FOR THE LOVE OF THE PLANET, DANICA REMY DARES TO LOOK UP!
By Robert Moskowitz
IF EVENTS ANYTHING LIKE THOSE DEPICTED IN THE RECENTLY RELEASED NETFLIX FILM “DON’T LOOK UP” EVER HAPPEN, OUR FEATURE RESIDENT, DANICA REMY, PRESIDENT AND CEO OF THE B612 FOUNDATION AND ITS PRIMARY PROGRAM THE ASTEROID INSTITUTE, WHICH LEADS THE PRIVATE SECTOR EFFORTS IN RESEARCH, ANALYSIS, AND SYSTEMS DESIGN TO PROTECT THE EARTH FROM ASTEROID IMPACTS, IS LIKELY TO BE IN THE FOREFRONT OF THOSE FIGHTING TO SAVE OUR PLANET. AND SHE’LL BE DOING SO FROM HER OFFICE HEADQUARTERS, RIGHT HERE IN DOWNTOWN MILL VALLEY.
As if to underscore the importance of watching for and protecting against asteroid impacts on Earth, a fireball about 18 meters wide and weighing 11,000 tons, traveling at 18.6 kilometers per second, entered the atmosphere and disintegrated in the skies over Chelyabinsk, Russia, on February 15, 2013. It sent 1500 people to the hospital and broke 100,000 windows. But by asteroid standards, it wasn’t a particularly big one. Neither was the Tunguska blast of 1908 that leveled 80 million trees across 830 square miles of forest. “Unlike earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, tsunamis, and tornadoes.” Danica explains, with a serious face, “asteroid impacts are an existential threat we know how to solve. We should have a plan for avoiding them, it’s only a matter of assembling the necessary data and funding, creating a plan, and putting it in place.” Thankfully, she’s working hard to provide one. Danica, now a resident of Mill Valley, grew up in San Anselmo as a fourth-generation native of Marin County, and spent her youth, in part, shooting off homemade rockets with her father and brother from what is now the Bon Air Center, and then chasing happily across the marshlands to retrieve them. “In those days,” she says, “Marin was a quieter, smaller community. Our neighbors were artists, working-class people, and teachers. I remember that San Anselmo had a very wonderful ‘small-town feel.”
A particularly formative experience was her family’s excursion to China Camp, in San Rafael, the night before the first moon landing (July 20, 1969), “to see,” as she tells it, “the moon for the last time before it was touched by humanity. We had a picnic and watched the moon rise over the hills of the North Bay. It was actually green that night,” she recalls, “perhaps because of the haze from the pollution we had back then, or perhaps it was a magical Marin moment.” She played hooky from school the next day and, with her family watched everything happening with Apollo 11. As a young student, Danica kept busy exploring both science and technology while attending the Independent Learning School (ILS) on Paradise Drive. It was there she and her classmates helped build the two geodesic domes that are still in place (now housing Marin Montessori School). ILS was based upon independent study and was probably the first school in the nation to use computer-aided education tools, which Danica loved.
She graduated from Redwood High School at age 16 and went to the College of Marin and then to San Francisco State. There she studied computer science. Around that time—with her mom—she built a small PC from a kit they bought from an ad in the back of the Whole Earth Catalog. But the available college curricula did not support her feverish yearning to be part of the burgeoning personal computer revolution and she soon left college to pursue her own path.
That path included almost a decade of teaching people, primarily in the film business including the likes of Robert Redford, Sidney Pollack, and Karl Malden to name a few, to use the early generations of personal computers. She introduced them to WordStar—one of the earliest word-processing applications—and to dBase, in those days a powerful database program. Serendipitously, in 1986 she answered an ad in the Pacific Sun from Stewart Brand, the father of the Whole Earth Catalog. “I recognized that ‘S. Brand’ with a 332 telephone prefix had to be him,” she remembers. “I wrote him a fan letter. I also called one of the people I had been coaching on computers, actor Peter Coyote, and asked him to recommend me to Stewart. He did and I got hired.”
The job turned out to be a project called The Learning Conferences. “We took leading academics and businesspeople to interesting places around the world,” she recalls, “where they could learn first-hand some of the forces influencing businesses from political, social, economic, technological, and environmental perspectives. Technology comes in lots of different flavors. Our job,” she explains, “was taking smart people who were running the planning side of businesses and encouraging them to consider additional data points that might impact businesses or our collective future.”
In the years that followed, she participated in developing a follow-on to the Learning Conferences called Global Business Network (GBN), which provided ideas and techniques to help businesses make better use of advancing information and trends, and taught businesses how to do Scenario Planning. At GBN she helped network remarkable people together including Peter Gabriel, Michael Porter, Mary Catherine Bateson, Laurie Anderson, Peter Calthorpe, Esther Dyson, Orville Schell, Michael Murphy, and many others: incredibly smart, highly successful, extremely innovative, and unique people to help inform the Scenario Planning process. “My job there,” she says, “was to help these and other people get online, and to organize meetings in which they could both teach business leaders to think differently and learn from a diverse network of remarkable people.”
One of the people she worked with was Rusty Schweickart, who had been selected for the U.S. astronaut program in 1963. He was the Lunar Module Pilot for the Apollo 9 mission and participated in the first crewed Skylab mission in 1973. Among other work, he had served as Governor Jerry Brown’s assistant for science and technology.
“I felt incredibly lucky to have these opportunities,” she explains. “I had something to teach, computers, and how to talk online. I was at the cutting edge of the technological advancements happening in those days. I was working with and hanging around amazing thinkers, writers, artists, and builders. That helped inform my broad worldview and interests.” In 1993 she left GBN to run a variety of early 1.0 web companies.
When the “dot com” crash happened, she was offered a lot of interesting positions, some of which she now regrets not accepting. But at the time she had a young family and prioritized being home every night to have dinner and read books with her husband and boys. Around that time, one of her friends said to her: “You’re a do-gooder. Why don’t you look at the charitable sector?”
That remark opened her eyes to new possibilities, and in 2003 she joined Tides, as Chief Operations Officer. Tides (Tides Foundation and Tides Center) offered accounting, administration, and other infrastructure services to the charitable sector. This was right in Danica’s wheelhouse: she liked the fee-for-services model (“You can build on that,” she says), and she had become an adept operations person, having proven herself able to make a wide variety of projects work well.
The mission of Tides spoke to her: shared prosperity and social justice—people trying to make the world a better place. Its founder, Drummond Pike, is a visionary and Mill Valley resident. Over the next ten years, Danica wound up running several of Tides’ divisions.
Tides innovated a hybrid strategy that combines for-profit and nonprofit structures for the mutual benefit of both. At one point, for example, Tides took over 187,000 square feet in the Presidio and agreed to run and manage the Thoreau Center for Sustainability—a green space now housing more than 60 nonprofits, including art galleries, a library, as well as vendors of arts, crafts, and sustainable products. Another example from her days at Tides was the creation of Groundspring, an organization intended to support nonprofits seeking to receive donations online. Groundspring was later merged with Network for Good, where Danica still sits on the Board and serves as Vice-Chair, to become the largest provider of internet-based fundraising and donor management tools.
After Danica left Tides in 2012, and after a brief period of consulting for nonprofit/for-profit hybrid structures. Then Rusty Schweickart introduced her to Dr. Ed Lu, a fellow astronaut who was working with him on the problem of defending the Earth from asteroids. Schweickart and Lu had co-founded, with planetary scientist Clark Chapman and astrophysicist Piet Hut, the whimsically named B612 Foundation (B612 being the name of the Asteroid in the infamous book “The Little Prince”) as an organization to advocate for planetary defense mechanisms and develop solutions to prevent asteroid impacts. Among its achievements, even at that early stage, was the invention of the “Gravity Tractor” concept: The idea of placing a small spacecraft near an asteroid and using its gravitational attraction to tug the asteroid into another—presumably less dangerous—trajectory. “I loved learning about the problem of asteroids impacts,” she says, with enthusiasm, “and, of course, the potential solutions. Asteroid impacts are the only existential threat we know how to solve. The solution boils down simply to funding and data.” In 2013 she joined B612 Foundation as Chief Operating Officer.
The following year she joined the board of the Long Now Foundation which fosters long-term thinking. That same year she co-founded Asteroid Day with Dr. Brian May (remarkably and not incidentally, lead guitarist in the iconic rock band Queen). The plan was to write a resolution to get the United Nation’s attention. With the help of the Association of Space Explorers and the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, they succeeded.
International Asteroid Day: June 30, was declared by the UN on December 3, 2016, in order to “observe each year at the international level the anniversary of the Tunguska impact over Siberia, Russian Federation, on 30 June 1908 [the largest asteroid impact in Earth’s recorded history], and to raise public awareness about the asteroid impact hazard.” Currently, thousands of events are held in scores of countries every year on Asteroid Day to both draw attention to the threat of a major asteroid impact and to improve technology to detect and neutralize any such threats.
Moldavite silica projectile glass formed by a meteorite impact over a desert.
As Danica became more immersed in the challenge of protecting the Earth from asteroid impacts, in 2017 it was a logical and almost inevitable step for her to become the Chief Executive of B612 Foundation. By that stage of her career, Danica had already compiled an extensive and impressive resume and was an accomplished leader with extensive experience in advocacy, lobbying, fiscal sponsorship, and philanthropic services.
With her characteristic energy and drive, Danica learned everything she could about astronomy, satellites, and—of course—asteroids. Today she is immensely knowledgeable, charmingly enthusiastic, and charismatically persuasive about the need to identify any and all asteroids that might threaten the Earth-and to prepare to do something about them.
“That’s one reason we’re building an open-source cloud-based software called Asteroid Discovery Analysis and Mapping (ADAM) platform which will tell us whether an asteroid has our address on it. Part of the problem is that asteroids are dark and moving fast, so we’re developing a system for tracking them, including the potentially dangerous ones.”ADAM will be instrumental in drawing a comprehensive, dynamic map of the solar system that will support scientific explorations and economic development, as well as protection of the Earth from asteroid impacts. “We’re going to learn a lot more about the locations, trajectories, and composition of asteroids, which are mostly piles of gravel held loosely together by gravity,” she explains. “Samples of Asteroid Ryugu, retrieved by the Japanese Hayabusa2 probe (returned to earth on December 5, 2020), has been distributed to scientists. We’ll make a huge amount of progress in data collection, which will, in part, inform planetary defense solutions. Today we know where about one percent of the near-earth asteroids are. We’ve found 93% of the larger ones, the size that took out the dinosaurs which is good news. However, more than three million near-earth asteroids remain to be found that are larger than the one that hit February 15, 2013. Beginning in 2024, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory will discover where lots more of the near-earth asteroids are. Our software (ADAM) will be able to calculate if any of them might hit our home planet.”
Under Danica’s leadership, B612 and its Asteroid Institute program have continued to broaden its mandate by networking to tap into a wider range of resources and expand capabilities. “Our software will also help to create the mission plans (e.g., flight plans) to an asteroid and beyond. We’re in the decade of asteroid discovery. For example, did you know that water on Earth came from asteroids? Sometime in the future, space resources will be increasingly important. People talk about gold and rare minerals, but the first thing we’re going to mine from asteroids will be water. Among other things, it’s a fuel source for spacecraft. What we learn from asteroids will help tell us how we came to be and help us move out into our solar system and beyond.
“The statistics of asteroid impacts are a bad way to frame this conversation,” she explains. “Statistics are often confusing for people. An asteroid could arrive in 30 years, or tomorrow. It’s a game of Russian roulette. B612 and Asteroid Day started with a disaster message, much like the terror message depicted in “Don’t Look UP”. But fear goes only so far as motivation. People need to feel inspired. It’s amazing what we human beings can do, that we have the capability to protect the whole planet, so we don’t go the way of the dinosaurs, and be incredible explorers at the same time. We have many things to worry about, but at the core of who we are, we are explorers. We explore. We move. Space is a place we will explore next. We have already started. This is the story we want to tell: about discovery, adventure, and the quest for knowledge.” It’s more testament to the special nature of where we live that the very existence of humankind is being protected right in our midst, in downtown Mill Valley, with one of its residents central to the mission?
FOR MORE INFORMATION OR TO GET INVOLVED, VISIT B612FOUNDATION.ORG!