Astronaut Stanley Love will be walking in space today to help attach yet another new section of the International Space Station, but he has even bigger plans in mind.He'd like to save the world.
Love, who is aboard the space shuttle Atlantis, has hatched a a plan with his colleague Ed Lu to prevent Earth from getting hit by an asteroid.
"Many methods that people have talked about involve things like nuclear weapons — let's blow it up! Or smash something into [an asteroid] at eight kilometers per second and blow it apart," Love said. "Those methods are a great way of getting kinetic energy into the target, but you are not quite sure what you are going to get after that. Instead of one big rock, you might have a swarm of smaller rocks."
Love's and Lu's plan would send a spacecraft into orbit around any asteroid with Earth in its sights.
"You sidle up next to it, and you just hover there for like a year. Now you need a good long warning time on the asteroid because during your year of hovering, because of the very tiny gravitational pull between the spacecraft and the asteroid, that amount of pull is about the same amount of thrust as gluing a housefly beating its wings, to an asteroid," Love said. "A tiny amount of thrust, but build up over a year, then given 20 years to drift, in that direction, you can turn an asteroid strike into a miss."
Before he saves Earth from an asteroid strike, Love has to help out with a spacewalk. The astronomer-turned-astronaut was scheduled for one spacewalk during STS 122, the current shuttle mission, but because of the unexpected and unexplained illness of his colleague, Hans Schlegel, he will go out into space twice.
Love and astronaut Rex Walheim will prepare the $2 billion European Columbus module for installation on the International Space Station.
It's no big deal, he told ABC News, in an interview before his launch.
"Mainly it is an attitude of mental flexibility. Don't be married to the plan," he said. "You know that at any moment the plan may change and the finely crafted choreography you worked out may not work out that day and you may have to do something else."
Love is enthusiastic about his mission.
"I am very psyched in a wow gee whiz way. It is hard to explain. I think enthusiasm and professionalism go hand-in-hand," he said. "You are not going to be a very good professional if you don't enjoy what you doing. But pure enthusiasm without professionalism is dangerous."
He certainly plans to stop once in awhile when he is on the spacewalk and look around.
"There will be times when I need to hang tight, when I don't have something specific that I have to do and those are the moments that everyone has advised me, take those moments and look around, savor the moment — be where you are and appreciate it," he said.
What makes this space shuttle mission to the International Space Station important? Love says it means the space station will truly be international now.
"This European community has invested their resources, their people, and their enthusiasm in building this Columbus module that we are adding to the space station," Love said. "Right now we have physical parts of the space station from the United States, from Canada and from Russia and now we are adding in another partner and that partner itself is composed of the many member nations of ESA."
The newest partner is the 11-nation consortium of the European Space Agency.
What would he like to do next? Love wouldn't mind going to the moon. While it may be a forbidding place, so is, he says, Antarctica.
"I imagine the first people to go to Antarctica found nothing there but ice and wind and cold, now of course Antarctica is like the premier science lab for the Earth and glaciology and geology and atmosphere sciences. All this great stuff [is] going on there in this place where it was worth your life just to look at 100 years ago," he said. "So I think maybe the moon will be like that in 100 years — an amazing science lab where people go to find out stuff about our world and our universe".
As an astronomer he is really hoping for a chance to see the stars from a different angle.
"I expect the light pollution on the space station is as bad as it is in Houston. I am not sure how good a view I am going to get," he said. "I have had people come back and say if you get a chance, in the shuttle cockpit, turn off all the lights during a night pass when nobody is working and look out the window. It is really cool."