that the CEO of the Planetary Society is one of the leading public faces of science education—Bill Nye, a.k.a. Bill Nye the Science Guy. A member since the society was founded in 1980, he took the helm in 2010 and hopes to dramatically increase the group’s numbers and expand the ways it communicates.
WE HAVE LIFTOFF
The Planetary Society’s three cofounders were, like Nye, the definition of “science guys”: Louis Friedman, a rocket scientist and native New Yorker who led the society’s first solar-sail mission; Bruce Murray, a director of JPL and the imaging team leader of the robotic space probe Mariner 10; and Carl Sagan, the most famous astronomer the United States has ever known, who wrote and narrated the space-themed Cosmos, one of the most widely watched series in the history of U.S. public television.
The society was formed when the U.S. space program was at a crossroads, in terms of both mission goals and public perception. Reaching the moon? Been there, done that. NASA had already sent probes to Jupiter and Saturn. In 1979, Skylab had fallen to Earth after six years in orbit, ignominiously scattering bits of itself across the Indian Ocean; the nascent space shuttle program, meanwhile, had yet to make its first launch. “The public was excited at the time,” says Jennifer Vaughn, the society’s chief operating officer. “But in the U.S. government, there was a sense of, well, what more is there to do? Why do we really care about this anymore? Let’s pull back funding and do other things.” NASA’s budget was cut, then cut again. The Planetary Society was created to show the powers that be in Washington that the public—and not just a few fanatics in Pasadena—still had a hunger to explore the cosmos.
Early donations were few and far between—a thousand bucks from the award-winning science fiction writer Larry Niven (Ringworld), $10,000 from actor Paul Newman—until Sagan went on The Tonight Show to talk up the organization with Johnny Carson and the society flooded mailboxes across the United States with brochures. Before long, the group had grown from 25 members to tens of thousands.
By 1986, the founders had set up shop in a 1903 Greene and Greene Craftsman home a few blocks from Caltech. Before social media and email, the primary way to communicate with members—and actively recruit new ones—was through the Planetary Report, a then-bimonthly magazine that featured stories about everything from martian balloon tests to catastrophic events on other worlds. “At that time, it was maybe the only way you could get some of this information,” says Vaughn, a lit major who served as the editor of the magazine before becoming COO. “We were able to say things like ‘We’re giving you never-before-seen images of Jupiter’s moon Io’ and mean it, because it was the only published place for some of this stuff.”
The society smartly extended its reach across mediums when, in 2002, it launched Planetary Radio, a 30-minute weekly show that began at Orange County public radio station KUCI before expanding to 20 other stations. “Back then, we couldn’t distribute it over the internet, so we were mailing out CDs,” says Mat Kaplan, the show’s creator and host. Today, the show is carried on more than 120 stations; guests have included Elon Musk, science fiction writers Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Andy Weir (The Martian), and more than two dozen astronauts, among them Buzz Aldrin and Sally Ride. In the mid-2000s, Kaplan began running longer versions of the show as podcast episodes, further widening its audience; Planetary Radio now averages 2.5 million downloads every year. “We quickly realized that people listening to the podcast wanted to hear more,” Kaplan says, “because these were really dedicated space geeks like me.”
Since the arrival of Nye as CEO, the organization has continued to grow. “I like to think I had something to do with that,” he says, “by putting the right people in place in our organization.” He’s particularly proud of the group’s LightSail program—“This idea was a dream, a twinkle in our cofounder Carl Sagan’s eye”—and how its successful launch in 2019 demonstrated solar sailing as a viable means of spacecraft propulsion. Nye’s biggest dream come true, he says, would be the discovery of life on other planets, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. “It could be some microbe quietly alive in the summer slush on Mars,” he says, “or maybe fossilized pond scum there.”
Nye, one of the nation’s most recognized faces of science, finds it “frustrating” that the country has become awash in anti-science zealots. “The U.S. was once the world’s most influential economy,” he says, “but it’s now stumbling largely because of the profound lack of scientific understanding and awareness among its citizens.” He notes a clause in the Bill of Rights calling for Congress to promote “the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” “To my ear,” he says, “ ‘useful arts’ refers to engineering and architecture. That would be using science to solve problems and make things.”
NAILING THE LANDING
The highlight of the society’s social calendar is Planetfest, a combination party and meeting of the (great) minds to celebrate milestones in space-exploration history. The first one convened to herald Voyager 2’s 1981 flyby of Saturn. Since then, Planetfest attendees have come by the thousands to the Pasadena Convention Center to witness the touchdown of the Mars polar lander in 1999, say, or the landing of the Spirit rover in 2004. The musical lineups have been almost as impressive as the scientific feats; Chuck Berry performed one year, as did Star Wars and E.T. composer John Williams, conducting the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra.
Last year’s Planetfest was an all-virtual affair. Hopes remain high that members will be able to gather together this fall, when NASA plans to test its planetary defense system by crashing a small, uncrewed spacecraft into an asteroid in the hope of spinning it off course. “It’s a PIT maneuver in space,” says Vaughn. There’s also the first launch, planned for later this year, of the ambitious Artemis program, part of NASA’s mission of returning humans to the moon by 2026.
Vaughn has fond memories of her first Planetfest, in 1997, which paid tribute to Pathfinder’s landing on Mars. “We hadn’t been on Mars for two decades, not since the ’70s, with Viking,” she says. “And Pathfinder lands, and everyone jumps up and screams and cries with happiness. And then the first images came down. And there’s something about that, this realization that humankind has never seen this before. We are witnessing history as it’s unfolding. And I realized then, seven months into my career with the society, that this was never going to get old.”•