Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Guardian of the galaxy: The woman planning for a space catastrophe

By Urmee Khan, for CNN
updated 9:18 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Nelly Ben Hayoun is on a mission to convince the world to take the threat of asteroid strikes more seriously Nelly Ben Hayoun is on a mission to convince the world to take the threat of asteroid strikes more seriously
HIDE CAPTION
Disaster Playground
Disaster Playground
Disaster Playground
Disaster Playground
Disaster Playground
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Disaster Playground follows scientists planning for space catastrophes
  • 'Failure is not an option' mantra associated with space exploration
  • Women need to be promoted in space industry
  • Funds to deal with asteroid threat must continue

Editor's note: Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time -- remarkable professionals who have made it to the top in all areas of business, the arts, sport, culture, science and more.

(CNN) -- When a disaster of a mega-proportion hits a city - from a terror attack to a hurricane - there are procedures in place to deal with the aftermath. Suggest that the source of a serious humanitarian crisis could lie in outer space, however, and many will assume you are talking science fiction.

Nelly Ben Hayoun at NASA'S Ames Research Center.
Courtesy Nick Balloon

But one woman is on a mission to convince the world -- and especially governments and the United Nations -- to take threats such as potential asteroid strikes more seriously.

Meet Nelly Ben Hayoun, Designer of Experiences at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in California, creator of the International Space Orchestra -an orchestra composed of space scientists- and trainee astronaut.

"This isn't a Bruce Willis film, this is real life", says the 29-year-old, from Provence, France.

This isn't a Bruce Willis film, this is real life
Nelly Ben Hayoun

Speaking from SETI, Ben Hayoun rattles off statistics about space, dissects doomsday scenarios, contemplates the possibility of aliens and brings names such as Carl Sagan to Jean Baudrillard into the conversation.

She has been called the 'Willy Wonka of design and science' and her latest project, Disaster Playground, is a documentary film, about scientists preparing for disasters from space that could threaten Planet Earth.

Ben Hayoun speaks to illustrious space scientists from SETI, NASA's Near Earth Objects (NEO) project and Disaster and Rescue Assistance (DART) including: extra-terrestrial intelligence specialist Dr. Jill Tarter (the inspiration for Jodie Foster's character in the film Contact), and meteor shower expert Dr. Peter Jenniskens.

So what do you do in the case of hazardous asteroids or a small NEO (Near Earth Object)?

ANSWER from Disaster Playground: There are different mitigation techniques in place: kinetic impactor, blast defection, combination methods, gravity tractor (a spacecraft to deflect an asteroid using only its gravitational field to transmit impulse).

Alternative methods: moving asteroids with lasers, focusing sun energy, changing thermal properties, electro-static pushing and reflecting white paint.

Ben Hayoun investigates such real-life procedures in place to deal with the threat of an asteroid collision and how critical information would flow up the chain of command.

"Who are the people who would make the decision and what would be the basis of their decision-making?" she asks.

There are 20 people before the President is alerted and before 'the red button is pushed'.

Space science is a field which is 90% men, men men! We need women - we would come up with way smarter solutions!
Nelly Ben Hayoun

There might be something to be gained from revealing problems to the public in order to help secure funding which is a "big difficulty" she explains. "Humans are more willing to support a cause if you understand the difficulties involved."

As well as the film, to be released on March 2015, she's also relying on an app, exhibitions and "immersive experiences" such as the one at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London as part of the Digital Design Weekend.

She is determined to promote the role of women in the male-dominated space industry. Ben Hayoun recalls how she was once one of two women in a room of 1,500 people at the International Astronautical Congress.

"This is my massive fight," she says with gusto. "How are these space agencies making choices on what we need? It occurred to me that the people making these decisions are men -- space science is a field which is 90% men, men men! We need women - let's face it we would come up with way smarter solutions!"

But in all seriousness, Ben Hayoun warns that efforts to find and fund ways of dealing with the asteroid threat must continue.

"It's not like I can say 'yes, we have a solution'," she said. "It's only going to the UN now. They are aware of their responsibility but at the moment they are just putting in place the committees."

"Nobody knows exactly what the UN response would be and that's a real problem," said Ben Hayoun.

WATCH: Space chat with astronaut Karen Nyberg

READ MORE: Star Trek legend who became NASA's 'secret weapon'

WATCH: Space archaeologist unlocks secrets of ancient civilizations

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
These 12 fashion experts have millions of followers, but who is the most social woman in fashion?
updated 6:14 AM EDT, Wed September 3, 2014
Mindy Grossman has been the driving force behind making the Home Shopping Network both hip and profitable, but she still makes time for herself.
updated 9:18 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Nelly Ben Hayoun speaking at NASA Ames research center
Nelly Ben Hayoun is on a mission to convince the world to take threats such as asteroid strikes more seriously.
updated 10:33 PM EDT, Sun August 24, 2014
Shenan Chuang turned Ogilvy China into the world's third biggest ad agency, CNN's Kristie Lu Stout asks how she did it.
updated 6:45 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Imagine a gadget that knows your mind better than you do.
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Tue August 5, 2014
When your grandmother is one of the most famous cosmetics moguls in history, it might put a little pressure on you to succeed.
updated 4:41 PM EDT, Tue July 15, 2014
bbf
When Bobbi Brown set out to create her eponymous makeup line in 1991, she had one thing to her mind -- to make a lipstick that looked like lips.
updated 5:14 AM EDT, Tue July 15, 2014
The Cornell educated executive, who is hotly tipped as the successor to magnate Steve Wynn, is about to unveil the latest Wynn Palace in Macau.
updated 7:54 AM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
From Coco Chanel to DVF, CNN takes a look at celebrated fashion designers and the iconic pieces which launched their careers.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Tue June 17, 2014
2 Caption:Avignon, FRANCE: Serb artist Marina Abramovic performs in 'The Biography Remix' directed by Michael Laub from Netherlands, 10 July 2005 at the Benoix-XII house during the Theater Festival held in Avignon southern France. AFP PHOTO ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT (Photo credit should read ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images)
CNN meets Serbian-born New-York based performance artist Marina Abramovic, as she embarks on the most controversial show of her career.
updated 11:06 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
She turned her bohemian beach style and love of ballet shoes into a billion-dollar brand. This week on Leading Women, fashion designer Tory Burch reveals her ultimate style guru.
updated 12:23 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Meet Mo Abudu, the talk show host portraying a very different Africa. As a glamorous presenter, she also heads up Ebony Life TV network, based in Nigeria.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT