GOING AROUND IN CIRCLES: The Future of NASA

Friday, October 25, 2002

The space program used to mean one thing: the effort to put American astronauts on the moon. That effort is becoming ancient history. We haven't sent anyone to the moon in thirty years. So what is NASA's mission today? What sort of space exploration is worth pursuing today and tomorrow? And is NASA the right institution for the job?

Recorded on Friday, October 25, 2002

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, NASA--lost in space?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.

[Music]

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, the future of the American space program. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, used to have a simple and understandable mission--get Americans to the moon before any Russians got there. Today of course, the moon project is history. The last time Americans sent anyone to the moon was some three decades ago. So what is the NASA mission now? What kind of space exploration is worth pursuing today and tomorrow? Should we be concentrating on sending Americans to Mars, or should we drop the manned aspects of the space program altogether?

Joining us, three guests. Chris Chyba holds the Carl Sagan chair at the SETI Institute. David Morrison is the Senior Scientist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute, and Timothy Ferris is one of the nation's leading science writers, the author most recently of Seeing in the Dark.

Title: Final Frontiersmen

Peter Robinson: John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 1962: "We choose to go to the moon because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills." Does NASA, today, organize and measure the best of our energies and skills? Timothy?

Timothy Ferris: No.

Peter Robinson: Chris?

Chris Chyba: NASA is ambitious, it's searching for life elsewhere, that's an important human endeavor. They ought to be the best doing the best. In some of what they do, they're very good.

Peter Robinson: David?

David Morrison: NASA is now more motivated by science than it was in Kennedy's time. This is good for the scientist, but perhaps not as good in terms of public support.

Peter Robinson: Okay, NASA is founded in 1958. We have John Kennedy announcing that we'll go to the moon in 1962. For a period of years, the mission of NASA, at least as perceived by Congress, and the public is quite straightforward, get to the moon first. And it gets to the moon and then seems to lose its sense of purpose. Now, until the Apollo program, Wernher von Braun, the rocket scientist, had a stepping stone approach, master plan, whereby we build the space station first and then go to the moon. But then after we've been to the moon, there would still be a space station there, we could use it for other expeditions. The Apollo program came along, it got us to the moon faster, but then we had no space station. Professor John Graham of the University of North Dakota: "What happened was just what von Braun was afraid of, we ended up trapped in low earth orbit with a present space station that still isn't even built." Is that roughly what went wrong? Should we have stuck with Von Braun? Timothy?

Timothy Ferris: Well, my impression is that it is and another important thing to remember about the von Braun, Willy Ley program laid out in beautiful books with stunning illustrations by Chesley Bonestell and supported by Walt Disney.

Peter Robinson: And this is in the 50's really?

Timothy Ferris: In the 50's. When I was a kid, we built a model, a Disney model of this giant rocket that would take us, not only to build a space station that looked a lot like the one in 2001, the film, and not only to build a lunar base, but to use that as the basis to go onto Mars. And that was really the most exciting third step in this program. And my impression is that pretty much what you described--that once we jumped past that and then there was a reaction against that which coincided with what was going on in the Vietnam War and a reaction against technology generally. That people--we turned back and now we are trapped in lower earth orbit. We couldn't go to the moon in a year if we wanted to.

Peter Robinson: So do you also regret the loss of the von Braun master plan so to speak?

Chris Chyba: I think we have to remember that NASA wasn't in a position of being able to lay out a comprehensive plan that it was going to follow. It was trapped like America was in the Cold War and sending human beings to the moon quickly was a Cold War political objective. That's not to say that some important science didn't get done along the way, it absolutely did. But the objective, the overriding objective was to get a human being on the moon quickly. And that had other costs, fair enough. What I'd like to see now would be a kind of progression, more methodical progression of human beings out into the solar system.

David Morrison: I really think the important question is where we're going, not the route to get there. There are multiple roads. We can go via a very well established infrastructure and a space station, we could go via bases on the moon, but the ultimate question is: where in fact are we going?

Peter Robinson: All right, we'll get to where we should be going, but first let's look at where we are.

Title: Going Around in Circles

Peter Robinson: University of Maryland physicist Robert Park: "The experiments that are planned for the space station aren't bad science, they're just unimportant science. It's hard to see anything useful coming of it." This gigantic project, building a thing the size of a football field, the length of a football field, two hundred and twenty miles over the earth, and it isn't important? How did this happen?

Timothy Ferris: Well, it's not a scientific project really, although it's been sold that way. It's something for the shuttle to do and it's a way to try to keep some momentum in the manned space program going, but the criticism I think that many people have, the scientific community has is there isn't science involved and the cost is enormous compared to other scientific…

Peter Robinson: Projected at eight billion and now it's expected to come in at hundred billion dollars.

Timothy Ferris: Yeah, for that kind of money, at the lower end of that range we could have orbiters around every interesting object in the solar system--to move to unmanned exploration, be learning tremendous amounts scientifically that the space station is never going to…

Peter Robinson: So you grant--you agree that the science that will be conducted on the space station, or by way of the space station, is in itself not impressive?

Timothy Ferris: Well, it's certainly my impression and plenty of people will know more about it than I, are underwhelmed by the scientific potential of the space station. It does have advocates who claim that it's scientific, but as far as I can tell, they're mostly talking about technology, material science, experiments which certainly ought to lead somewhere, but at an enormous cost.

David Morrison: I think there are two ways that it could be important and admittedly we don't have the answers yet. One is the pure discovery of science you get when you explore something completely new, in this case long term weightlessness in orbit and the effect on not just humans but on all kinds of living creatures, that has not been done before, and it could be revolutionary or perhaps not. You don't know in advance what the discovery space will be. The other is the practical question. If we really do expect to send humans to Mars or elsewhere in the solar system, we have to get a lot of practice and a lot of understanding, which can only be obtained by long exposure in earth orbit.

Peter Robinson: Okay, now let me quote Timothy Ferris to you Chris, and see if you care to defend NASA against Dr. Ferris here. "NASA is canceling or scaling back scientifically important missions because they don't have the money. The reason is that they've been involved in this extravagantly costly manned program, this stepping stone to nowhere." Ooh, that phrase, "stepping stone to nowhere." Is that an adequate and accurate description of NASA as it stands now?

Chris Chyba: Let me say that I'm a planetary scientist. What I do professionally is be involved in exploring the solar system with robotic spacecraft. And that's an important scientific aspect of NASA that you did not mention earlier when you emphasizing the human space flight program. Human space flight occupies the bulk of NASA's budget.

Peter Robinson: Of the budget, right.

Chris Chyba: That's right. But they're kind of two models, one is that we're in a lifeboat and there's not enough room for everybody and if the human space flight program succeeds, then science gets thrown overboard. But you know, I think historically it's at least as accurate to say that when NASA has been healthy as an agency, when there's been a robust human space flight program, we've also had a robust space exploration program involving robotic spacecraft. But, we don't--the human space flight program is not driven by science. I don't think that's ever been the driver. That's not to say we haven't learned important things from it.

Peter Robinson: The manned aspect of NASA's program, which we all agree takes up the greater part of the NASA budget, is a relic of the Cold War. We ought to just drop it, or reduce it. You won't go for that?

David Morrison: You're wrong. No, because I believe that the manned program we have now is a way station to somewhere, namely, ultimately to human expansion into the solar system.

Peter Robinson: It's a stepping stone to somewhere, not a stepping stone to nowhere.

Timothy Ferris: No, I agree. I support the manned program, but what worries me is that we're stalled in such a low ambition task as endlessly working on expanding this space station. How many people, if you ask a high school class, could even tell you how many astronauts were on the space station on a given day? How many first-rate engineers of the future are excited to want to go and join NASA because they see in the news that a two hundred forty million dollar girder has been attached as a result of the latest one billion dollar shuttle mission?

Peter Robinson: Let's take a closer look at the merits of NASA's unmanned mission program.

Title: Deep Space, Nein?

Peter Robinson: Voyager probes sending us massive amounts of new data about the solar system... Hubble telescope up there giving us massive amounts of data about this solar system but also deep space... Unmanned missions have found indications of water on Mars, one on the moons of Jupiter... All this without risking human lives, and in the margins of the NASA budget. So, you're the hard case for the manned space program. Would you agree that to this point, NASA has gotten more results for dollars spent from the unmanned aspects of the program and that therefore, it's only sensible to expand them relative to the manned aspects of the program?

David Morrison: I agree that science is better served by the unmanned program, but also, you know, there's an implication in what you say that the science is not expanding and it is. It has been the most rapidly growing part of the NASA budget over the last ten years.

Timothy Ferris: It was folk wisdom twenty years ago, promulgated primarily by television producers and congresspeople that the public was only interested in space flight if human life was at stake.

Chris Chyba: Look at the result of Mars Pathfinder. Look at how many people were fascinated by that little rover scooting around the Martian surface.

Timothy Ferris: Exactly, it turns out that people are riveted by the scientific results of unmanned, so the justification for manned--I think it sells manned space flight short to say that its justification is merely political. There are good reasons for humans to go into space.

Chris Chyba: So one of the things we ought to be thinking about in the coming decades is putting a kind of telecommunications network in orbit around Mars so that we can transmit real time video back from Martian rover so that school children and the rest of us can watch on TV a camera on one of those rovers in real time as it explores the Martian surface. You are there virtually. And that will have the effect of making--we're talking about Mars now--making Mars seem like a natural place that human beings spend their time, even if only virtually. It'll become familiar to us…

Peter Robinson: All three of you are unwilling to ditch the manned aspect of the program, but I haven't yet got to the point of asking you where you think it ought to go--the space station satisfies none of you, are all three of you willing to sign on the dotted line that we ought to be pursuing a program to send human beings to Mars? You go for that?

Timothy Ferris: I'd sign for that.

David Morrison: Sure, I'd sign it.

Peter Robinson: Oh really? Okay, so that's the next step?

Chris Chyba: It's an interesting scientific thing to be done with humans.

David Morrison: It may not be the next step, the next step may be go back to the moon or to go to asteroids, I'm not sure if it's too big a step and I don't know how we'll get to Mars, but we agree that that's the trajectory.

Peter Robinson: But in a Mars program you have the conjunction of a daring project to capture the imagination of the American people and useful science.

Timothy Ferris: Well yeah, I mean, not only useful science but real exploration. Mars has a land area equivalent to the dry land area of Earth. We know very little about this whole world. And one of the problems with real exploration is it's hard to justify in advance because if you knew in advance what you were going to find, it wouldn't be exploration.

Chris Chyba: But we don't want to go to Mars analogously to the way we went to the moon, where we go there, we plant a flag, we spend a couple weeks and come back. I think that would risk the future of Mars exploration. I think we need to build towards that more systematically.

David Morrison: And you also have a goal in Mars exploration that I think is more intrinsically exciting both scientifically and the public--and the public in the way also than the moon--that is the goal to look for life, to look for the possibility of independent life that has formed and evolved on Mars. Or if for some reason it once had life and lost it, to understand what happened.

Peter Robinson: Hmm, I think I need our guests to explain to me just why the search for life is so important.

Title: Life is Beautiful

Peter Robinson: I am sure that this is a defect of mine, but when I read about searching for life on Mars and the excitement that some of the scientists seem to feel for the possibility that eons ago, little microscopic things that counted as alive might have existed on Mars. Give me some sense why people should be excited--go ahead.

David Morrison: If there were little microscopic things developed on Mars…

Peter Robinson: Yes, go ahead David.

David Morrison: They have solved some of the most profound problems in the universe, namely how to extract energy from their surroundings, how to encode it in whatever their equivalent of the genome is, how to be alive--one of the great mysteries of what life is and how it starts. Even if they're only microbes, if they've learned that, then they are wonderfully fascinating.

Chris Chyba: The next thing to say is that a lot of the public really does care about microbes--look at the response to the Mars meteorite and that was a hint of fossils…

Peter Robinson: The Mars meteorite was--you better give us the background on that.

Chris Chyba: There was a meteorite recovered from Antarctica called the Alan Hills Meteorite. There was a claim issued by a set of researchers that there was evidence of Martian fossils in that meteorite. It looks now as though all those lines of evidence are probably incorrect and that probably the meteorite does not contain strong evidence of life. But there was a public firestorm when that initial announcement was made. The public really does care about life in any form, even if it's microscopic.

Timothy Ferris: You have to keep in mind that science operates by comparing one kind of thing with another. If you only have one thing, it's very difficult for science to--you could not for instance get Newton's Laws if you only had one planet to study. We only have one kind of life known to us, so questions about what life is and how abundant it is in the universe, how it works, how intelligence evolves, all these questions are saying we're very limited in our ability to address them because we've only had this one sample of life to examine. So going from one to two is like going from one to two books in your entire knowledge. It's an enormous step and the kind of stereoscopic vision it would bring to science would make it the greatest discovery probably in the whole history of science.

Peter Robinson: I don't often get my mind changed on these shows, but the three of you just turned me around on that one. Okay, rank some projects for me--Mars, comets and asteroids, Pluto, Europa, other things you might just want to name at this table. I want to know some--I'd like some feeling for what the three of you eminent scientists would do with the dough and the agency if you could. It sounds as though all three of you are very excited about a mission to Mars. I'm right about that?

Chris Chyba: One of the toughest things I think about being the NASA administrator is that you are always--you always have a budget that's just barely big enough to sort of keep the ball rolling. But okay, if we imagine that we have some flexibility, we've got to move the station toward a station that's actually going to tell us more about deep space human flight.

Timothy Ferris: To answer your question, we live in and are ourselves products of the solar system. We came up into being, sort of like orphans having to put our own past together on one planet amongst others of this one star. We still don't know most of what there is to understand about this one system and we now know of at least a hundred planets orbiting other stars. So that it seems to me an important goal of space exploration is to keep driving back the darkness of this incredible amount of ignorance we have about how the universe works out of which we came. And that to me is the most important kind of mission that NASA or any other space agency can engage in.

David Morrison: I agree and that means you don't pick one of those things on your list to the exclusion of others. There is actually a fairly broad front of planetary exploration, of building big telescopes that can look deep into space, of discovering other planets around other stars, and of finishing the space station and doing what it's supposed to do.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so we finish the station, we ramp up work in the direction of getting human beings, but presumably first quite a few unmanned probes to Mars, and what else do you want to do? Hubble space…

Chris Chyba: Think about the opportunities we have in the next few decades. In the next few decades, if we do this right, we're going to answer some of the longest standing scientific questions that humans have asked. This decade, if the Kepler Mission succeeds, we're going to know if there are other earths around other stars.

Peter Robinson: Describe the Kepler Mission.

Chris Chyba: The Kepler Mission is a mission that will orbit the earth, it will look out at a hundred thousand stars and tell us if there are earths--if there are planets the size of our own planet orbiting those stars and how far from the star they are. So are they in the habitable zone? Do they have liquid water?

Peter Robinson: Is it correct to think of that as the telescope, like the Hubble telescope, or is it not?

Chris Chyba: It is a telescope, but it's not going to give us images of these planets, it's going to tell us if the planets are there and what their orbits look like.

David Morrison: It's actually quite a bit smaller than the Hubble telescope…

Chris Chyba: And less expensive, but we're going to know if there are other earths out there. People have been--Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake four hundred years ago in part for proffering an answer to that question. We don't have to wonder anymore, we're going to know the answer to that question. And if we continue to explore Mars and Europa in the next two or three decades, we're going to be a very long way to knowing whether there is life on Mars and whether there is life on Europa. People have been speculating about that for centuries, we're going to find out. This generation is going to find out.

Peter Robinson: Next topic, money. In a world of limited resources, why should we spend money on the space program?

Title: Heaven Can Wait

Peter Robinson: Think of me now let's say as a member of Congress from someplace other than Florida and Texas, that is to say someplace other than where NASA spends large chunks of its budget. Let's say I'm a member of Congress from Iowa and I'm thinking to myself, the swing voter in my district is something like a single mother who's holding down--working overtime to support her kids, how do I justify levying taxes on her to satisfy the noble, but nevertheless insatiable curiosity of David Morrison and Chris Chyba and Timothy Ferris. You are, I think it's fair to say, the finest science writer in America, but billions of dollars a year to provide you with material is a little hard…

Timothy Ferris: It seems excessive.

Peter Robinson: Yes, it does. So how do you persuade the congressman thinking of…

Timothy Ferris: Well, there are several things you could say to the congressman. One is that the NASA budget, which runs around fifteen billion dollars a year in current dollars, has been in equilibrium for years now and what's put it there is public support for NASA. That's pretty much the reflection of what the public thinks NASA ought to be spending on space exploration and the fact that we're insatiable for knowledge I don't think means that we think the NASA budget should be vastly increased. It's always easy to say, you know, your subject should get more money, but we're really talking I think about how NASA should allocate the money that it does get. The other question as to addressing issues of poverty and healthcare and so forth, are that historically the countries that have done the best at taking care of their own citizens are also the countries that have invested in knowledge. Think about what healthcare is. We have a phenomenal healthcare in the Untied States despite the failures of our public policy because of the scientific investment and knowledge that has gone into that. The public realizes that part of this search for knowledge involves outer space and that it does benefit us as a people and that it's worth spending the money.

Peter Robinson: These are persuasive answers. Let me ask you though, is there anything you can give me that's a little bit practical right now? Can you, by using whatever you've got in orbit, help us with the environment, for example? Or can you help us with national security? Now are those questions you don't like to hear as scientists? Is that somehow a debasement of NASA's mission or are those--are you quite open to hearing that kind of question?

David Morrison: I'm open to hearing it, but I think the answers are not going to come quickly and there is actually a much quicker answer to the question of what you say to the congressional representative about the single mother who's struggling to meet ends. NASA is a business of discovery, it is finding out how the universe works, it's creating some excitement which has to be transmitted through the media, and there is at least some prospect that that woman's child will be inspired by a picture from the Hubble or by watching a rover on Mars, or by hearing about a discovery of life on Europa--to be a better student, perhaps to grow up to be an engineer or a scientist, that it will be part of the educational system to feed in this sense of discovery and involvement and not just dry things out of books.

Chris Chyba: Yeah, one more answer, because you pushed a button for me, I mean I'm a planetary scientist at the SETI Institute but I spend half of my time as co-director of Stanford Center for International Security. So, a good half of my time is spent on issues of terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, and so on. And, you know, it was satellites in earth orbit that allowed us to keep a cap on the arms race with the Soviet Union because we could observe their missile silos and so on. That's still the case today. Satellites in orbit are essential for US national security and it was NASA that paved the way, that made that possible. So if you're looking for spin-offs…

Peter Robinson: Developed the technology that the Department of Defense was able to employ.

Chris Chyba: That's right. That' s right. So if you're looking for spin-offs, the United States' security in the Cold War and now with respect to terrorists, our ability to intercept terrorist's phone communications is strongly based on the assets that we have in orbit. So, there's a direct impact on US national security.

Peter Robinson: Last topic, some predictions about the future of the space program.

Title: The Martian Chronicles

Peter Robinson: New York Times science correspondent John Nobel Wilford: "If Mars is not a central component of a long-term space strategy, Americans may forfeit their place in the vanguard of the human future that will be lived outside the cradle of earth." Twenty years from now, will human beings have landed on Mars? David?

David Morrison: At the rate we're going, they definitely will not have landed on Mars. It would be possible; it probably would be possible only through international cooperation, which is something we haven't talked about. But the fact is that we are citizens of Planet Earth and it's Planet Earth that is going to explore the solar system ultimately, not just the United States.

Peter Robinson: So to hit it within twenty years, that Mars program has to be ramped up very considerably?

David Morrison: Yes.

Peter Robinson: And you'd like to see just that?

David Morrison: I think that's a reasonable thing to ask for and of course you don't want to do it if it can't succeed. So you have to look at the steps between here and there to make sure that twenty years is in fact a reasonable objective.

Peter Robinson: Chris?

Chris Chyba: Mars and Jupiter's moon Europa are the two most important scientific objectives in the solar system. Europa probably has the solar system's second ocean, but human beings are never going to walk on the surface of Europa. The radiation field is just too intense. Human beings are going to make it to Mars, I think sometime this century. I don't think we're going to get there in the next twenty years.

Peter Robinson: That's an unrealistic goal?

Chris Chyba: I think it's unrealistic. What we need is a systematic program.

Peter Robinson: What would be realistic? Is it even possible to think about it?

Chris Chyba: You know I hate to put a cap on ambition--I suspect around the middle of the century. I'd like to see something faster than that, but what we need is a systematic program to get there.

Peter Robinson: Timothy?

Timothy Ferris: I don't think we'll be there in twenty years, but I hope humans will get to Mars at some point in the not too distant future. The question Americans have to ask themselves is, given our heritage, the fact that we are who we are because of exploration, America was founded by explorers and settlers. The first people on the moon spoke English not because, you know, we were always speaking English here, but because Europeans were bold enough to come over and do this process of exploration. So someone's going to go to Mars sooner or later, the question for Americans is will they be Americans or will someone else turn out to be the more adventuresome explorers than we?

Peter Robinson: Timothy, Chris, and David, thank you very much. I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.