Led by Bill Nye "The Science Guy," with help from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, space exploration advocacy organization The Planetary Society recently celebrated its 35th anniversary and the opening of its new headquarters in Pasadena, California.
Founded in 1980 by a group of scientists that included famed astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan, the nonprofit Planetary Society is "the largest and most influential public space organization group on Earth," according to its website. In 2010, Nye took the job of chief executive officer for the organization.
On Oct. 24, the organization held a celebration event at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium featuring a space-themed variety show called "More to Explore," and discussions of various space-related topics. Tyson, a Planetary Society board member, received the Cosmos Award for Outstanding Public Presentation of Science, and helped Nye entertain the crowd. Nichelle Nichols, best known for playing Lt. Uhura on the original "Star Trek" series and an advocate for real-world spaceflight, presented the award to Tyson. [Neil Tyson's 'StarTalk' Welcomes Bill Clinton for Season 2]
"The Cosmos Award is honored to those who engage the public in the romance of space exploration," Nichols said at the event. "This is an integral part of The Planetary Society's mission. […] To honor the innovators who follow in [Carl Sagan's] tradition of presenting science and scientists in an accurate yet entertaining and enthralling way, The Planetary Society created the Cosmos Award for the outstanding public presentation of science."
Nichols pointed to Tyson's accomplishments in getting the public engaged in science, such as his books and other writings, and his work hosting two science TV shows, "StarTalk" and "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey."
"I am deeply honored with what is now my almost 20-year association with The Planetary Society and 20-year relationship with the public that continues to grow," Tyson said.
"I say to myself that I'm helping to reveal the geek underbelly that exists within us all," Tyson continued. "And that geek underbelly, almost in all cases, leads to ambitions about what tomorrow may bring."
"We know that the future of our species must include some ambitions that reach for the stars," he concluded. "Without it, we are surely doomed here on Earth."
This was one of the few serious moments of the evening. Before the award was given to Tyson, Nye reminisced about meeting Tyson through the organization. Nye then showed a photo of what Tyson looked like in 1980, when he was a wrestler (Tyson wrestled in high school and college), and Tyson joked that he kicked some serious butt.
Tyson had come prepared, and showed a photo of Nye in 1980, in a "Coneheads" costume, with a silver ring around his head.
Nye explained that he was doing a humorous advertisement for a loop antenna (the type used in most AM broadcast radios), most likely as part of a demonstration to explain the science of the device.
There were also some sentimental moments. For one, Tyson said he was grateful to have met Nye through The Planetary Society.
"I must candidly and with warmth say that my greatest memory of joining The Planetary Society is meeting Bill Nye," Tyson said. "We're kindred spirits in our life's missions. It's fun just comparing notes at the end of the day."
The audience gasped when Nye asked Tyson, "Are you 'Star Trek' or 'Star Wars'?"
"I, as a scientist and a rationalist — if you're going to do the Kessel Run, you should do it in a unit of time, not a unit of distance," he said. (Tyson is referencing a line from one of the "Star Wars" movies in which a character says that a ship "made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs." Parsecs are a unit of distance, where the character clearly means a measure of time).
"So, I'm 'Star Trek.' Of course I'm 'Star Trek!' Tyson exclaimed. "I got nothing against 'Star Wars' people. Just don't ask me to comment on the science of 'Star Wars,' because there is none!"
Other topics covered at the event included sending humans to Mars, but the emcees gave the discussion a humorous spin. For example, they presented a list of the top 10 first words spoken on Mars. The No. 1 phrase: "No rain in 3 billion years? Get used to it; I just flew in from California!"
Projects discussed included NEOWISE, an extension of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), that discovers and studies minor planets, asteroids and comets; and LightSail, a citizen-funded project hosted by The Planetary Society that sends small spacecraft into orbit carrying reflective solar sails.
Plus, Bruce Betts, the organization's director of science and technology, sprinkled in space facts throughout the evening.
In addition to Nye and Tyson, other presenters at the event included NASA scientists Dava Newman and Amy Mainzer; "The Martian" author Andy Weir; actors from the "Star Trek: Voyager" universe, including Robert Picardo and Jeri Ryan; comedian Andy Peters, and many Planetary Society staffers Emily Lakdawalla, Jim Bell, Jennifer Vaughn, Bruce Betts, Mat Kaplan and Casey Dreier.
The evening ended with the world premiere of melodysheep's newest Symphony of Science music video, "Beyond the Horizon."
Earlier in the morning, at the dedication of the new Planetary Society headquarters building, speeches were given by Nye, Daniel Geraci, chairman of the society's board of directors; society President Jim Bell, Vice President Heidi Hamill; Nye, Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Vaughn, and Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif.
"This is a place that has a space enterprise look and feel. We've got glass! And metal! And mid-century style, futuristic, bridge of the Enterprise furniture!" Nye said, referencing the "Enterprise" ship from the "Star Trek" universe. "When you walk around, I hope you get a sense of both of our remarkable past […] and I hope you get that sense of the future. We're working very hard to energize and focus the human spaceflight program to get people on Mars."
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