Category Archives: Space

The Luncheon Society/Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute on Kepler and the search for Earthlike-Exoplanets/Manhattan—PrimeHouse/March 22, 2012

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Have you ever looked up into the night sky and wondered if anybody was listening? What if they were?

We live in a universe where 760 extrasolar planets have been identified and perhaps billions are waiting to be found.  If life has been able to thrive on Earth, logic suggests that it might be plentiful elsewhere throughout the universe. We just have to find it.

We wonder what lies beyond the horizon. When man walked on the moon, we wept with Walter Cronkite and reflected with Eric Sevareid on the meaning of it all; we were no longer tethered to our home planet.  Thanks to a Voyager, Pioneer, and the upcoming New Horizons  spacecraft, we have transformed our knowledge of the outer planets in our own backyard.  But the biggest prize could belong to the plucky little Kepler Space Telescope, which is designed to discover earth-sized planets, far outside of our solar system.  This could be the next generation of Great Discovery.  

Jill Tarter’s TED® Award Speech. As scientific study reveals new answers, the odds favor a more vibrant cosmic neighborhood.  However, until the initial moment of contact occurs, the answer remains elusive—but tantalizing with promise.  


How many planets might support life? Indeed, what is required for life to exist? How does life start? How does it evolve, and what fabulous creatures can evolution produce? How often do intelligent creatures appear in the giant tapestry of life? Do we even know what life would be like elsewhere? These are the questions being addressed by the scientists at The SETI Institute.

How close are we?  Jill Tarter joined us for The Luncheon Society for a fourth gathering, this time in Manhattan at Prime House, where we had a distinguished group, including Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Dr. Jeremiah P. Ostriker. This luncheon was hosted by our good friend Jim Day, who once again proved to be a wonderful host.

There are more stars than there are grains on sands on all of our beaches. When Jill Tarter made her first presentation before The Luncheon Society in San Francisco back in 2004, there were only 85 extra solar planets. As of March 13, 2012, a total of 760 confirmed exoplanets are listed in the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia, including a few that were confirmations of controversial claims from the late 1980s. That count includes 609 planets in planetary systems and 100 planets within multiple planetary systems. A system has been discovered in which a planet orbits around two stars, which orbit around each other. As of February 2012, NASA’s Kepler mission had identified 2,321 unconfirmed planetary candidates associated with 1,790 host stars, based on the first sixteen months of data from the space-based telescope. It’s a veritable gold rush. Continue reading

The Luncheon Society/NY Times Best-Selling author Dava Sobel on the importance of Copernicus/San Francisco—Palio D’Asti /November 4, 2011

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How do you propose a new idea when current thinking is so institutionalized and so engrained that anything else would be blasphemous? As he neared the publication of his life’s work, that is what worried Nicolaus Copernicus the most.

Writer Dava Sobel has the ability to compress complex scientific precepts into engrossing reading without dumbing down the subject matter. Her book, Longitudes , continues to be in print long after the date of its first edition.  In fact, Neil Armstrong will write the foreword for the anniversary edition. Her recent book, “A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos,” takes us through the challenges the Polish-born cleric encountered as he brought his life’s work to center stage.

We look back at yesterday’s scientific achievements and they are seen as today’s inevitabilities.  It was inevitable that the first flight by the Wright Brothers would lead to Man walking on the surface of the moon. It made logical sense that the discovery of nuclear fission would lead to weaponization within a few short years. 

Yet, when that first flight took place in North Carolina, nobody could envision daily flights to London. When Leó Szilárd first proposed that atoms could be split in 1933 to form nuclear chain reaction, few could calculate the unintended consequences.


So when Nicolaus Copernicus suggested that centuries of scientists and mathematicians had it all wrong and that the sun—not the earth—anchored our solar system, he called the basic tenets of civilization into question. Continue reading

The Luncheon Society/John Callas, JPL Project Manager for Mars Rovers on Spirit, Opportunity and the Future of Exploration on the Red Planet/Los Angeles-Maria’s/June 26,2011

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It is the most amazing cell phone; it gives the term “long distance” a whole new meaning.  Each morning, Opportunity the remaining Mars Rover, sends a text to John Callas’s  cell phone that shows its movements during the previous Martian day or “sol.” Even though the two planets are separated by an average distance of 142 million miles and the rover crawls at a speed of 1 cm per minute, it is always good to keep a close eye on your children.



Callas, who has been the Project Manager of the Rovers since 2006, continues to drive breathtaking discoveries on only a shoestring budget. Opportunity and the now-silent Spirit have revolutionized unmanned spacecraft and robotic exploration in ways few could have imagined a decade earlier. It was always understood that man would have to step foot on Mars to be able to grasp its terra firma, but no more. Thanks to these two rovers, we now know that Mars is not the dead rock concluded by both Viking missions in the 1970’s. Not only was Mars alive with oceans of ancient water, but thanks to the subsequent Phoenix lander, samples of the polar ice cap were melted and water vapor appeared; where there is water, there is often life. We also know that the real action surrounding life on Mars might take below the surface, something that only patient and sustained exploration could unearth.

Space flight has long been a fixture of The Luncheon Society. Apollo Astronaut Rusty Schweickart has joined us on several occasions for conversations about Near Earth Objects and in January 2007 brought along Mercury Astronauts Wally Schirra,  Scott Carpenter, and Soviet space pioneer Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space. Mission Control head Christopher Kraft talked about the challenges of a manned space flight to the Moon and the herculean challenges to Mars. Former NASA Ames head Scott Hubbard joined us twice, first for a conversation about rebuilding the Mars programs after the failure of the late 1990’s and later with Nobel laureate Doug Osheroff, to help us understand the managerial failures that took place as members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board  after the shuttle disintegrated in the upper atmosphere. The Principal Scientist of the Mars Rovers, Steven Squyres joined us in San Francisco and most famously  in Los Angeles where Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, sat with us around the table.  A longtime friend of The Luncheon Society, John Callas has joined us at two intervals during the Rover’s time on Mars, first in 2006 and now in July 2011. Continue reading

The Luncheon Society Flashback/ Dr. Steven Squyres and the 5th anniversary of the Mars Rover landings/January 2009/ Morton’s Steak House Beverly Hills

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Folks, this was a piece written in May 2009 by an old pal and LA writer Blair Tindall and it captured the essence of The Luncheon Society when we celebrated the 5th anniversary of the Mars Rover landings in Beverly Hills back in January 2009. Blair is probably best known for her memoir Mozart in the Jungle, which captured the harrowing life of the free-lance artist trying to make a career in the music business.

One Night at The Luncheon Society/Blair Tindall

“The best conversations always happen after the second glass of wine,” laughed Bob McBarton as he strode into Morton’s Steakhouse in Beverly Hills and began leaving a thick pile of biographies at each seat. 

Collated and stapled, they detailed the diverse backgrounds of thirty members of The Luncheon Society  a private assemblage of people with almost nothing in common, except their love for the lost art of conversation. They gathered to celebrate the 5th anniversary of the landing of both Martian Rovers on the Red Planet with Dr. Steven Squyres , the mission’s Principal Investigator, leading the conversation. 

Waiters served cocktails as unlikely alliances emerged between scientists, politicians, lawyers, entrepreneurs, actors, writers, and academics alike. A concert cellist who designs chips for Microsoft discussed the state of filmmaking with a major film archivist in Southern California.  Several attorneys found themselves talking with two men who sent unmanned spacecraft to the surface of the Moon during the early 1960’s that paved the way for those first steps by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.   Space architect John Spencer, who helped design parts of the International Space Station,  walked though his plans for to recreate the Martian surface in the Nevada desert to the Senior Counsel at MGM as well as a West LA political activist who raised funds for President Obama, long before he emerged on the national scene.  Vanity Fair writer Cari Beauchamp, who nursed a well-deserved cocktail after receiving great notices from her biography of Joe Kennedy’s Hollywood years, regaled tales from the hurly–burly days of the mid 1970’s when she served as Jerry Brown’s Press Secretary to a pair of wide-eyed entrepreneurs and a doe–eyed UCLA law professor. Continue reading

The Luncheon Society/Former Apollo Astronaut Rusty Schweickart on the Dangers of Near Earth Asteroids and Objects/Los Angeles—Morton’s Steakhouse/August 4, 2010

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“If you think the night sky is a tranquil place,” former Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart says, “consider what may tumble down from the heavens.”

65 Million years ago, a Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) 6 miles in diameter, slammed into the Earth along the Yucatan peninsula, near Chicxulub.  It had the power of a 100 Million megaton nuclear blast (the largest man-made nuclear bomb is only 50 megatons) and over 75% of life on Earth, including the dinosaurs, plants, and other life forms vanished. Life hung by a thread.

The Discovery Channel created a stark video which detailed what would happen if a 500 km NEA crashed into the Earth.

There have been at least 5 ELEs  (Extinction Level Events) during the last 500 million years of Earth’s history, not counting the Big Daddy of them all when a Mars-sized object slammed into a young Earth 4.5 billion years ago.  The collision was so immense that the Earth’s surface melted, was blasted into space and the core was exposed.  Over the next millions of years, the Earth slowly healed. However there is a nightly reminder of what took place; the gravitational pull of the debris coalesced into the current consensus of how the Moon was formed.

These events have happened before and they will most certainly happen again. “We live in a cosmic shooting gallery, Rusty Schweickart noted, “and that being hit by a ‘big one’ is simply a matter of time. We have in our sister planet, the Moon, an excellent history of the visitation record of NEAs and comets to our local neighborhood.” Those craters on the Moon are the results of direct strikes.

Consider this. On Friday April 13, 2029 (yes, Friday the 13th) 99942 Apophis, a Near Earth Asteroid, will pass within 24,000 miles of Earth, just under our geosynchronous satellite field. In astronomical terms, this is an incredibly close call. When first discovered in 2004, there were global concerns that it might hit the planet in 2029 or on its return trip on Easter Sunday 2036.  NASA has since downgraded the strike percentage to 1:233,000 and they will better refine their calculations in 2013 when the orbit of 99942 Apophis next brings it within tracking range. While the NEA is only three football fields in length and no more than 300 meters across, its packs a punch.  If it were to collide with Earth, it would unleash the equivalent of a 510 megaton nuclear blast. Continue reading