Dr. Pascal Lee or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the asteroid

Pascal & Pong on ATV
Dr. Pascal Lee and Ping Pong

Mission Asteroid airs Thursday, December 5 on CBC’s Doc Zone

Q: Why did dinosaurs become extinct?
A: Because they didn’t have a space program.

Dr. Pascal Lee shared that joke while promoting Mission Asteroid, the CBC documentary about how we’re all going to die a fiery death in a mass extinction event.

I may be misrepresenting slightly. In the words of director Jeff Thrasher: “Mission Asteroid follows asteroid hunters and scientists who know just how vulnerable we are to a strike and are working to prevent it from happening. This documentary introduces viewers to astronauts and researchers as they travel from the lab to the field, testing technologies and techniques that will help make manned missions to asteroids a reality.”

In any case, Lee tells me my plan to build a bunker won’t help in the event of a major asteroid strike so I will hope, as he does, that the documentary opens some eyes to why space exploration isn’t frivolous. Not only does it connect us to our place in the cosmos, it could literally save humanity. It’s a particularly timely message given NASA’s shrinking budget and questions about the future of government-funded space exploration.

The fireball over Chelyabinsk, Russia this year definitely opened some eyes and some YouTube channels, and that was a relatively small asteroid that burned up in the atmosphere. If one were to land in the middle of a city, it could be both small enough to avoid detection and large enough to cause massive destruction, “forget about the gigantic one that would cause the end of civilization,” Lee added. “The likelihood is small but the devastation is monumental.”

“Historically we have not witnessed an impact of devastating proportions while humans were around. But if you take the geological perspective, all of a sudden it’s common.”

Jeff with Pascal onsite
Pascal Lee with director Jeff Thrasher

In case I’m making Lee sound like a less-comforting Nostradamus, he was as humorous and charming as someone can be while predicting our possible demise, and is seen throughout the documentary with his canine sidekick Ping Pong.

If a dog’s loyalty doesn’t convince you of his trustworthiness, his credentials are more than sound: he’s a senior planetary scientist at the SETI Institute and the chairman of the Mars Institute. For almost two decades he has been serving as director of the NASA Haughton-Mars Project, an international field research project at the Haughton impact crater site on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic, where the documentary team captured some amazing footage.

Lee says Mission Asteroid is the first documentary he knows of that looks at what is being done to stop or mitigate the threat of asteroids, as well as plans to explore and even land on them, and it includes world-renowned experts, including the University of Calgary’s Alan Hildebrand.

One of Lee’s areas of expertise is the human exploration of Mars, which he proposes should begin with the exploration of Mars’ asteroid-like moons Phobos and Deimos, so his interest in asteroids is multifaceted. (He’s also multitalented – besides drawing and painting, he recently released the children’s book Mission: Mars, causing colleagues to joke he’s a “man on a mission,” though the similarity in titles is pure coincidence.)

His interest in exploring Mars comes from its connection to Earth — how it evolved in a way that’s similar to our home planet, the possibility of life, and the possibility of sending life there. He says we’re on the first credible path now, predicting humans will reach orbit by the 2030s before landing on the surface. Exploring asteroids is one milestone toward that goal … so maybe I should plan to buy a ticket to Mars Colony as my asteroid collision avoidance plan instead of that bunker. As Lee puts it, “You don’t want all your eggs in the same basket,” planetarily speaking.

“We’re too caught up in our day-to-day lives sometimes to realize we are all of us on this ball hurtling through space,” he says. “Imagine something coming at us from the other direction. The sun is travelling at mind-boggling speeds through the galaxy. Everything is in motion.”

“We can bury ourselves in our economic worries, in our social worries, but we are also passengers on this train wreck that’s about to happen. I hope this documentary makes people look out the window, and makes people who are directing the space program — who are steering the ship — to look ahead and see what’s coming.”

Dr. Pascal Lee: spreader of sunshine. Catch him in Mission Asteroid Thursday on CBC’s Doc Zone.