How They Spent Their Summer Vacation

Nahum Melamed, right, and his son, Avishai, wrote and delivered a conference paper on planetary defense against asteroid strikes. (Photo: Shavit Melamed)

The annual “Take Your Kids to Work Day” is a popular way to introduce kids to the engineering environment at Aerospace. One enterprising engineer recently turned that paradigm on its head, implementing sort of a “take your work to kid” day.

Nahum Melamed of the Guidance and Control Subdivision was looking for a productive way to engage the talents of his son, Avishai, who had graduated high school but had not yet started college at UC San Diego, where he planned to study political science. Nahum suggested that they collaborate on a technical paper for the next planetary defense conference. That may not sound like the sort of thing that would interest a recent high-school grad, but the topic was undeniably cool: Nahum is something of an expert on assessing and countering the risk that an errant asteroid or near Earth object (NEO) might crash into the planet. It is, quite literally, the stuff of Hollywood movies.

“Since my son’s enthusiasm is in the history and dynamics of societies,” said Nahum, “I decided to combine our areas of interest and work together on a topic that aims to make his future and that of his generation safer.” Despite having little background in the subject, Avishai accepted the challenge, intrigued by the prospect of learning something new and gaining practical experience in academic writing—all while helping out his dad in the process.

The project started with a literature survey and proceeded in small steps, Nahum said. “I extracted relevant and elucidating information, and handed it over to him to read, evaluate, and include in the text. I pointed him toward independent sources to identify and extract good information, and he would then iterate on small written segments until they expressed the intended concept clearly. We talked about the issues in the evenings and at the dinner table, and he mapped the insights into written paragraphs over the next day or two.” It was particularly gratifying, said Nahum, to watch as Avishai became further engaged and evolved to contribute more of his own original thoughts and insights into the manuscript. “The most enjoyable thing,” he said, “was having intellectual conversations, and seeing his very first steps as an independent and creative thinker.” Avishai contributed his unique perspective as a student of international political relations, introducing considerations of Game Theory and historical trends in assessing the prospects of global cooperation on NEO defense.

For his part, Avishai began to see the virtue of a truly interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving. “Combining my expertise with my dad’s technical skills and background in both aerospace engineering and planetary defense allowed us to write a better paper than either of us could produce individually,” he said. Nahum agreed, adding, “It was great fun working with him and learning from him how to think about the issues not just from a technical viewpoint but from a much broader perspective.”

The project was a revelation in many regards, said Avishai. “Taking part in planetary defense considerations really opened my eyes to the importance of our work.” he said. “The sheer capacity for widespread damage resulting from near-Earth objects demonstrates a clear need for investment in countermeasures.” It also gave him a deeper appreciation for the aerospace field in general and in his father’s work in particular. “As my first personal involvement in my dad’s work, I was struck by the scale of an aerospace engineer’s purview. Few professions can claim that their work is at the forefront of scientific advancement for our species, or that their efforts seek to secure the safety of the entire planet. Truly, the sky’s no limit for an aerospace engineer!”

Nahum and Avishai presented their paper at the Planetary Defense Conference in Japan last May (by that time, Avishai had nearly completed his freshman year). A modified version was also published by the Center for Space Policy and Strategy. According to Nahum, the conference was an integral part of the overall experience, giving Avishai a chance to see “how an international conference is run, and the breadth and importance of material presented in it—and also to interact with other students and experts and appreciate the wide range of areas involving NEOs.”

Nahum maintains an active conference presentation schedule, spreading the word on planetary defense issues. Tomorrow, Feb. 6, he and Andre Brochier will be speakers at a tutorial session entitled “Planetary Defense, Far and Near” at the American Astronomical Society Guidance and Control Conference in Breckenridge, Colo.

Nahum also is gearing up for the International Space Development Conference, which will take place in Los Angeles in May; he plans to give a presentation based on an asteroid class he developed for the Aerospace University. He also expects to participate in the 2019 Planetary Defense  Conference (PDC), which will take place on the East Coast. “I’ve talked with my son about writing another paper together for the next PDC, and hope to begin efforts in the near future,” he said. In the meantime, Avishai is back at college. Ultimately, he hopes to earn a doctorate and pursue an academic career, but still maintains an interest in pursuing research into planetary defense.

“It’s been a privilege to cooperate on such important work,” Avishai said, “and I look forward to another opportunity to contribute my evolving knowledge base to planetary defense—which is a shared passion for both of us.” Nahum agreed, adding, “Also, it was a good father-and-son bonding and confidence-building experience.”

—Gabriel A Spera