All in a day's work: eat Chinese takeout, save planet Earth

A.C. Charania has a vision to protect your house from sudden attack. Not from rogue missiles from North Korea, but from wayward rocks hurtling toward Earth.

His plan: In case of an incoming asteroid, send an army of nuclear-powered robots called MADMEN to grab hold of the errant rock, drill into it, and use rail-guns with a nuclear charge to shoot buckets of debris into space and sway its trajectory. That way Earth could avoid the type of celestial collision that may have made dinosaurs extinct.

Seriously.

Call it Hollywood meets the Dixie rocketeers. Here in an Atlanta office building, a group of space futurists is devising ways to do everything from bounce objects off comets to send tourists to Mars. They're part of a new breed of space entrepreneurs fed by both NASA and a sense of Star Trek possibility.

Here at SpaceWorks Engineering, Inc., the small outfit where Charania works, artists' penciled visions leap out in chrome on black, and robots swarm toward a rocky asteroid. More science than fiction, the MADMEN (short for Modular Asteroid Deflection Mission Ejector Nodes) evolved from the idea of using swarms of diving robots to explore the ocean moon Europa.

Certainly there is a need for something to protect Earth. Some 2,700 "near-earth objects" careened by the planet in the last decade alone.

"We're asking people to dig a little deeper into their creative psyches and use their imagination to come up with new ideas," says Robert Cassanova, director of the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, also in Atlanta. "We're not looking for technical details; we're looking for the grand ideas."

Charania and his comerades are part of a growing network of artistic engineers keen to "leapfrog" technologies that will bring space closer, faster. Their energy is due in part to private innovations like Mr. Rutan's X Prize-winning spaceship and a seven-year-old NASA seed effort to engage the minds of young Arthur C. Clarkes, daydreaming in the suburbs and sketching rockets in class.

Already, NASA is funding research into everything from growing vegetables on Mars to a "space elevator": a 62,000-mile flexible tube, held in place by centrifugal force, that would offer cheap and rocketless rides from the equator to the fringe of space. As NASA's focus shifts away from the space shuttle and space station over the next decade, many expect this kind of work to garner more attention, and plenty of funds.

Much of the conceptual work is taking place deep within aerospace firms and on college campuses from San Francisco to Raleigh, N.C. But SpaceWorks is a new model, trading bureaucracy for entrepreneurship in an enterprise where scientists do everything from propulsion calculations to making copies at Kinko's, and find time to attend Star Trek conventions, too.

SpaceWorks' glassy quarters off Atlanta's Perimeter Mall, alongside an H&R Block office, is decorated with the latest in stargazer chic: German moon maps from the 1800s, a top-of-the-line light saber, shiny Star Trek lunch boxes. The seven engineers stay up late over Chinese takeout, as keen to talk about eBay finds of space paraphernalia as the dynamics of inflatable modular habitats. "The mojo doesn't really start flowing until around 7 p.m.," says John Bradford, the wonky president of SpaceWorks.

To date, they've worked on everything from a military space fighter to a Martian telecom grid that would bounce off the tails of comets - imagining the practical use of space for everything from tourism to burials. While the work is mostly conceptual, it hews to the physical laws of the universe.

Less scientific, though just as crucial, is a reverence for imagination. The MADMEN scheme is called "The League of Extraordinary Machines"; the Mars telecom scenario is called, with a tip of the hat to Star Trek, "Networks on the Edge of Forever."

"Imagination is a driving force in this place, and everyone is expected to contribute," says Charania, whose black cotton suit is cut with the drastic simplicity of a Star Trek villain.

But while their heads are clearly in space at this firm that's garnered contracts with half a dozen NASA centers, and has hopes of doing some Hollywood consulting on the side, there is some terrestrial urgency to their quest. Charania is already putting the final details on his plans for the country's first Center for Planetary Defense, which he expects to open in Atlanta by the end of the year.

Such dangers have long been part of the popular imagination, of course, with movies like "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon." But not all of it is fantasy - which may account, in part, for the dismal dreams' appeal.

Out of six near-extinction events during the era of life on Earth, at least two were related to asteroids. A crater off Mexico is believed to be the site of an asteroid hit that snuffed out the dinosaurs, and in 1908, the explosion of a space rock above remote, sparsely populated Tunguska, in Siberia, wiped out thousands of trees and gave off a salmon-pink glow that could be seen from London. Last summer, minor planet 2004 CZ1 squeaked past Earth by an interstellar whisker of 3.8 million miles. And on Christmas Day, earthly and intergalactic matters seemed to merge as a tsunami formed just a day after a space rock's planetary close call.

To the SpaceWorks crew, it was a prescient reminder of what could happen if a an asteroid plummets into the sea.

Still, Mr. Bradford is cautious, wary of the impression that SpaceWorks is a cheap hustler of cosmic salves. "We don't try to oversell our ideas," he says. "If anything, we try to temper expectations of what is possible."

For all its promise, the MADMEN idea may not be a good first defense; the comet-tail telecom array might work better as an emergency backup for satellites.

But all those cosmic dreams - and all that caution - doesn't hamper the group's engagement with the "real" world. Unlike the super-engineers who launched Apollo, many of today's up-and-coming futurists feed off popular culture, even when it clashes with the realities of deep space.

"My wife won't even go see science-fiction movies with me anymore," complains Brad St. Germain, the director of advanced concepts. "The whole time I sit there, pointing at the screen, going, 'That's not how it works!' "

Several of the crew attend the annual DragonCon fantasy conference here in Atlanta, where they take questions about interstellar travel from would-be Klingons. And they're not the only real engineers scoping out the well-costumed scene. When they run into NASA workers in the hall, the cliques try to avoid eye contact before exchanging embarrassed hellos.

Their passion for space, they admit, is partly rooted in the toys that fascinated them as children. Charania grew up on Ray Bradbury and Japanese anime, Bradford found his engineering prowess in Lego kits, and St. Germain built model rockets, even winning a first-place ribbon in seventh grade. His most innovative junior high concept? A 2-liter Coke bottle with a lizard inside, his own makeshift biosphere.

Alighting on the memory, he recalls a measured triumph: "The parachute didn't deploy," he says, "but the lizard lived!"

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