For NASA, What Comes After The Shuttle Program?
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The shuttle program is winding down, but space exploration is far from over. NASA has doled out millions to private companies to develop a kind of space taxi to the International Space Station.
And for more about that and some other big space ambitions, we turn now to John Logsdon. He's a member of the NASA Advisory Council's Exploration Committee and the former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
Dr. JOHN LOGSDON (Member, NASA Advisory Council Exploration Committee): Good afternoon.
NORRIS: Let me ask you about some of the things that are in the works, and why don't we begin with the thing that we mentioned, the space taxi? And when I think about a taxi, I think of something that's yellow and has black and white checks on the side. I assume it won't look like...
Dr. LOGSDON: No, it won't. But it will almost certainly be a capsule, although one of the competing companies has a little glider that could land on a runway. It's a small thing like we used in the '60s and the '70s, just a capsule, and only to transport crew, probably up to six or seven people up to the space station and back. Won't have all the capabilities of the shuttle. It is really just a transportation service, just a taxi.
NORRIS: When will we first see that? Is there a lag between the time when the space shuttle program ends and when you might see that capsule take flight?
Dr. LOGSDON: Yeah. For the next few years after the shuttle stops flying, presumably in June, we will be dependent on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to carry American astronauts to the space station. Hopefully, by 2015 or 2016, these new systems will come online, be tested and be ready to carry astronauts to the station.
NORRIS: Could you tick through some of the other things that are on the drawing board?
Dr. LOGSDON: The current law of the land says that NASA shall develop a heavy lift, a big rocket for deep space exploration and a thing with a non-euphonious name called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, a vehicle to carry astronauts - probably a crew of four - to distant destinations. So it has to be set up so that they can have life support for a monthlong and even longer journeys.
NORRIS: What will the astronauts be looking for? What are you hoping to explore and to discover with deep space flight?
Dr. LOGSDON: I think the answer is different destinations. Asteroids are clues to the origin of the solar system. They're some of the primordial material out of which the solar system formed. So there's a lot of fascinating science to be done. And there are people who think that they are rich in resources that could be economically utilized. Maybe not so much the near-Earth asteroids as the ones beyond Mars in the asteroid belt, where people say there are trillions of dollars of minerals embodied in them.
To go back to the moon, I think it's both to - you could put a radio telescope on the back of the moon if you're searching for extrasolar planets, maybe searching for signals of extraterrestrial life. We only went to a few destinations, only six spots on the moon. We haven't explored that. There is interesting evidence that there's water, at least at the south pole of the Moon that could be used to support a scientific outpost. So we're not done with exploring the moon.
And Mars, the issue is was there ever or might there be now any kind of life form there? That's kind of the Holy Grail.
NORRIS: Will we see travel to Mars within our lifetime?
Dr. LOGSDON: Depends on how old you are. I - we don't know how to go to Mars now. This is the sort of thing we have to learn step by step of how to protect the crew, how to keep the crew able to do work once they get there. We've targeted some time in the 2030s as a reasonable time frame; 2035, something like that, 25 years from now.
NORRIS: Now, I'm not going to try to guess your age. But I'm - just from looking at you, assuming that you're of a generation where young people grew up dreaming of space flight, does that hold true for young children today?
Dr. LOGSDON: My first launch that I attended in person was Apollo 11, the first mission to the moon. Nothing is going to get better than that. I took my 3-and-a-half-year-old grandson down for a shuttle launch last spring. And it had a remarkable impact on him. So, at least, he is going to grow up wanting to be an astronaut, wanting to go into space.
NORRIS: John Logsdon, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us.
Dr. LOGSDON: My pleasure.
NORRIS: John Logsdon is a member of the NASA Advisory Council's Exploration Committee, and he's also the former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.