An Astronaut Explores NASA's Scientific Frontiers

He's flown the space shuttle five times, and performed eight spacewalks to service the Hubble telescope. Now astronaut and astrophysicist John Grunsfeld heads up NASA's Science Mission Directorate, where he manages scientific investigations on the home planet—and beyond.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. John Grunsfeld is something of a space-age renaissance man. He's an astrophysicist who studies cosmic rays and exoplanets, but it isn't enough just to gaze into space. He immersed himself in it, literally, as an astronaut on the space shuttle. Three times he helped to repair the jewel in the NASA crown, the Hubble Space Telescope.

He's traded his helmet for a new hat: the new head of NASA's Space Science Directorate, the guy who takes stock of all of NASA's science activities, helps to balance out the scientific priorities, whether that's studying Mars or Jupiter or the moon or the sun or Big Bang or building a new telescope, or looking homeward, like studying the Earth's atmosphere and climate change.

With no more shuttle, space shuttle, the cutback in NASA's budget and no definite plans to send astronauts to other planets, what kind of future does the American space program have, and where does space science play into that? John Grunsfeld is here with us. He joins us from NPR, in Washington. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Grunsfeld.

JOHN GRUNSFELD: Well, thank you very much, Ira. It's a pleasure to be back, and it's interesting that when we last spoke, you and I were at the Flagstaff Science Festival. And just today, I was at the USA Science and Engineering Festival here in Washington, D.C. It was very exciting. It goes on all weekend.

FLATOW: It's a very exciting festival, is it not?

GRUNSFELD: It is: lots and lots of kids, lots of interest, a lot of interactive exhibits, and it looks most of all like the young folks there are having fun with science.

FLATOW: But are they interested in space these days?

GRUNSFELD: Oh, absolutely. We have a big NASA presence, and the booths are very popular. And it's always interesting to see what they're interested in. Are they interested in Mars? The answer is yes. Are they interested in exoplanets? Very popular exhibit. But even some unusual ones: They're interested in gamma ray astronomy, understanding the mysteries of the universe, and also what kind of space vehicles we're going to be flying. Rockets are always very popular.

FLATOW: Are their parents as interested? Because they're probably one of your key demographic if you'd like to get the - some of these programs to be kept going.

GRUNSFELD: That's absolutely true, and, in fact, at the festival today, other than the physical appearance of the individuals, it was hard to tell the kids from the parents, they were all so excited.

FLATOW: Let's talk about your mission, and let me give out our number: 1-800-989-8255. And, of course, you can tweet us @scifri. For people who don't know what you do, what's your elevator talk?

GRUNSFELD: Well, my elevator talk is that NASA does great science, and science has been the backbone of NASA for more than 45 years, ever since James Webb helped introduce science into NASA, and of course that's why we named the James Webb Space Telescope after that second administrator of NASA.

And my job is to help enable scientists to do great things, to discover things and to advance, you know, American science and leadership in the world.

FLATOW: And so how - with all the range of things you can do, how do you prioritize where you're going to be spending your time and effort?

GRUNSFELD: Well, that's a great question. At the bottom of it all, we are a community-led science enterprise. But on top of that, you have to apply some strategy. And so what I find myself thinking a lot about in working with my team is, you know, how do we strategically position the investments we make in science - whether it's earth science, heliophysics, the study of the sun, you know, astrophysics to look at the mysteries of the universe and the other activities that we do, exploring Mars and planetary science or going to Jupiter, as you say.

You know, how do we balance all those strategies to provide the best long-term, continuous - as Vannevar Bush said - continuous and substantial advances in human knowledge and scientific knowledge? And that's the challenge. And, of course, we don't do this alone. We have many stakeholders. We have national priorities that are set by the administration, by the president.

We have a huge board of directors with the Senate and the House, and they have their own interests. and that's really one of the more interesting parts of my job, is not the scientific aspect, you know, what science questions are we trying to answer, but looking at where some of the other interests are.

And it's amazing to find that there are certain congressmen from districts you wouldn't expect who are absolutely fascinated by, you know, the Hubble deep field and what it means about, you know, the philosophy of, you know, who we are.

FLATOW: But a lot of congressmen - and certainly this was true of the past when we had a large manned space program - would count on money from the government to help create jobs in their communities. And is that no longer a selling point, that you can convince Congress that they need to do the Webb or a mission to Mars or even robotics missions as a way to create new jobs for their places? Is that not good enough, like it used to be in the old days?

GRUNSFELD: Well, in the old days, you know, with much larger budgets - I think most people think NASA has a pretty big budget, and we're less than half of 1 percent of the federal expenditure. You know, it's still a significant investment in science, but it's much smaller than most people think. But we do have a huge multiplying effect of the investments we make in NASA in our human spaceflight program, in our science programs, in our aeronautics program that we are really - you know, the money doesn't go to space.

You know, the money is investment in, you know, scientists, in engineers, in companies that build things for NASA. And often the things that we ask companies to build are not easy things. You know, it's not the hammer. We're asking people to build things that have never been built before: optics for the James Webb Space Telescope, or detectors that push the boundaries of what some of these companies have ever done before.

And by doing that, you know, they learn things that they then apply to other projects that allow them to be successful, and that moves our country forward. And so the NASA investment, you know, I think of it as an investment of science, but from a congressional perspective, it is jobs, but it's also an investment in the future of our country and the industrial base.

FLATOW: You know, it's interesting, we had the space shuttle atop a 747 flying by us today in New York. People were out taking pictures. It has flown all over the country, and people are ooh-ing and aah-ing about it. My reaction to that has been: Where were these people during the shuttle's lifetime? Maybe if there had been some real ooh-ing and aah-ing and this much attention, it might not have been canceled, or it might have had a more lasting effect on the manned space program.

GRUNSFELD: Well, I agree there's lots of ooh-ing and aah-ing. I was out here last week with Discovery landing at Dulles Airport to go to the National Air and Space Museum, Udvar-Hazy Center, and people were up on rooftops, out in the National Mall. Even the congressional staffers took a break from their markup to go down to the Capitol steps and watch Discovery fly over.

And, of course, with Enterprise flying over New York today, I bet it was just spectacular. But one of the things that - you know, having flown on the shuttle five times and been involved in the space program I saw, as it flew over, was just a reminder at how complex that system is.

And so, you know, we really didn't cancel the program in my mind, you know. We ended on high note. You know, our last flight, STS135, was a great flight to the International Space Station. We have, you know, Don Pettit right now orbiting the Earth. His compatriot, Dan Burbank, just landed in Kazakhstan. And, you know, we still are - have a great human spaceflight program, and we ended the space shuttle program on a high note, not, you know, in a negative way at all.

And these space shuttles that are going out to New York and that are now in Washington - one will go to Florida, one will go to Los Angeles - you know, I look at that as a celebration of a great program. You know, we flew for, you know, over 30 years, pretty remarkable for the complexity of that vehicle and the achievements that it's done.

FLATOW: But it's almost like the sun is setting on the American manned space program. Now we have the Indians, the Chinese thinking about going to the moon. We talk about going to Mars, but not in any real, concrete sense - at least with people going there. It's almost like the old British Empire, you know. We've had our day in space, it almost sounds like. Now it's time for someone else.

GRUNSFELD: Well, that's not what I think about every morning when I wake up. I think about going to Mars. I just spoke to over 500 kids, and I usually prompt them, and I say: Would you like to go to Mars? And this time I didn't. I say: Where would you like to go? And they all yelled out Mars. So the excitement is still there. And, in fact...

FLATOW: So how do you take advantage of that? I mean, you know, the excitement was there in the '60s, and we went to the moon and, you know, we did it. But here, we just talk a lot about it.

GRUNSFELD: Well, that's actually a great question because we are going to Mars. And the Mars Science Laboratory, which is on its way, hurdling towards Mars as we speak, is for a planned landing on August 6th East Coast time, early in the morning, to land the Curiosity Rover, which is this SUV-sized science machine that's going to land on the surface. And it is essentially a surrogate for a human geologist exploring Mars.

And this is the most complex, the largest, heaviest, most fantastic vehicle we've sent to Mars, and I really think of it as, you know, the first wave of exploration that we're going to be able to do that will answer some of the fundamental science questions about Mars, but also is the leading wave of the future when we will send some of these kids that were in the audience to Mars. They're just about the right age.

To achieve that, NASA's also building a heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System, and that rocket has the capability - in the 2030s, as the president has challenged us - to send humans, you know, certainly around Mars and possibly to land on Mars either in the 2030s or in that timeframe.

FLATOW: Is that fully funded? Is the money there to get that project finished?

GRUNSFELD: Well, I don't know what finished means in space exploration.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRUNSFELD: Nobody ever anticipated we would fly the shuttle as long as we did.

FLATOW: I'm saying, you know, we had three spare Saturn 5s lying around on the ground. Will we have a real rocket when this, you know, this funding barrier is finished?

GRUNSFELD: Oh, I'm absolutely confident that we will launch the Space Launch System. The first iteration can launch 70 metric tons, which is a huge, huge mass. What I'm kind of salivating at is that the Space Launch System is really designed to send cargo and crew for deep-space exploration, but it will also be an enormous benefit to science because it will provide the capability to send up very large telescopes that might be able to characterize planets around nearby stars.

It would be able to send missions to, say, Europa, a very capable mission to look for life on Europa or, you know, Enceladus or explorer, you know, the planet Jupiter in greater detail because if mass is not your limit, it brings down the cost of the missions and enables kinds of science that right now we can only dream of.

FLATOW: All right, stay with us. We're going to take a break. Dr. Grunsfeld, will you hang out for a little bit longer with us?

GRUNSFELD: Oh, it would be my pleasure.

FLATOW: We're going to talk lots more on the future of space exploration with astronaut John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Or go to our website and continue chatting at sciencefriday.com. We'll be right back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

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FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about NASA's scientific future, missions on the horizon like this summer's of the Mars Curiosity rover with my guest John Grunsfeld. He is astrophysicist, astronaut, veteran astronaut, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C.

Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Let's get to the phones. Ralph(ph) in Florida, hi Ralph, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

RALPH: Hi, how are you?

FLATOW: Hi there.

RALPH: About two weeks ago, you mentioned where we think that NASA should go as far as the next decade, or so, I believe?

FLATOW: Yes.

RALPH: And I think it's very important that we look into climate change in our own planet right now. Don't get me wrong, I've been very fascinated, growing up, with looking into the universe and how it all began and research like that, and I do think it's such a shame that we've cut back on spending on NASA just because, you know, in the last several decades, space exploration has been such a (unintelligible) as far as countries go.

You know, I think it's kind of a shame that we have to fly up there, now, in Russian space shuttles rather than our own, but, you know, what can you do?

FLATOW: OK, let me get - thanks for calling, Ralph, coming from a place that depended on a lot of NASA budgeting, Florida. What about, Dr. Grunsfeld, what about looking back down to Earth and studying our own planet from space?

GRUNSFELD: Well, I'm glad Ralph asked that question because one of the reasons that I decided to not spend my time using the Hubble Space Telescope to explore the universe and be very happy in an academic frame and come back to NASA to help with the policy is because I agree with Ralph.

Our Earth Observation Science Program is very important or trying to understand the Earth's climate. The Earth is a very complex system with lots of interrelationships, including humans and, you know, what we do as part of planet Earth and all of life on Earth as part of this system.

And so NASA has a very vibrant earth science program. You know, we're studying, you know, many aspects with satellite observations from orbit and that's absolutely changed entirely the scope of our understanding of how the climate and weather on planet Earth works.

And there's a great series of observations that we've done created in the last 20 years of just looking at sea surface measurements. If you try and measure, you know, the height of the water in a harbor at sea level, there's many different things that will change the average height there. But if you can study the average sea level over the whole globe, suddenly you can start to understand, you know, how the sea level is changing as a whole planet.

And what we have found is that the sea level has actually been rising pretty steadily, at about 3.2 millimeters per year, for better than the last decade in great detail, and it's just an amazing measurement that we've been able to put together from our satellite observations.

And just last year we noticed that the sea level went down a little bit, the average sea level, by almost five millimeters, and it was a big mystery, but because we also had satellites, the GRACE satellites that are measuring gravity on Earth, as it goes around, it can see different mass concentrations, it was actually able to find the missing water, and it turns out it was over Amazonia in South America, the Amazon Basin, and over Australia.

And, you know, it should be pretty obvious because if you listen to the news on NPR, you find out that there were big floods in Australia, and when scientists added up all the water that was over, you know, from extra rainfall that was over the Amazon and over Australia, it roughly accounted for the amount of water that would have been into the oceans and caused a continuous sea-level rise.

So it's kind of like, you know, a crime scene investigation, forensics, planetary forensics, that we were able to put together because we have satellite measurements from these different angles. And then sure enough, all of that water eventually mixes into the ocean, and with our 2012 measurements, we're right back to that 3.2 millimeters per year sea level rise that we've been observing for more than a decade.

Many stories like that. Right now, we're just tracking a story that was published in the scientific journals about the melting of Antarctic glaciers, and we're finding that as the ocean warms up, it's accelerating, which you would expect. The warm water is accelerating the rate of freshwater entering the oceans from Antarctic glaciers.

So it's just fascinating. I get to learn a lot of great Earth science, so it's for me very rewarding but also very concerning because, you know, the effects are pretty severe, including, you know, the storms. In the news hour that started at the top of the hour, we heard about, you know, the terrible tornado in Colorado, Lamar, and we're seeing higher incidents of high storms, largely due to the warmer weather, and I say weather not climate because until you have a long-term trend...

But as the Earth does warm up, and it has been warming up, we start seeing these effects and NASA has a whole suite of satellites and a big scientific community along with the rest of the world trying to understand these effects, and it's very complicated.

FLATOW: Yeah, we don't normally think about NASA as being involved in weather and looking at climactic trends there, but you are.

GRUNSFELD: Oh absolutely. It's a big part of the program.

FLATOW: If you had - if you could do anything you wanted to, and I'll give you the blank-check question because I know you'll never get one, and you wanted to make your mark on NASA as you rejoin it, what project would you like to undertake?

GRUNSFELD: Boy that's tough because my list is long. So...

FLATOW: Well, give me the top.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRUNSFELD: So let me start with one that we're actually working on. I mentioned the Mars Science Laboratory, and that's going to land in August, August 6, Curiosity rover, but we're in the midst of a planning exercise to try and map out the framework for exploring the planet Mars in the search for life over the next 20 to 30 years.

And it's not going to be specific what mission we're going to do, but the next series of missions will lead to a sample return to Mars, and with an increasing amount of content from the human spaceflight program and our space technology program, you know, we're working towards a day when we can put an astrobiologist and a geologist, and she and he can and the rest of the team can actually explore Mar, extending humanity beyond planet Earth but also trying to answer that fundamental question of are we alone.

And Mars is a place where there very well could have been habitable conditions for life. That's what our science tells us now, that it could even be there now, and we may be able to find out. But my shopping list, I have to add one more, which is a dream I have following on the Hubble Space Telescope.

We're going to launch the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018, and it's going to allow us to look at planets around nearby stars and characterize them, but it's not quite the telescope that's going to be able to answer if anybody is home on those planets, if we can see signs of life, meaning looking at the chemical elements and molecules in the atmosphere of an Earth-sized planet around a nearby star.

And so I think in the next 10 to 20 years, we'll have the capability to put up a larger telescope after James Webb that would able to answer that question: Are we alone in the universe?

FLATOW: Wow, if you could get those three things done, you would certainly leave your mark. And as you say, two out of three are on the way. Can - what - do you have a target year in mind for that landing on Mars with those scientists?

GRUNSFELD: Well, you know, I'd like...

FLATOW: Go out on a limb.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRUNSFELD: I'd actually like to give you a, you know, a day and a year, but the fact is getting to Mars is incredibly hard, and we're building the infrastructure to do that. I'm very optimistic about the Curiosity rover, but you never know until you're on the planet safely. But I think a target that the president has challenged us for is to put people around Mars in the 2030s, and 2033 is a good year to launch to Mars just because of orbital mechanics that if - you know, my target is try and get people around or on Mars 2033.

FLATOW: So the last person on the moon was a geologist, and the first person on Mars might be a geologist.

GRUNSFELD: That's right, and as I said to the kids today, I asked them: Is it going to be a girl or a boy, the first person to step foot on Mars? It was split about 50-50, I think you can imagine along what lines.

FLATOW: Yeah, 50-50. Well, I wish you luck. I mean, we'd love to see that stuff happen, and I wish you luck in convincing Congress and everybody else who you talk to allow you to be able to do those things.

GRUNSFELD: Well, I appreciate that. I have a great job because almost everything we're doing right now in the science area at NASA and NASA as a whole is just incredibly exciting.

FLATOW: But you have to be able to run it through more than one administration, right, even space - going to the moon took 10 years, and it took multi-administrations to get there.

GRUNSFELD: Well, that's certainly correct, and, you know, I think reflecting on your comments about seeing Enterprise fly over New York, and I'll quote Neil Tyson, who after the tragic loss of the Columbia orbiter said, you know, you really don't appreciate something until it's gone when it's become part of our culture.

And while our space program is still very vibrant, we're not flying the shuttles anymore, and I think people are now sort of - that's sinking in that, OK, the shuttles are gone. You know, we need to look forward. And, you know, some people have a little bit of regret, and I think that is just an indication it is part of our culture, and that's a good thing.

Because it's part of our culture, it can survive, you know, multiple Congresses, multiple presidents. And I just want to add one last note, which is I've joined the world of social networking as SciAstro. And so I'll be following you. And anybody who wants to follow me, can follow me @sciastro, S-C-I-A-S-T-R-O.

FLATOW: Well, good luck in tweeting and good luck to you, as I say. And we'll watch for exciting things to happen. John Grunsfeld is an astrophysicist, astronaut, shuttle repairman and associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Thanks for taking time to be with us today.

GRUNSFELD: Oh, it's my pleasure. I'm an avid listener. And it's always a pleasure to talk to you.

FLATOW: Thank you very much.

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