Should Humans Return To The Moon?

The Obama administration recently appointed a committee to review NASA's plans for human spaceflight and its goal to return humans to the moon by 2020. Committee chairman Norm Augustine discusses alternative destinations, including Mars, the moons of Mars or even deep space.

IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. By 2020, NASA, according to plan, wants to rocket humans back on the moon. In fact, there's currently a U.S. satellite that is mapping the surface to pave the way for future landings and maybe even a moon base or two. But some people are not convinced that the moon is the best place to invest space future. A few months ago, the Obama administration ordered a full review of this 21st-century moon shot and other human space flight programs to see if there aren't other options worth pursuing instead.

For example, you know, you've heard Buzz Aldrin say recently that we should be heading straight to Mars. Others say well, let's not go to Mars, but let's go to the Martian moons. Others say we should shoot for points in space called the Lagrangian Points, the stuff of science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke wrote about this in the 1960s. Why would we head to these spots in deep space, or if we went to Mars, could humans do more-meaningful science than, let's say, the rovers?

Joining me now to walk us through some of the options is my guest, Norman Augustine. He is chair of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Committee and retired chairman and CEO for Lockheed Martin Corporation. He joins us on the phone today. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. NORMAN AUGUSTINE (Chair, Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Committee; Retired Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Lockheed Martin Corporation): Thank you. It's good to be with you.

FLATOW: Are we really - I mean, your committee is charged with looking at all the options.

Mr. AUGUSTINE: We've been asked to take basically a fresh look at the human part of the space flight program and also the robotic part that supports the human space flight program. So we have a very much a blank sheet of paper with one constraint, and that is we are where we are. And there's been a lot invested in the current program, and so any decision we were to - or really recommendation we were to make, or any options we were to offer, would have to depend on the marginal costs and the marginal benefits going from where we are today.

FLATOW: Doesn't that sort of stack the deck in one direction?

Mr. AUGUSTINE: Well, you know, it does, but that's reality. That's the right, I think, way to address a problem. They always teach you at business school that some costs don't count, and I think that's true here.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So what other - did you have to rank them, or are you just coming up with possibilities?

Mr. AUGUSTINE: We've been asked by the White House to offer options and not to make any specific recommendation. And at this point, there's so many options. They relate to: what do you with the shuttle, what do you do with the International Space Station, where do you go, the moon, to Mars and so on, what upper stages you use, what launch vehicles you use, what landers, and so on.

And we, with a number of combinations we've identified, there are probably over 3,000 options. Well, we've narrowed it down to eight at this point. Hopefully, we'll get certainly no more, maybe even a few less.

FLATOW: What are some of the more nonconventional options that people usually don't hear about but that you've looked at?

Mr. AUGUSTINE: Well, I think the - in the nonconventional category, one is certainly the one Buzz Aldrin talks about, and that's skip the moon and go straight to Mars. And others are to use a filling station in space, if you will, to refuel rockets in orbit so that you could be much more efficient in terms of the amount of energy it takes to conduct the space program. And I guess that really, there are some much more nonconventional ones that, as you move out toward the periphery - would include, oh, upper stages that were powered nuclear electric systems, and even people talk about rail-guns to launch from Earth to orbit.

So there's a whole spectrum. We've tried to focus on the things that one can do in the relatively near term.

FLATOW: And people have mentioned asteroids. They've mentioned visiting comets, things like that.

Mr. AUGUSTINE: Exactly. In terms of places that are interesting to go, as your opening comment suggested, the focus has been on Mars, which really is logical. Mars is the planet that's most like the Earth. It's reachable in a reasonable amount of time. It has a solid surface. It has an atmosphere. And really there's no other planet, unless maybe someday you could find a way to land on a pole of Mercury or something like that, but we're nowhere near being able to do that.

So it's the logical place so you'd want to go. But there are some other places that are a little less difficult to go to that you might do along the way, and one is certainly the moon. Another is to land on a near-Earth asteroid. Another would be to go to one of the moons of Mars, Deimos or Phebos, and then there's the - you mentioned the Lagrangian Points that have a great deal of interest in terms of space logistics and so forth. But they might be viewed by the public as a trip to nowhere, since they are really nothing but a point in space.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Yeah, that's true. Well, some critics of the space station say the same thing about that, but why - are you also investigating the possibilities of working with other nations? It just seems silly now that we have, you know, you have India and China and Japan, the U.S. all talking about talking about going to the moon and other places. Why do we not hear more talk or possibly more of a recommendation about, you know, these are expensive places to go to. If we're thinking about taking people, why don't we just cooperate and go together on some of these things?

Mr. AUGUSTINE: I think you'd find our committee's consensus would strongly agree with that point of view, that space should become a cooperative effort. The origins of the U.S. space program, of course, go back to Sputnik and the race to the moon and the Cold War and the threat from the Soviet Union, and that was really the driving force at that time.

Well, those issues are largely behind us. And so today, we have a new world, and it's a world in which nations tend to cooperate. It's a world where the cost of these programs is so immense that to be able to share costs with others makes sense. Also, the U.S. no longer is predominate in technology. Others have technologies that we don't have, and that's becoming increasingly true. And so there are great benefits to doing these things jointly. The International Space Station has, at least in that sense, been a great success. There's a management structure in place that brings all the nations together, and it works. And so that would be a logical thing to build on for whatever one does next in space.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. David(ph) in Minneapolis, hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DAVID (Caller): Yes. The Japanese supposedly are putting in a major effort on developing the last little bit of nanotube technology to build the web to launch the space elevator. Why aren't we working - why are we going to let the Japanese steal the march on us for a space elevator? I mean, that has so many huge ramifications. I mean, instead of how many hundreds or thousands of dollars a pound, you can get it down to $100 or $10 a pound, or something like that, launch weight allotted to a space elevator? Oh, that's science fiction. Well, so is space science fiction, but the Japanese are working on it. NASA has a department…

FLATOW: Okay, let me get an answer for you. Norm?

Mr. AUGUSTINE: Okay, you raise an interesting issue, and that is that really the driver of cost of most of these space programs is the cost of getting payload into orbit above the Earth. The Earth is kind of in a gravity well, if you will, and it takes a great deal of energy to get out of here and a great deal of money. There are a number of ideas, such as space elevators and others - rail-guns I mentioned - that do that. But they're quite exotic, and if you want to do those things, you're looking at some years in the future. The space program we're focused on is what can you do now.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Are we severely constricted by expenses in other places, you know, a lot of - national health care, Iraq, Afghanistan, things like that, our budgets, do you think?

Mr. AUGUSTINE: Obviously, you know, the space program does compete with all these other things for funds. And, you know, you can say on the one hand, shouldn't we be spending money to educate our children or to cure cancer instead of on the space program - legitimate question. At the same time, you could say that this is a country that spent $7 billion betting on the Super Bowl last year and $32 billion on videotapes and so on, or on DVDs, and I think it was $62 billion on illegal drugs. And so it's a question of priority. I think it's where do you want to spend the nation's money, and that's a decision that's going to have to be made by the president or the Congress.

FLATOW: Maybe we could have an iPhone app, and everybody pays 99 cents.

Mr. AUGUSTINE: Well, there's a thought.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Go - space, yeah. Go to the moon, you buy that app, and you get enough people…

Mr. AUGUSTINE: Absolutely.

FLATOW: …start paying for that kind of thing. So where do you think - so you think that - as you say, you have your constraints. You don't want to reinvent the wheel. You don't want to start over. You don't think that's practical. Can you give us any sort of idea of where your recommendations will be, you know, in the ballpark?

Mr. AUGUSTINE: Yeah. I have no idea, obviously, what the president and the Congress will decide to do, but the proposals that - or options that we will offer go all the way from basically the current program - but, I think, with a little more realistic cost and schedule profile - to going to Mars directly. And also put - we call a kind of a flexible program that could take you to the asteroids and to the planets of Mars. And then the use of L1, the Lagrangian point will associate with the Earth-Sun - excuse me - the Earth/Moon system, provides an interesting possibility for a refueling station, so…

FLATOW: That's where the gravity of the Earth and the sun cancel each other out.

Mr. AUGUSTINE: Yeah. More or less that's right. And where if you place an object there, there are several at Lagrangian points and some are stable in the sense that an object will remain there. Others, they tend to drift but can be forced to stay in that vicinity. But they have the great advantage that the object put there will more or less stay in position relative to the larger objects, namely the moon and the Earth.

And so they're particularly interesting for refueling because it doesn't take much energy to go there or to get away from there, whereas to land on the Earth and get fuel takes an awful lot of energy to get back out.

FLATOW: Yeah. And what about the, you know, bringing private enterprise into space? Would that be a recommendation?

Mr. AUGUSTINE: Yeah. A very promising thing to do - it made me think of the early days of the airlines when the airlines really didn't get going until the U.S. government gave the contract to carry the mail. And that sort of build a market. And so one of the things, it would be awfully nice if NASA could spend its time focusing on the more futuristic things, where do have quantum advancements, and not on running a trucking service to the lower Earth orbit, which it sort of - the part of the trap that we're in today.

Now, they do things much more important than just the trucking service, or more glamorous, I might say, or more avant-garde. However, that is -the trucking service is a major feature of today's program, a necessary feature. But it seems to me that could be done by commercial firms rather than to have NASA devote its talent to that.

FLATOW: And maybe NASA - I know NASA does give out some prize money for innovation, maybe some more of the X-Prize sort of idea.

Mr. AUGUSTINE: Yeah. That's certainly a possibility. They're - not that our committee gotten into this in any depth at all because we have not. But I'm speaking just for myself at this point. It seems to me the only thing that's going to really lower the cost of space operations, there will be things like refueling in space that help a lot. But the thing that will really have a quantum breakthrough is to have a much higher traffic than we have today. You know, launching once or twice a month, you can imagine running an airline with two flights a month or something like that.

And the only thing I know of that would put us at in that mold would be tourism, space tourism, where a person could for a reasonable amount of money, and with reasonable safety, spend a day or two on orbit. And I don't mean just go up ballistically and come back, some of the current firms offer. I mean really go into orbit for a day or two, where you could experience prolonged weightlessness, you could look at the planets through a telescope and you could look at the Earth and you could take some pictures and so on.

And to some people that sounds far-fetched. But to those people - I guess I would just say, I doubt that the Wright Brothers thought that the population of Houston would get on an airplane every day and fly somewhere, or that Powell thought that 15,000 people would raft the Grand Canyon every year, and so on.

FLATOW: Yeah. I'm talking with Norman Augustine on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

Dreaming about space exploration, and do we need - I mean, are dreamers welcome here, Norm, or is it just the cold hard reality?

Mr. AUGUSTINE: Well, you know, it's some of both. You currently need dreamers. If you think back, Ira, to the - oh, say, 20 years before we landed on the moon, 25 years, if you would ask most dreamers do you think it's possible to have people walk on the moon by the end of the '60s decade, I think even the dreamers would have said no. So - that you do need dreamers who can come up with the great things that's possible to do.

On the other hand, there's some - space is so unforgiving. There are cold hard realities. You don't get recalls in space generally like you do in Detroit. And you're betting people's lives on these things. So it's very important to be done right. The way you do that is you pay a lot of attention to detail. You have great discipline. NASA is pretty good at that.

And so you have these two tugging schools. One is saying you got to do it by the book and carefully. It's like doing heart surgery. The other one is saying, let's try some imaginative new things and exciting things.

FLATOW: But if - is it going to take some sort of political edge? Again, if we see that the Chinese or the Indians or the Japanese are getting closer, would we invest more money in it?

Mr. AUGUSTINE: My guess would be - and it's only a guess - if, for example, China were to land an astronaut - I can't remember what the Chinese call them, but…

FLATOW: Taikonauts.

Mr. AUGUSTINE: I'm sorry?

FLATOW: Taikonauts.

Mr. AUGUSTINE: Taikonauts, that's it, on an asteroid, say, which is not out of the question. I think our view of the space program would change overnight just like Sputnik did.

FLATOW: Well, we can always hope for that kind of stimulation, right?

Mr. AUGUSTINE: Well, you know…

FLATOW: It's a different kind of stimulus bill.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AUGUSTINE: I think the Russians did us a huge favor in the sense they kind of woke us up that we were losing our technical lead and that our education system, particularly in math and science, wasn't what it ought to be. And at that time it didn't seem like it. I remember, I was in graduate school at that time, and how stunned we were.

FLATOW: Right. And so what is your timeframe on getting this all finished and wrapped up and presented?

Mr. AUGUSTINE: We're supposed to have - we'll have a public hearing this coming week, our last one. We will make a report to the White House and NASA on the 14th of preliminary observations, if you will. And by the 31st we'll have our final observations, and then we've got the matter of getting the report printed and so on.

FLATOW: Is there a place on the Web for the public to make suggestions?

Mr. AUGUSTINE: There is. And we've really encouraged that. If you go to the NASA Web site, you could find the reference to our committee on the Human Space Flight Program.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. AUGUSTINE: And we've asked for suggestions. We've received lots of them. We also have Facebook, we Twitter, we take emails. We've tried very hard to get public input.

FLATOW: Wow.

Mr. AUGUSTINE: We've had many public hearings around the country.

FLATOW: Well, you'll hear a few more from today, I think.

Mr. AUGUSTINE: Well, that's terrific. We'd look forward to that.

FLATOW: All right, Norm. Thanks for taking the time to be with us today.

Mr. AUGUSTINE: You bet, Ira. Nice to visit with you.

FLATOW: Thank you. Norman Augustine is the chairman of the Review of the U.S. Human Space Flight Committee and retired chairman and CEO for Lockheed Martin Corporation.

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