Just hours before the Space Shuttle Atlantis was set to launch (read our "Live from Liftoff" blog here, with video), the space agency administrator sat down for a candid conversation with the editors of Popular Mechanics, sharing his thoughts on everything from the 2008 elections to NASA's research on global warming, from living on Mars to how he "absolutely" wants NASA to partner with the private space industry.
1. A recent National Academy of Science report said that NASA was overextended. Do you think the agency can carry the various missions—astrobiology, earth-looking satellites and so on—that it's been mandated?
I'm glad to have the National Academy's endorsement on my position, but in quite a number of speeches I've made the point I've made is we are required by the Congress to do many different things, and we don't have the money to do all the things we've been told to do. So that means they will get done at a slower pace. I think that is what the national academy is saying.
2. Your administration has gotten a lot of attention for reaching out to private enterprise and working collaboratively with some of the private space ventures. Do you see that as playing a critical role as we go forward—perhaps some of the low-Earth orbit functions that NASA currently has to shoulder?
I'd like for us to get to the point where we have the kind of private/public synergy in space flight that we have had for a hundred years in aviation, where we've had government development and requirements and we also had the same on the commercial side. It led to the creation of the aviation and air transport industry, and it led to American pre-eiminence in that industry in the past century. Space flight has been, necessarily, heavily subscribed by the government. But we have not had enough private enterprise, stimulated by government demand. And I've been trying to work on that. I think it's crucial for the future.
3. So you see a day when private industry might be lofting payloads into orbit? And you'll put that out for bid?
Absolutely. I see a day in the not very distant future, where instead of NASA buying a vehicle, we buy a ticket for our astronauts to ride to low-Earth orbit, or a bill of lading for a cargo delivery to space station by a private operator. I want us to get to that point.
4. How concerned are you that an incoming administration might shuffle NASA's mandate and suddenly the manned missions, which are very prominent now, are put on the backburner?
I can't imagine any U.S. president or any U.S. Congress deciding to take the United States out of the business of human space flight.
5. Some have made the argument that the moon is just wasting time that should be devoted to the more important mission of getting to Mars. How do you respond to people who feel there's not a case for the moon?
And there are other people who have made the case that the moon is an object of very significant interest for the human race and should be. I don't propose to enter that debate, because I can't change people's thinking about what's important to them, but I would say that my view is that what we are trying to do here is to create the capability for America to be a space-faring nation. And the places that are out there for us to go are the moon, Mars and near-Earth asteroids in the next several decades and in this century. And we need to develop the capability to go to those places and do the things that seem intelligent to do. The moon is one of those places. On the moon, we're going to have opportunities for numerous scientific advancements—everything from large radio telescopes to large cosmic ray detectors. But we're also going to learn how to live and work on the surface of another planet before going to Mars. We're going to need to do that. The first time you go to Mars, you're going to be away from home for three years at a time. Our maximum experience on another planet to this point has been three days on the surface of the moon. And that was 35 years ago. So maybe we should walk before we run.
6. Some of the things we're interested in at Popular Mechanics are some of the seemingly mundane challenges that might be quite large, such as the nature of the lunar soil and how that might interfere with space suits, equipment and everything else. What do you expect to be the challenges to crack up there?
Well, if we knew all about it, it wouldn't be called the frontier. People have debated and been concerned about lunar dust since the Apollo missions. And it is a concern. It is harsh, gritty, abrasive stuff, and it poses a hazard to both equipment and to humans. So we need to keep it out of living spaces as much as possible. But if we're going to utilize the moon, we're going to have to learn to work in it. The people who run oil rigs in the desert have similar problems. Equipment that works perfectly well elsewhere won't work there. We human beings have a pretty good track record of figuring a way around things like that. Which is not to say that it isn't a concern: It is a concern. But we'll figure it out.
7. Do you think the American public is supportive of these manned mission as it was during the Apollo era?
When you look at opinion polling across all segments of American society at different times, we consistently get support ranging from 65 or 75 percent—depending on who and when—for NASA's goals and vision and products. That kind of support for any government program is pretty extraordinary. The American people like NASA. We recently had a polling exercise where after we did the basic poll, we told the respondents what some of the benefits of this program have been. You re-ask the questions, our approval ratings get up into the 90-percent range, which is beyond extraordinary. Different people like different parts of the space program—that's why we have them. But, broadly speaking, when we do exciting, challenging manned space flight missions, people love it.
8. NASA scientists are also uniquely equipped to study Earth-based phenonmena such as global warming. Do you think they're getting the support, both financial and institutional, they need to continue their work?
I do. You can always use more money. But we have a $5.5-billion science program overall; 27 percent of that this year is Earth science. Nearly all of the results that people are debating come from NASA missions, NASA work, NASA researchers. I think we're doing a pretty good job.
9. Clearly, there has been some risk associated with sending astronauts on the Space Shuttle—about a 2 percent failure rate—and as we look into that next 50 years of space and the mission to Mars, what is an acceptable risk for loss of human life?
We don't know what the risk of traveling to Mars is. I believe that in extending the frontier of human action that those kind of risks are unavoidable. Humans have tolerated much higher risks in the past. When Captain Cook returned to England in 1782 from a three-year voyage to the South Seas, which in some ways is similar to a three-year voyage to Mars, the British Admiralty praised him for his extraordinary abilities to preserve the lives of his crew. He lost "only" 38 of 102 people on board—almost 40 percent. If you were to tell me right now that we'd have only a 2-percent chance of losing a crew the first time we went to Mars, I'd think that was pretty damn good.
10. If you had the chance, would you want to take that trip to Mars?
Of course, I would.
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