Thursday, December 11, 1997

Timothy Ferris, professor of journalism, University of California, Berkeley; David Morrison, director of Space, NASA Ames Research Center; and Andrew Fraknoi, chair, department of astronomy, Foothill College, wonder what we are doing in space, and how the public is served by the billions we continue to spend.

Recorded on Thursday, December 11, 1997

ROBINSON Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, America's space program. Thirty-six years ago John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, circling the planet three times in his Mercury capsule. I was just four years old at the time. Cute little kid. But I can recall that my mother was worried about John Glenn and that she didn't stop worrying until he finally splashed down. But John Glenn did splash down. His mission was a complete success. And in the high stakes of the early space program, John Glenn took on the Soviets, rallied the nation's pride and helped propel the United States onward to the moon. Now, when the race to the moon was over, NASA spent some time trying to figure out what to do next. And there are those who would say that NASA is still trying to figure out what to do next. A space station is under construction, but it's lagging years behind the original schedule. President Bush called for a manned mission to Mars, but nothing much has happened. NASA's biggest success so far has been the space shuttle program. And as it happens, this year at the age of seventy-six, John Glenn will be returning to space, orbiting in a space shuttle to test the effects of weightlessness on older persons. This time around my mother isn't worried about John Glenn because space travel has become so routine. So routine. So routine as to be boring? Is NASA still pressing the envelope the way it once did? Or in the absence of a Soviet adversary has NASA lost its focus, its sense of purpose? Well, those are questions for our three guests. David Morrison is Director of Space at NASA's Ames Research Center. Andrew Fraknoi is Chairman of the Department of Astronomy at Foothill College. And Timothy Ferris is a Professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Now, while John Glenn may be eager to get into space, after wearing this contraption, I myself would much rather be President of the United States.

ROBINSON We're at Camp David. I'm the President. I'm faced with a problem. There is a space program, it's terribly expensive. You three gentlemen are scientists, I've flown you into Camp David to advise me. Question number one: the first big NASA success is the Apollo program. David, was it worth it?

MORRISON It certainly was because it was a major contributor to bringing the Cold War to what we consider a satisfactory conclusion.

ROBINSON Interesting point. It achieved a national purpose. As a scientific matter, did we learn anything from it?

MORRISON Oh we surely did. First, we learned how to do major space programs and the lessons we learned, the engineering lessons from going to the moon have powered our visits to the planets, our putting up things like the Hubble Space Telescope and so forth. In addition, we learned a great deal about the moon. But no one would argue that science was the driver for Apollo. It was really just trailing along behind picking up the crumbs and trying to do as best we could with a program that was fundamentally done for political reasons.

ROBINSON Do you buy that? Apollo was worth it because we beat the Russians?

FRAKNOI Well I don't know if it was worth it because we beat the Russians. But it was worth it because it unified the technology of the country behind an ambitious goal and drew people of imagination into the space agency. It was a goal that inspired first rate people. And I think you need that. That's what, that's why I would back a Mars mission because it is the kind of goal that inspires everyone from school kids to engineers to scientists.

ROBINSON You'd go for that?

FERRIS Fair enough although I think from the science perspective you'd have to say that what we learned about the moon could have been learned much more cheaply without sending humans there, that there was a great deal that was accomplished, as David said, that had a political rather than a scientific aim. But in terms of launching the space program so the speak for the United States, answering Sputnik in a way that was politically useful, I think we would all agree that it was useful to the program.

ROBINSON Okay, let me ask you this question. As scientists, how do you feel about being drawn up into a great, national program, a sense of national purpose? It doesn't seem to - not only do you not bristle at that but the three of you seem to have some sense of pride in that. Scientists don't necessarily, scientists are not necessarily pure scientists.

MORRISON Scientists are human just like anyone else, and speaking for myself, I became a space scientist in significant part because of the thrill of the Apollo program.

ROBINSON What about our space program since Apollo? Is NASA still exciting?

ROBINSON Now let's move to another program. I would hazard to expect that you are going to have found it a little less thrilling, the Space Shuttle. Is that program worth it?

FRAKNOI The Space Shuttle was part of a vision that included the Space Station. The idea was that we would build a big station in space and the Shuttle would service it and work in constructing it and so forth. It has never made sense without the Space Station and now I'm afraid that in a sense that Space Station is being built to give the Shuttle something to do. Now you look at costs of between 500 to say 700, 800 million dollars per Shuttle launch, a fairly realistic accounting, and what you are getting for that is the release of a satellite or the capture of a damaged satellite or seeing what shrimp do in weightlessness. I have to say that's neither very inspiring nor is it scientifically of very much value.

ROBINSON Now, we have this craft, this rather ungainly thing, we blasted off with rockets that drop off and dump themselves into the ocean and then it orbits 250 miles above the earth. Am I right on the facts of the case and do you agree that we are not learning much from it?

FRAKNOI Well, it's a bus. The interesting thing about the shuttle is that when we had other means of getting into space it seemed like it wasn't that important. But now when its the only bus that goes to where you want to go it's a bus we need. There are now other methods being tried and things coming along. But while it was the only way for the United States to get into space many programs that required a bus to get things up there required the Shuttle. It is not necessarily the best thing that could have been done but now it's necessary.

ROBINSON Okay now, David, explain this to me. You just used the word "thrill" with regard to Apollo. And now he's talking about the Space Shuttle as a bus. We've gone from a thrilling event that drew you into the Space Program yourself to a thing that is as mundane as a bus. What happened to NASA?

MORRISON But maybe you are not asking the question quite right because the Apollo program was a program involving going to the moon and doing something there. The Shuttle is a transportation vehicle. To ask whether the Shuttle is worthwhile you must ask what kinds of missions, what kinds of science we do with it. Some of it is very exciting and very thrilling...


MORRISON Some of it perhaps not. The Shuttle has allowed us to launch missions like Galileo which is exploring Jupiter. Like the Hubble Space Telescho

ROBINSON The Casini mission was what?

MORRISON Excuse me. That is not even correct what I said. The Shuttle has allowed us to launch missions like Galileo which is exploring Jupiter, like the Hubble Space Telescope which is a wonderful instrument for studying astronomy, and the Shuttle has allowed us to take the first steps toward understanding the response of life to microgravity, to zero G. And if we ever want to have an expansive program in which humans go beyond mere Earth space, go back to the moon, go to Mars, we have to learn how to live and work in space and have to learn how our physiology and psychology respond to the space environment.

FRAKNOI I want to just jump in because I think the key point needs to be made....


FRAKNOI ...that David made about a tool. I would say that you haven't seen the faces of the schoolchildren looking at those Hubble pictures. I think that there is astronomy that was done with the Shuttle, they're using the Shuttle as a launch platform. That is very exciting. If you look at the kinds of work that we have done in uncovering the places where stars are born. If you look at the kind of work we've done in finding giant black holes lurking at the hearts of other galaxies the weird things that this new instrument and others like it are making possible, there is - its not a political issue anymore, its just a pure knowledge. But I think it is in many ways as thrilling for youngsters, for people who are interested in space, as some of the achievements of human beings climbing around in other bodies.


FERRIS Well, Hubble is a wonderful mission, but in a way it comments...

ROBINSON Tim, just explain to me: Hubble is a big telescope in space.

FERRIS It's a big telescope in space. And you know these magnificent photos we've been seeing coming in in recent years taken with this telescope which is above the interfering effects of the earth's atmosphere, not only great photos but really great solid science. And yet it is a commentary, it seems to me, on the poverty really of the Space Shuttle program. If I go out every day in the surf up to my ankles and you ask me what I'm doing and I say I'm learning how to cross the ocean and find new worlds, at a certain point you are going to have to say, "Well, when are you going to get at least your knees wet?" You know? Seems to me its time to get our knees wet.

ROBINSON On to NASA's big ticket item, the International Space Station. After years of planning and millions of dollars already spent, the space station hasn't even left the ground. Should it?

ROBINSON I don't know the science but I do know a little bit about bureaucratic catastrophes and this looks like a deal that is never going to get off the ground as a political, bureaucratic matter.

FERRIS Then you look at California with all of its electoral votes and you say we need something to keep aerospace going and what better candidate do we have than the Space Station?

ROBINSON Ah! So we...

FERRIS To some degree there is something...

ROBINSON The scientific mind is able to stoop to political concern?

FERRIS Oh, I would do the same thing. I mean, I think it's important to maintain a healthy aerospace agency and industry. It's just a question of do we really need this uninspiring a mission to do it?

ROBINSON Well okay, so let me ask you this. Suppose I just put it to a vote right now. First of all let me understand. It's no longer viewed as necessary to build the Space Station to get to Mars?

FERRIS Certainly not in my view.

ROBINSON In your view?

FRAKNOI I think there are other alternatives. But...

ROBINSON And in your view, David?

MORRISON It is probably necessary. Certainly it will contribute very major things in our understanding before we want to commit humans to go all the way to Mars.

ROBINSON Okay, so polling this table of scientists I get two votes against the Space Station and one vote in favor.

FRAKNOI No, I weasel.

ROBINSON You weasel?


ROBINSON One, one and then abstention.


ROBINSON Or a straddle. Well, thank you very much gentlemen. Well let me just stage a little debate then. Tim says it's not necessary. Certainly net necessary. He used that word. Why is it necessary?

MORRISON When we talk about sending human expeditions to Mars we recognize that there are many things we don't know. Some of them we don't know about Mars. Some of them we don't have the technology. And some of them have to do with the response of humans and of life in general to prolong weightlessness and to radiation and to the other things that exist in space that we can't test experimentally on the Earth. We'll carry out those tests on the Space Station. There may indeed in principle be other ways to do it but some way to put humans for long duration space flights is the only way I know of.

ROBINSON And the Russian space station Mir hasn't done it?

MORRISON It has not done it.

FERRIS I have to disagree that all this is necessary to get to Mars. It is not clear to me that one needs to undergo prolonged weightlessness to get to Mars. In any case, certainly people have been in orbit now for as long as they would be on their way to Mars. Radiation is a problem on a long mission but surely we're not going to conduct experiments from a space station in exposing astronauts to radiation. It is just a question of how to shield them from radiation. And then we come to the phrase "living and working in space" which again to me is you're up to your ankles in the water and you say you're learning to swim.

ROBINSON Well, so how would I as a politician and we're playing a game here, I'm pretending to be President, but this is a decision that has to be made by the political system if the...

FERRIS If the government does it, yes.

ROBINSON If the government does it. If the scientific community is split like this how the heck do the politicians decide who's right here? Are you suggesting that we don't need to hopscotch at all? We just build a giant sling shot and fire off to Mars right away.

FERRIS I'm coming to think - maybe its just because I'm getting older and I would like to see a Mars landing in my lifetime which certainly when I was a little kid was what we all thought was possible. And it was possible and yet it hasn't happened. I would certainly think there is a lot to be said if you want to get to Mars for simply going to Mars.

MORRISON I agree with that. Nothing would make us happier than being able to make a Kennedy-type decision to go within a decade to Mars. We want to make sure that there is a compelling scientific and national interest reason to go to Mars, we want to make sure it's affordable, and we want to make sure the risk is acceptable. What the Space Station will do is help us reduce the risk.

ROBINSON Why do we need a space station? To go to Mars. Next question, why do we need to go to Mars?

ROBINSON I have to say, when I was a little boy I didn't dream of seeing Mars shot in my lifetime. You did. You were even thinking about these things when you were a kid. Why do you want to go to Mars in the first place?

FRAKNOI Let's talk about Mars for a second because Mars is I think in many ways the planet of dreams. Its a place where long ago things were much more like the Earth perhaps where there was a thick atmosphere, where there were rivers flowing, great floods going on, a place where we believe maybe even the beginnings of life could have taken place. An independent world. And there it is waiting for us to explore. Its also a place, of all the planets we know in the solar system, the one place where there is any chance of a human habitat really being able to survive. Many of the other planets don't even have surfaces on which you can stand. You land on Jupiter and you just go in and in and in as the Galileo probe did.

ROBINSON Roughly like a budget meeting but go on.

FRAKNOI Exactly. And so in fact if we are going to go to another world, if we are going to look for our cosmic cousins from the past, Mars is the place to do it.

MORRISON And the scientific thing that really drives many of us is the search for life on Mars. First the question of whether Mars did independently develop life which we might just find fossils of if it's gone extinct in which case we would very much like for our own good to know what made it go extinct on Mars. But even more exciting the possibility that there is still life on Mars. And our one chance to see in our solar system that we know of a place where there might have been independently formed life that might be just like you and me or might be different in extraordinary ways.

ROBINSON Just like us? They might be watching CNN when we land?

FERRIS Microbial life.

ROBINSON Microbial life. Is that, that's all the hope is. I mean the idea the little green men might walk up...

MORRISON Most life on Earth is microbial also. And yet all life on Earth whether it is microbes or men has the same fundamental chemistry.

ROBINSON Okay now look. Here we have a little gap. You have to help me fire something across the synapses in my own mind. I don't quite, you know the old Frank Sinatra song "I get no kick from champagne?" I don't quite get a kick from the notion of discovering microscopic remains on Mars. Why does that, human to human, make me understand why that excites you.

MORRISON We are interested in many people and many people are excited about the origin of life. How did life start on our planet? Was this a common occurrence that would take place in the Universe that you had the right conditions or is it something unique, special? And the only way we can test that question is to look and see if life formed somewhere else.

ROBINSON And this excites you too?

FERRIS We are in an era in which it is becoming clear to the human species that planetary management has become part of our duties as a species. That we are either going to have to manage our own planet better than we are or we are going to directly suffer and our descendants will suffer as a result, as you well know.

ROBINSON Are you talking about global warming?

FERRIS That sort of thing, exactly. And life itself is a product of this planet. It lives in an interaction with that planet. We need to much better understand how planets works and how they interact with life and Mars is the best place to gain that kind of comparative knowledge which may be necessary if this planet is not going to go in the direction of say Venus: a world that evidently supports no life at all. Why? Because of runaway global warming. Now I am not saying that we are going to turn into Venus next week but I am saying that we are at a crucial juncture in the maintenance of our own works and we need to study our neighboring worlds to understand what to do.

ROBINSON Okay now, to send human beings to Mars, we're talking about billions of dollars. Why don't we just send a little unmanned gizmo - I know that it's more than a gizmo; it takes a lot of technology to - why don't we just pop a few of those up there? Wouldn't that be good enough? Unmanned missions good enough for you?

FERRIS Well it depends on what you want. I wouldn't say good enough in the long run starting with just scientific reasons. I'd be interested to know what David and Andy think about this. If life on Mars is quiescent or if it became distinct and has fossilized it may take a so-called manned mission just to answer the question of life on Mars, much less to go deeper into it.


FRAKNOI There are many romantic and other reasons why human beings are good to send to Mars I think overall that it would be very important if the choice came down to only a space program that had Mars, human landing on it and nothing else, to opt for something else. But given that I think that our species has the wherewithal and the resources to try to do both, I think there are romantic reasons quite separate from what Tim says to continue says to continue having a human presence in space. We are a species that I think ultimately is going to outgrow the Earth.

ROBINSON Andy Fraknoi calls Mars, "The Planet of Dreams". How do these three propose to pay for these dreams?

ROBINSON As the president I have to keep in mind the single mother who's working two shifts as a waitress to raise three kids and stay off welfare and you are proposing that I should tax her to pay for your dreams. Now that may be a crude way of putting it but that is one description of what you are suggesting here. Why should the government undertake this mission?

MORRISON I'm going to first answer the question of why would this woman with 3 children be interested in being taxed or in seeing the government undertake this. And the answer is that that woman's greatest motivation probably is to see her children well educated and successful. And we know for a fact that space exploration and science of this sort that really captures people's imagination turns on kids and is a tool for improving education. If her kids are turned on by the concept of astronauts on Mars then she will support it.

FERRIS Also you can ask her, you know. Pollsters ask ordinary Americans all the time about space and they support the space exploration which is why the NASA budget remains fairly constant year after year. We want a healthy scientific ecology, not one big science project that eats up all the money. And the question really that you are asking is can that be Mars, a manned mission to Mars, if the government funds it, and that's a good question. Because you know the trouble with government missions is there is so much prestige tied up in them that they have to succeed and to make something have to succeed, to drive the risk level down that low, is very expensive. So maybe government isn't the way to get to Mars. Maybe there is some way to do something that is more like the origins of aviation when you had a lot of people out risking their neck for some kind of a prize. And this is an idea that is being bandied around that the government might simply suggest a prize or a series of prizes for whoever wanted to go to Mars and award them if someone is brave or foolhardy enough to win.

ROBINSON Okay now, so what do you make of this so-called Gingrich Prize I've heard about?

FERRIS I'm not sure I buy it. I think that the beginnings of aviation may not be an appropriate analogy because in aviation there was the clear, immediate commercial benefit whereas I think in going to Mars it is not so clear. So my sense is that there is a role for the government to play. I think that the issue that I would like to stress is one that has to do exactly with the kind of family you are talking about where there is a family on welfare or a family that goes and goes on vacation. If you think about the average family budget most of it is taken up with very day-to-day concerns: the housing, the clothing, etc.

ROBINSON absolutely.

FERRIS But every family that I know has a little mad money they put aside so that when they work their head off to pay the taxes and to do all the things that life requires they still have 2 weeks or 3 weeks to go on vacation, to do something crazy, to buy unusual presents. Nobody lives life without that element of having something fun to look forward to. For the human species, the kind of scientific exploration we are talking about is that kind of family mad money. It's what you do when you've done the work.

ROBINSON Unless there is government money involved we are not going to Mars. All 3 of you believe that?

FERRIS That has been pretty much the history of exploration, you know. I mean Columbus didn't go to a corporate boardroom to raise the money. He went to the crown.

ROBINSON All three agree. We have to have government funding. Alright, what's the damage going to be?

Okay now, so George Bush in 1989 says we're going to Mars by the year 2019. There is a deadline on record of 20 years and the cost again, flip around the internet, the cost that was quickly associated with this program over 20 years is 450 Billion with a big "B" dollars. Boys, I can tell you it ain't gonna happen. We agree. Okay? So what do you - have you got the costs down these days?

MORRISON Oh yeah. It certainly would be much lower than that and there is...

ROBINSON What sort of numbers? In round billions, how much would it cost?

MORRISON The current NASA estimate, which probably my colleagues would say is automatically higher than it needs to be although I don't know if that is true, the current NASA estimate is the order of 50 billion dollars.

ROBINSON 50 billion over...

MORRISON 50 billion over a period of a dozen years.

ROBINSON A dozen years.

MORRISON For a direct mission to Mars and the objective is to cut it down considerably cheaper than that if we can.

ROBINSON And you'd agree with these numbers? That sounds reasonable to you? Nobody is talking about 450 billion anymore.

FRAKNOI No, I think that's clear but I think to some degree unpredictable because the steps still need to be taken, technology needs to be developed. You would not be ready tomorrow to commit to a manned mission to Mars. What you need is a step by step program of developing the technology.

FERRIS That was true when Kennedy announced Apollo, too, though. No one knew how they were going to do it.

ROBINSON Wasn't he taking a terrible risk?

MORRISON Yeah. He was sticking his neck out. That is what so appealing about it.

ROBINSON It's not as if anybody actually knew it could be done when he said that, was he?

GUESTS That's right. That's right.

ROBINSON And that is the case now, or are you reasonably confident that we could go to Mars?

MORRISON Well, I'm reasonably confident but I am not the one who has to deliver the program or who's going to go, is going to risk his neck going.

FERRIS Can we do it affordably and can we do it at acceptable risk? It's not just a question could we get to Mars.

ROBINSON But the three of you have now sketched out an alternative that sounds not that bad to me now as the president which is you spread the cost over a dozen years. You think we can get there in a dozen years? I'm looking for three heads nodding.


ROBINSON And it may be about 50 billion dollars which is 3 to 5 to 6 billion, 6 billion in a peak year over a dozen years. You'd go for that? You think it's doable, that's feasible?

FERRIS It's feasible.

FRAKNOI I would go for it if it doesn't imperil the other things we need to do in space.

ROBINSON Alright. Now this is the last sort of round of - all three of you agree just I can see, you talk about it with considerable passion. You want us to go to Mars, right?


ROBINSON Okay, we are going to close this out with two questions. I'll go around the table quickly. I want a vote up or down from each of you on the Space Station. You're in favor?

MORRISON Yes, most of the money has been spent and it will be launched starting next year.


FRAKNOI Not thrilled with it but accepting the fact I think it should just be a balanced program with the Space Station as one item.

ROBINSON You'll live with it.

FRAKNOI I'll live with it.

ROBINSON And you think it's just bone-headed from beginning to end?

FERRIS I just think its pointless. I don't know what it's for except in the most marginal sense and I'm also concerned that what Andy and Dave say makes sense if it stays within budget. But once up there with human lives on the line as it starts to age and costs start running up and its eating up more and more of the budget, how do you get out?

ROBINSON Anyone who's been stuck with a used car will understand that problem. So now last question. Twenty years from now will we have been to Mars? Will we have sent a human to Mars and back? Prediction?

FERRIS Not under our present trajectory, no.


FRAKNOI Same here. Not likely unless some things change about the way we're doing things but we will by that time have had a lot of interesting robots on Mars and we may know a lot more about the planet.


MORRISON I think we will and I think we will because we want to find life on Mars.

ROBINSON Thank you very much. David, Andrew, Tim, a pleasure.

Although they differed in detail, all three of our guests agreed the United States should undertake a mission to Mars. A manned mission could take place in ten, twenty years. I wonder if John Glenn will be available at the age of 96. I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.

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