Rethinking The Human Future In Space

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With NASA reporting a "significant amount" of water on the lunar surface, is it time to re-examine our priorities regarding living and working in space? Mark Sykes, director of the Planetary Science Institute, talks about why and how people should venture beyond Earth.

IRA FLATOW, host:

Last Friday, you may remember, NASA official announced that the LCROSS mission that crashed a piece of space junk into the moon, that famous story, has found significant amounts of water on the moon, frozen at the bottom of a darkened crater. And that discovery has energized space scientists to think it's time to reconsider again, to reconsider our goals for living and working in space. Should we rethink about going back to the moon if there's water there? What about other places besides the moon, about space exploration, space travel? And one scientist who has been thinking these thoughts for a long time now is Dr. Mark Sykes. He's director of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona. He's welcomed back to the program. Welcome, Dr. Sykes.

Dr. MARK SYKES (Director, Planetary Science Institute): Hi, Ira, good to be back.

FLATOW: What did you make of that moon water story?

Dr. SYKES: Oh, that was terrific. You know, what a great find. Water had - or possible evidence for water had been - was found on the moon about 10 years ago with the Lunar Prospector that found evidence of hydrogen at the poles, so it raised the question. And finally we have definite proof that not only is there water there, but it's not just little molecules sticking to dust grains but chunks of ice under the surface.

FLATOW: Does it say to you that we could, in fact, colonize the moon? Is there enough water there if we go to the right spot and set up something?

Dr. SYKES: Well, we don't really know that yet because, you know, this is one point, and whether there's a lot of water around it or whether it hit the rich spot right there is hard to say. But there's also some serious problems in trying to excavate, you know, to build the infrastructure there would require -to bring that stuff out of the very cold temperatures in which it's sitting and then make use of it.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number, if you want to talk about space and space exploration. Are you, then, in favor of waiting to see if it's practical to go back to the moon? I know President Bush made the - got the ball rolling again, but there's not enough money invested. We had that commission report that said gee, you know, if you really want to go back, you're going to have spend some serious cash on this.

Dr. SYKES: Yeah, well, the Augustine Panel, which was this presidential commission that was set up by President Obama, just released its report, and they had some very interesting things to say. First of all, that under the current budget profile for NASA that we're not going to be doing anything beyond low-Earth orbit. You know, so forget about going back to the moon or anyplace else for that matter. So there's a decision that has to be made there.

But also there's the question about: What are our goals? And they made what I thought was a very important statement in their report, where they said that the committee concludes that the ultimate goal of human exploration is to chart a path for human expansion into the solar system. Now, that's something on its face which would sound like something beyond just going there, planting a flag and coming back. But at the same time, it raises the question of: If you're serious about realizing that kind of a goal, you know, what are the steps you have to take in order to get there?

FLATOW: And you think we should be thinking about that?

Dr. SYKES: Absolutely. Actually, I have to say that I was inspired in that direction back in my youth in the '60s, when we were working to go to the moon, and the public - whereas the budget was sold on the basis of we've got to beat the Russians to the moon, send a man to the moon and then return him safely. The public was really sold on the idea that this was the beginning of the space age, that in engaging in this activity that we were opening up the solar system to future people living there and working there in the future.

Now, that goal was never realized, and actually, it was never really on the table because there's a lot of very serious questions that we have to ask, you know, such as: Is it possible for people to live and work out in space? I mean, we might be restricted by things like biology. It could be that the Earth is the only place that we could actually live. There's some experiments that suggest that at least that one gravity, one Earth gravity, that we don't develop right, and so that's - those are some very important issues that could be addressed at locations like our space station.

FLATOW: And who would be thinking about these things? I mean, where is the right place to have these discussions begin or continue?

Dr. SYKES: Well, ultimately, it's a decision that's going to have to be made by the president as to what direction he's going to set for our future, you know, much like Kennedy. I think that we have gotten beyond the point where we can really afford to just have space spectaculars - you know, go one place, come back, go another place, come back, just so that you have these press releases and pictures in a history book, but rather we should be doing activities and steps that promote the possibility of actually living and working in space like we see in our movies and everything else. This is something that I think the public embraces.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Also, you can tweet us @scifri, at S-C-I-F-R-I, talking with Mark Sykes, director of Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona. We're going to have to take a short break. We'll come back and talk more with Mark and take more of your questions. So tweet us, and get on the phones and phone in a question. Also, we have our folks going on there at Second Life. So find the Second Life folks, and you can leave us a question from there, too. We'll be right back after this short break. Don't go away. I'm Ira Flatow, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about the future of space exploration with Mark Sykes, director of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona. Mark, where do we decide the priorities, with all the other things that are going on and that cost a lot of money now, how do we ask Americans to spend more money on going into space?

Dr. SYKES: Well, the Americans are not spending very much money on NASA. It's about .5 percent of the federal budget. And back in the days of Apollo, it reached up to 10 times that fraction of the budget. You can imagine having a NASA today with a budget of $160 billion. That would be interesting. But I think that the discovery of the water ice on the moon is important because it kind of highlights the importance of water itself.

Water is probably the most valuable, for purposes of human exploration, it's the most valuable material that we can find out there because we can use it for fuel, we can use it for shielding against cosmic rays, and we can use it for supporting life. But the moon is not the only potential source of water near the Earth. We also are swimming in a sea of near-Earth asteroids. If you want to - probably about a million objects that are greater than 50 meters in diameter, and half of those objects could be sources of water. And so by identifying those objects, going to them, scooping up material, which would be frankly easier to get to than the surface of the moon, that might give us fuel that we could use to access the moon, as well as do other near-Earth activities and go on to Mars and other locations.

FLATOW: So you're thinking of building a series of outposts on these asteroids, or whatever we might call them?

Dr. SYKES: Well, I think that if the resources are there, and again, this is part of the homework that needs to be done, that we'd want to see if we could set up robotic resource-recovery stations to, you know, dig up material, heat it up, get the water out and deploy a solar sail or something to bring it back to Earth orbit.

FLATOW: Let's go on to the phones. Alvin(ph) in Oakland. Hi, Alvin.

ALVIN (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. Two questions, one is: Wouldn't the discovery of water on the moon, however little there is, wouldn't that indicate that if water's in as desolate a place as the moon, that you would think that would increase the chances of life being other places that seem to be desolate and since life depends on, as we know it, depends upon water.

And second, I know that people who spend just even a short time in the space station lose a certain amount of bone mass because of living in a weightless environment and other detrimental effects. And when they return to Earth, they don't even replace all the bone mass. Some of the bone mass remains gone. Now, I know it takes about a year to get to Mars. And we don't know what the effects, the long-term effects of going to Mars are in a weightless environment, and we don't know whether any kind of exercise regiment would be able to compensate and reverse the detrimental bone loss and other effects. So there's a big question there as to habitability, just in terms of what we know now.

FLATOW: All right, Alvin, let me get an answer.

Dr. SYKES: Yeah, in terms of your last point, yes, bone loss, the biological effects of low gravity on people in space, that's an area of intense, ongoing study by NASA. And they're exploring ways, through exercise, through perhaps, you know, some medications that could mitigate things like the bone loss. And that's an absolutely essential problem that needs to be answered before we have people spending a year or a couple years in space, going to Mars, coming back or other locations.

With regards to potential life in arid places like the moon, the ice that we find on the moon is not from the moon itself, but rather we believe that it is from the impacts of things like comets, meteoroids that have ice in it on the surface. And that material, if it gets up into these shadowed areas near the poles, which are in dark all the time, so it's well below freezing year-round, that it gets trapped there and builds up over, you know, billions of years. And so that's where that water comes from.

So it's not - and it's also not in a liquid form, and we associate at least what we know about life on Earth with liquid water. But there are places in the solar system where there is other places where there are liquid water, such as the moons, the giant moons of Jupiter have oceans underneath the surface. And we now think that the largest asteroid in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, named Ceres, may have a sub-surface ocean there, and if it's had liquid water under its surface, where it's warm enough to be liquid over the age of the solar system, it begs the question of whether life could have evolved in that kind of environment, so fascinating questions for future exploration.

FLATOW: Let's see if we can get another call in from Scott(ph) in Brookfield, Connecticut. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi there.

SCOTT: My father was an engineer on the Apollo Program and knew Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and those guys. And I've been a space fanatic since I was a young child and seeing the moon landing.

My question or comment is that due to the enormous cost involved with, you know, in any endeavor into space, there's been a lot of reluctance on the part of our species, really, to really take a step back and look at the big-picture benefit. And I think that if - what we need is a vision to drive our species over the next, let's say, 100 years, then if we had someone who would bring that kind of a vision, maybe we could have people sort of reevaluate our entire, you know, financial aspect of society - capitalism and socialism, whatever method that we happen to be working with - and try and figure out more of an end instead of a means. I'm sorry, let me digress for a second. Money has tended to be an end in itself of late. And what we're missing, I think, and what the emptiness we're feeling as a culture is that instead of having a grand end such as colonizing the moon or going to Mars or going to Jupiter or whatever, that, you know, we're just thinking in terms of our pocketbook.

So in order for society to make that next leap, wouldn't you agree that we need to have some kind of fundamental sociological or philosophical or some large kind of consciousness shift where we can change our point of view about what's important: Is it our pocketbooks, or is it the continued survival of the race. And I'd like to listen on the phone, if I could, because I don't have a radio.

FLATOW: Okay, thank you.

Dr. SYKES: Well, I think that's a good question, and we are - I think we're in a transitional period of time where we have a choice. Are we going to continue to try to do short-term goals, one-off events, terminal-destination activities, or are we going to think in the longer term? As the Augustine Panel says, it talks about human expansion into the solar system so that when you have a goal like that, then you assess your destinations and your activities, and you ask the question: Is that promoting that goal?

If you're just going someplace and coming back, is that really promoting the goal of human expansion, you know, which is related to the survival and all that. We are ultimately limited by our pocketbooks, you know, because we can only buy so much on credit, and then people come knocking on our door.

FLATOW: Well, there's a question coming in from Second Life, from Arcivus Llewellyn(ph), who says: Well, what about other countries trying to get to the moon, too? Why can't we get together with those people, and what does it mean for geopolitics?

Dr. SYKES: Well, I think that that's one way that we are able to leverage more bang for the buck, is to cooperate with - you know, take the lead in cooperation with other nations to achieve common goals. I think that certainly, expanding into the solar system in a meaningful way, you know, working and living, is such a goal. And together we could find out, first of all, if it's possible because - just because we want something doesn't mean that it will happen, then if it is possible, if we want to walk through that door.

And the nice thing is that if you - when you have a goal like go back to the moon, by certain dates - so you have a destination and a time, then that is probably the most expensive thing you can do because you're driven by those two items, rather than if the goal - the long term goal is expansion, then there's a whole bunch of homework that you need to do. And you invest in answering the questions that you need to answer, developing the technologies and capabilities such as something as simple as being able to fuel your spacecraft in space, which was something that the Augustine panel recommended.

So then, it wouldn't matter where your fuel comes from, thus - whether it comes launched up from Earth or you get it from an asteroid or from some place else. You can make investments in those kinds of technologies where, yes, that advances the ball forward. And on a time scale where, you know, it takes as long as it takes with whatever the resources that you have, but you know the direction that you're going.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. SYKES: So, you know, I think we need to move away from targets and dates which are kind of event, spectacular-driven and have that long-term thing.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. SYKES: And I think that people are open to that. I mean�

FLATOW: Well, I - but I hear - well�

Dr. SYKES: �(unintelligible) that in the �60s.

FLATOW: I hear you're also implying that we have to think outside the box more than we use to, you know, about different ways to bring in - you know, instead of carrying all the fuel with us, we get it off of an asteroid or something�

Dr. SYKES: Yes.

FLATOW: �instead of, you know, building one spaceship like - (unintelligible) haul everything up, (unintelligible) different kinds of spaceships. Maybe we have countries - other countries involved, maybe a private enterprise, we subcontract some of this stuff?

Dr. SYKES: By focusing on a kind of a long-term goal then it allows you to explore the different paths that you might take in order to achieve that goal.

I mean, one thing that I found a little unsettling in the Augustine report was that it talked about doing things that would provide the public and other stakeholders with the series of interesting firsts to keep them engaged and supportive. You know, this isn't - shouldn't be breads and circuses, you know? This is about identifying and achieving long-term goals that people can embrace.

Back in the �60s when - say, in 1969 was - if somebody said, where do you think we'll be in 30 years, in the year 2000, you know, everybody would have thought that�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SYKES: �we'll be on Mars and beyond, living and working in space because that was the vision that people had. And that - and people were very supportive of that. When it became apparent that that wasn't going to happen, that that really wasn't the direction or the effort that was being undertaken, then I think people lost interest.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to Mary Helen(ph) in Boston. Hi, Mary. Mary, are you there? Oh, no. She dropped out. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let' see if we can get - here's a question from somebody on Second Life. Can we, at least -from (unintelligible) - can we at least start by planting things up there - I guess on the moon - to help support the atmosphere and possibly food, fuel for our future missions?

Dr. SYKES: Well, if we're going to live and work in space, one of the areas which we need to invest some - make some investment is something called closed ecology life support systems which involve recycling, growing plants, trying to generate as much of the biomass that we need to live and survive up there, which is, again, it's this work that's been done by different groups at small scales for many years that has some potential of decreasing the costs or decreasing the amount of material that we have to lift off from the surface of the Earth at $20,000 a pound to support people living and working in space.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Talking with Mark Sykes this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

I'm Ira Flatow, talking about - are there any new - radically new technologies that we have to develop in order to carry any of these out or is it basically tweaking stuff we already have?

Dr. SYKES: Well, I think we shouldn't think that we're going to wake up one day and there's going to be warp drive. It would be nice. I love it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SYKES: That would be great. But there's a lot of technologies that we need to - that we know about that we simply need to explore how to use them more such as solar cells technology, electric propulsion systems. These are things that we're using in limited ways in some of our space missions, though actually support for solar cell researches is now cancelled. But there's�

FLATOW: There's a private project, though, going on, right?

Dr. SYKES: There's a private project. I think the Planetary Society was supporting that.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. SYKES: And after the missile went to the drink, I'm not sure what the status of that is now. But, yeah. These are - there's are kinds of new technologies and that's something that the government - it's a useful thing for the government to do is to invests in these new things that may not be something that a company could expect to turn a profit on but could bring our understanding of how it works and how well it is in different situations so that companies might say, oh, hey, we can use that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So what would your - what would be your first step if you want to get this ball rolling? How would you get the attention for - to this idea and how - and what would you take as a first step?

Dr. SYKES: Well, the first step would be to - for the president to articulate a long-term goal, to say that - to embrace the ultimate goal articulated by the Augustine panel that human expansion of the solar system is what we want to achieve, and that we're going to evaluate the destinations that we go to and the architecture of the plans that we do - in that context, to what extent to advance that ball?

One of the - one of those first things is to identify where are the resources, you know? Is there water up there? You know, where is it on the moon? Where is it in the asteroids? Is it economically recoverable? The other problem and the most important biological question to ask is, you know, if the idea is to have people live for multiple generations beyond the Earth, is that even possible? Because if it's not - and frankly, experiments right now suggest that it may not be - then, the fantasies of colonizing the moon, colonizing the Mars are just that, fantasies that'll never happen. So that's a very important question to ask. And if we could put that centrifuge that was cancelled in 2006 onto the space station where we're supposed to go, we could run the experiments to determine whether or not we are going to be limited by our own biology to living and working on the Earth.

FLATOW: Do you think the space station was a dead end?

Dr. SYKES: Oh, no, absolutely not. It - the - unfortunately, they don't really - the powers that be have not - I say, right now, the plan for the space station is to be de-orbited and burned up in the atmosphere in the first quarter of 2015�

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. SYKES: �five years after it's completed. It's because they don't have any long-term plan for this facility, and they haven't put any budget for it. If the goal is to expand humans living and work in space, there's lot of work for a space station to do, there's the biological experiments which have to be done on the space station on that centrifuge that I was talking about.

If we're going to do resource recovery from asteroids, then we're going to have to test the processes that would be used in a zero environment which will be provided by the space station. So, if we have long-term goals of extending ourselves into the Solar System, we need a space station. And so, it would be a facility that we wouldn't really want to burn up in five years.

FLATOW: Amazing. All right. We've run out of time, Mark. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us.

Dr. SYKES: Thank you, Ira, real pleasure.

FLATOW: Interesting stuff to think about. Mark Sykes is director of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona. We're going to take a break and come back and talk about solar power. I can possibly build your own solar power plant right in your roof there, so to speak, personal solar power. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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