What Are The Challenges Of 'Trailblazing Mars'?

What grows best in Martian soil? How do you get oxygen out of thin air? Pat Duggins, author of Trailblazing Mars: NASA’s Next Giant Leap, talks about the questions NASA will face if it sends astronauts to the Red Planet and how to choose the right people for the job.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

Up next, space exploration, visiting planets like Mars. You know, that's always been a dream of science fiction writers, film and television producer. And this week, that dream may have come just a bit closer to reality.

This week, Congress approved a bill that outlines a new direction for NASA. Say goodbye to the shuttle program and a return to the moon. NASA's orders are to get astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, Mars by the 2030s.

But how does the agency prepare for expeditions like that? And how do you prepare the astronauts for missions that could take years of lonely travel, perhaps cost them their lives?

The psychological challenges may be as great as the technological ones, and writers like Rod Serling have thought about the stress of space travel and actually include it in programs.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Twilight Zone")

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Mr. ROD SERLING (Writer, Producer): Up there, up there in the vastness of space, in a void that is sky, up there is an enemy known as isolation. It sits there in the stars waiting, waiting with the patience of eons, forever waiting in the twilight zone.

FLATOW: A safer place than waiting in the twilight zone for contemplating a visit to Mars is right in your living room, reading a new book. And here to tell us more about the challenges NASA will face in sending people to Mars is Pat Duggins. He's the news director of Alabama Public Radio, the author of "Trailblazing Mars: NASA's Next Giant Leap." Welcome back, Pat.

Mr. PAT DUGGINS (Author, "Trailblazing Mars"): Thank you very much, Ira. How are you?

FLATOW: Thanks for joining us. Before we get to Mars, let's talk about the news that's happening in - a little closer to where you are than I am, and what's going on with NASA and budget cuts and their new direction.

Mr. DUGGINS: Well, unfortunately, the unpleasant stuff started just a few minutes ago, I'm afraid, Ira. Just a few moments ago, we had 1,200 layoffs at the Kennedy Space Center. Another 250 are expected at the Marshall Space Flight Center here in Alabama, another 400 at ATK Thiokol. They build the solid rocket boosters for the shuttle.

So as NASA begins the move into this brand new world that President Obama has in mind, there will be casualties, and some of these folks unfortunately are included.

FLATOW: And please describe for us exactly what that new world is, what NASA announced its new mission is.

Mr. DUGGINS: Well, when Congress sat down and came up with what was known as the authorization bill for NASA - it's kind of like, you know, the instructions, this agency will do this, this and this, had a whole number of things in mind.

Number one, the space shuttle obviously is going to go away but not as fast as what NASA was talking about. They're thinking of keeping it around at least until the end of this current fiscal year, which is kind of ironic because they've got the spare parts for two official missions and then one more that's being referred to in some quarters as the suicide mission. We can go into that if you like.

But in addition to that, they're also talking about a new heavy-lift launch rocket, which is pretty big news for Alabama because it would be built at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. And that would enable NASA to go beyond low-Earth orbit for the first time since 1972, which was the last of the manned moon missions of Apollo.

But maybe the most problematic one for NASA is going to be seed money to commercial companies to come up with commercially built capsules to go to the International Space Station. I got a phone call from NASA a couple of months ago, and they asked me to fly to Washington and give a lecture to their engineers on what the future of the space program was going to be like.

And I kind of asked them, you know, don't you have somebody on staff that knows this stuff a little bit better than I do? And they said no. So I went ahead and flew on up and talked to them.

And I said that assuming one of these run-and-gun entrepreneurial companies, sort of like an either SpaceX or Orbital, gets the contract to build these capsules for NASA, it's almost the analogy of you've got a workplace where you've got a baby-boomer on one side, and that's NASA, and then you've got Gen-Xer on the other side, and that's one of these run-and-gun companies. And NASA is sort of like the baby boomer, and they've waited for their opportunities, and they've gone the slow route, and they played by the rules, and they may have had an occasional mistake here and there, but it's like okay, well, we'll, you know, just take the good with the bad.

Well, then you've got the up-and-comers...

FLATOW: Pat, I've got to interrupt because we have to take a break.

Mr. DUGGINS: You got it.

FLATOW: So we'll come back and talk lots more with Pat Duggins, author of "Trailblazing Mars: NASA's Next Giant Leap." Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

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

We're talking about future missions for NASA, now that NASA has issued a new direction that it's going. We're talking with Pat Duggins, author of "Trailblazing Mars: NASA's Next Giant Leap," and it's very fitting, his subtitle, "NASA's Next Giant Leap" because in the announcement made this week about NASA's future, Mars was in their picture, was it not, Pat?

Mr. DUGGINS: It was, indeed. In fact, well, it's kind of ironic there that you think about it, NASA's been talking about sending people to Mars ever since the very beginning of the space program. I mean, you know, NASA was created what, October 1st, 1958. The very next day, they hired a fellow by the name of Harold Finger, whose job was to head up a NASA office called Project NERVA, which was Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications. And as far as he was concerned, I mean, NASA was building that rocket in order to go to Mars.

There was a speech that John F. Kennedy gave one time. I mean everybody remembers, you know, Rice University, you know, we go well, everybody forgets one year prior, he gave the exact same speech to a joint session of Congress, but he included wording in that earlier version of the speech that said hey, we've got to put together money for a nuclear-powered rocket, and everybody at NASA, that meant Mars.

FLATOW: Well, why did this administration decide not to go to the moon and instead go to Mars and an asteroid? And what happened to all that hardware that they were designing to do that?

Mr. DUGGINS: Well, that hit Alabama hard, too. The rocket and the capsule to go to Mars was called Project Constellation, and that was one of the things that the Obama administration didn't like very much. They said get rid of it. So NASA sort of will be following with those instructions.

What the Congress said this week was okay, you're not going to go to the moon, but take the parts that you've got and sort of use them to help NASA's mission of exploration and, you know, we'll try and, you know, and ease the pain that way.

I think what the White House was worried about was that if we went to the moon and then suddenly the funding stopped, then everybody would pick on NASA for achieving nothing more than our grandparents did with slide rules back in the 1960s.

FLATOW: Right, 1-800-989-8255 is our number, if you'd like to talk to Pat Duggins, author of "Trailblazing Mars." And tweet us. Do you think we should go to Mars? Should we spend people to Mars and spend it, or spend the money and the time on that, or should we continue with these robots and the great success they've been having, the Rovers and such.

Pat, does that mean that we're going to have fewer of these robots if we're going to spend the money on sending people and creating rocket ships for them?

Mr. DUGGINS: Well, there's always been the debate, Ira, as to whether or not it's a good idea to send humans, or whether it's a good idea to send robots. I mean, nobody can argue that the Voyagers did not contribute tremendously to science. The two Mars Rovers that are currently crawling around on the surface of Mars, you know, Sprit and Opportunity, they've done great things.

But the scientists that I've spoken to say okay, look. If you really want a good reason for sending human beings to Mars, it's to solve the most obvious question, and that's whether or not life exists on Mars or did exist. Because they say the best places to go to look for that are areas that are geologically or were geologically active, but those are kind of dangerous because they've got gulleys and ravines, and you can't have robots like the Mars Rovers explore them because they just haven't had a great track record of that.

I remember one of the Rovers, Opportunity, was, it was just crawling along and got stuck in something called Purgatory Dune, and it took, like, NASA five weeks to get it out of there. That dune was one-foot thick. I mean, when was the last time you ever went to the beach and called the Coast Guard to save you because you were stuck in a one-foot sand dune?

I mean, there are some things that robots can do and some things they just can't.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number, and you can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I.

We've talked with a scientist before about some of the great challenges of going into space and especially going to Mars. And I played a little bit of Rod Serling talking, doing his great stuff on "The Twilight Zone."

And he focused a lot on space travel, and one episode was about the loneliness and what might happen, you know, to your mind and your psyche as you're spending years in space. Is this one of the challenges that NASA's going to face if they decide to send people, if it decides to send people to Mars?

Mr. DUGGINS: Well, if they do, it depends on what route they take to actually send people to Mars. There's sort of an express route that might get you there in three months, but the smart money is being put on more like a six-month one-way trip. And then you're on Mars for, like, a year, waiting for Mars and the Earth to line up so it's a quick trip back, and then that quick trip would be probably six months back.

So the one thing that I write about in the book is how NASA is going to have to take a look at what the right stuff is and how it's going to change in terms of sending people to Mars.

I mean, the Type A, best of the best of the best, A-okay, Tang-drinking folk that we send up into space now may not be able to cope with the periods of isolation and the frustration that goes on with these very monotonous trips to and from Mars. So the analogy that was made, as well, instead of hiring Superman, you might think of hiring Clark Kent because he might be able to take the trip better.

FLATOW: And they also talk about the radiation dangers, the radiation hazards from radiation that's evident in space, coming from the sun, other places, and that maybe we should be sending people who are ready to just go only one way there.

Mr. DUGGINS: I know Buzz Aldrin's really interested. Yeah, Buzz Aldrin's really interested in that. I think what he's leaning toward, and I think what you're referring to, is a change in the mindset of average Americans when it comes to what it means to go into space.

I mean, right now, we've been doing what basically is like very, very short summer vacations. Neil Armstrong once, you know, made that quip in front of the Kennedy Space Center one time.

And when we go to Mars, it's more like trying to tame the American West in the late 18th, 19th centuries, that sort of thing. And I think that everybody's got to kind of get used to the fact that that's what space travel really is, and we really haven't done any of it yet.

And so keeping that Western sort of analogy going here, I mean, it was very tough. A lot of people died along the way, but you didn't have CNN telling us what happened to the Donner party. So it's going to be completely different when we actually decide to go Mars, if we decide to go to Mars.

FLATOW: And if we go to Mars, will we be able is it in NASA's plans to outsource any of that to private companies to build parts, instead of NASA taking on the whole shebang there?

Mr. DUGGINS: Well, they're talking about possible international cooperation because, you know, the Russians have demonstrated that they're doing some interesting things, and who knows what the future may bring. I mean, China is placing a lot of emphasis on developing the ability to not to put astronauts in space. They call them taikonauts. But that's one possibility.

But as far as big business getting involved in space, probably the earliest you're going to see are these commercial space capsules that would carry people to and from the space station, kind of like what you had in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

I mean, everybody got either dragged to that or decided under their own volition to go and see it. In the beginning of it, you had a space shuttle that blasted off. It was by Pan Am, and it visited a space station that was run by Hilton. Thats sort of what Arthur C. Clarke had, and it seems like that's what the White House is leading us toward.

FLATOW: I can't let you go away without telling us what you mean by a suicide mission of the next space shuttle.

Mr. DUGGINS: A little harsh possibly. Okay, NASA's got the parts for three shuttle flights to go up to the International Space Station, two official ones and then the one rescue mission. So when the two actual flights, the ones that are on the books right now, go off, if there's some kind of damage to the spacecraft, you've got that rescue shuttle sort of waiting there that can blast off and save the astronauts and bring them back.

Now, somebody, most notably U.S. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, said hey, why don't we just, you know, once we've launched those two actual shuttle missions, the one that's going to go up in November and then the one that's going to go in maybe February or March of next year, once those two are gone, and we've got that one shuttle left, why don't we get four astronauts, to one degree or another with a death wish, and let them blast off with no hope of rescue.

In other words, if this last vehicle blasts off, and there's damage to the shuttle, there's no spare parts to send another space shuttle to get them and bring them back.

Now some people say, well, they can evacuate into the International Space Station, but NASA thinks two and three moves down the road. Okay, what happens if something happens to the International Space Station? You've got rescue capability, life rafts, that can take down six people, but you're going to have 10 people on the space station. So what do you do, play rock, paper, scissors to figure out who stays and who goes?

It's very controversial, but there's at least, in the authorization bill, that extra mission. It's just whether or not there's going to be the extra money coming from the appropriations process, which is a whole other mess of monkeys, and that'll come down the road to see whether or not that extra mission actually goes.

FLATOW: Well, let's talk about it for a second, that whole mess of other monkeys, because that's really where it hangs, the money. Congress really controls the purse strings on this. And could the committee decide not to spend all this money or to spend it in a different direction?

Mr. DUGGINS: Well, that's entirely possible because, for example, I know the White House was looking for about $3 billion in seed money to help pay for these commercial space capsules that we were talking about earlier. There's only about, I think, if memory serves, about maybe like $1.9 billion that was actually included as a suggestion in the authorization bill. So you have less money there.

There were some earlier complaints from NASA supporters on Capitol Hill that there was not enough money being set aside for the new heavy-lift launch rocket, which would pave the way either to going to an asteroid or going on to Mars or both.

And so if you don't have enough money there, then it takes longer to build it, and then we're more dependent on the Russians to get people to the space station on Soyuz ships because we don't have enough money for the commercial capsules just yet.

So it's always been a case of you get what you pay for, and the concern is that the White House and Capitol Hill may not spend enough in order to be able to get NASA going. And should they spend that money? There's an equally good debate that maybe this money would be better being spent on something else.

FLATOW: Donald(ph) in New Hampshire, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DONALD (Caller): Yes, it's of my opinion, after following NASA for a number of decades, that they're not capable of building a vehicle. They have too much institutional inertia, and they're regarded as a political jobs program by Alabama and Utah.

And that's why Constellation failed. They insist on using obsolete solid rocket boosters, which are, you know, iffy technology at the best. They've already killed the crew, and including Christa McAuliffe up here in New Hampshire, and, you know, the only way I see of making a go at this is using, you know, commercial companies, like SpaceX, Boeing and Lockheed, which all put forward, you know, designs for commercial spacecraft.

FLATOW: Pat, how do you react to that?

Mr. DUGGINS: Well, Donald, I think you make a very good point. And somehow I'm kind of, you know, wondering in the background if the reason the White House is emphasizing commercial rocket launchers and capsules is to try to drive down the cost of putting a pound of anything into low-Earth orbit.

Right now, the cost is about $3,000, so if that astronaut has a really big breakfast before launch time, he's really sticking it to the taxpayers. So if you can lower that cost somehow, then maybe you would make space more practical and more accessible. Then when you start talking about going to the moon, it's like $15,000 to send that one pound to the moon. Forget about Mars. That's $140,000 by estimates. So anything that drives down the cost of launch and if the commercial companies can do that, that would definitely, you know, benefit NASA in its efforts to try to get people off the ground.

FLATOW: Do you think it is practical to ever expect that, you know, every president seems to push off going to Mars another 20 years in the future. Now, they're talking about in the 2030s. In your book, you talk about what it would take to go Mars. Do you really think that we're ever going to get there? Or, is it always going to be somebody else's problem or somebody else's success?

Mr. DUGGINS: Well, you do make a very good point that politicians, by their very nature, like to set goals that somebody else has to pay for down the road, so it's difficult to really imagine, without, you know, really steeling themselves, whether or not members of Congress or even the American people are going to go ahead and go through the long-term situation of sending people onto Mars. If we're going to do it, it's long term. It's expensive.

Remember, when JFK said let's go to the moon, we had 15 minutes of experience in space, and we didn't even make orbit. I mean, Alan Sheppard became the first American in space, but he was a glorified man shot out of a cannon. He didn't even make it into orbit, and yet, we went ahead and took our hat off and threw it over the wall and said let's go to the moon. That would probably take some kind of a similar challenge to get us going to Mars because the technical difficulties and the technical challenges of safely sending people to the Red Planet and back are really, really huge. And I go into a lot of them in the book, obviously, but it's going to take a lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of willpower on the part of the American people.

FLATOW: Talking with Pat Duggins, author of "Trailblazing Mars: NASA Giant Leap."

Do you think that this administration is going to get this through Congress? Is it impossible to read the tea leaves or how they might change what actually gets funded here?

Mr. DUGGINS: Well, I think they're talking a stair-step process, and the big deal was the fact that they want to build the heavy-lift launch rocket that would be, you know, managed and designed out here in Alabama. Because right now - there's some people say, hey, why don't we take the space shuttle and use that to fly to the moon? Well, that's a nice idea, except the space shuttle, the way it's designed, uses absolutely every drop of fuel it's got just to achieve Earth orbit. There are sensors inside the shuttle that say, okay, you're using your fuel to much. They instantly shut the engines down. Because if you don't, then the turbo pumps run wildly out of control and the whole thing blows up, which is a bad day for the astronauts.

So the notion of going anywhere other than Earth orbit means getting rid of the shuttle and getting a brand new rocket that may be based on shuttle-based technology. They're thinking of taking the external tank, making a stretched limo, bigger boosters and more engines and fly that way. But it would be something completely different from what we've got now.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Pat Duggins, author of "Trailblazing Mars: NASA's Next Giant Leap." Did you know this was - you wrote this book a while back, you had to start writing, did you know that Mars was going to be NASA's next giant leap? At least...

Mr. DUGGINS: Oh, it was kind of like, you know, everybody's talking about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DUGGINS: So it's like, you know, it's like you're a mountain climber and you say, oh, I've been up Mount Kilimanjaro, and I've been up K2, and I've done this and I've done that, and the conversation stops right there. What's the first thing everybody is going to think? Well, has he been up Mount Everest? I mean, that's the one thing that everybody has been talking about - going to Mars all the way back when they sent the first spacecraft to explore Mars back in 1964. It's always been there, and NASA has always talked about it. So sooner or later, they sort of have to, you know, paint and get on the ladder, assuming they get the okay from Congress and the American people.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. If we do select people to go to Mars, is it important where on Mars we decide to land? And, I guess, that would be why we have all these robots surveying Mars at the present time.

Mr. DUGGINS: That's going to be a big fight.

FLATOW: Figure it out, right?

Mr. DUGGINS: Yeah, that's going to be a big fight. Because if you think about it right now where NASA lands its robotic explorers right now are - you're on Mars, and that's really cool, but you're also in what scientists consider to be not really scientifically interesting areas because you want a pretty benign surface, so you don't crash and then you have to go before Congress and have them ask you what were you thinking and all that sort of stuff.

And if you do send people to Mars, are you going to want some place that's very friendly, very habitable, or are you going to go to the areas that are of more interest? I mean, I spoke to some scientists who say, hey, wouldn't it be cool that we build a ship that flew into Valles Marineris, which is a canyon, you know, that's like five miles deep and can stretch from New York to Los Angeles. Fly into it, get out and look up as opposed to you landing on the side and just, you know, walking out and looking down, so there are all kinds of really interesting places on Mars. But there's going to be a pitch battle between NASA and the scientific community on what's scientifically interesting as opposed to what's more practical to keep the astronauts alive. That's definitely coming, assuming we ever undertake this kind of flight.

FLATOW: We have a tweet from Ordersponge(ph) who says: We're not just in it for science. We're in it for survival.

That sounds very much like Stephen Hawking has talked about, that we've got to get off this planet.

Mr. DUGGINS: Well, they're always talking about - I know John Young, an astronaut - he grew up in Orlando, Florida, by the way, a hometown hero - that you got to eventually move out because eventually the Earth is going to wear out, so they say, and we're going to run out of resources. So we have to start, you know, moving in the general direction of going somewhere. And if you wanted to go to Mercury, it's what? How many hundred degrees there? And if you go to Venus, it rains sulfuric acid. And you can't stand on one of the gas giants. So if you're going to go somewhere, then it would seem that Mars would be the next logical step for you to go.

FLATOW: Does NASA have, you know, ways of looking for the right people who have the right stuff for this? And I know that, for example, the Russians are conducting a very long isolation test for their cosmonauts, are they not? They'll be, what, six months, a year in isolation?

Mr. DUGGINS: Well, it - yes, indeed. And what they're trying to do is - early on what the Soviet space program would do to test the compatibility of cosmonauts, they would put them in a car and send them on a road trip through Siberia. And they figured, okay, well, if these guys make it from point A to point B and they don't kill each other, then, you know...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DUGGINS: ...then they probably would make a pretty good space crew. I write in the book about Biosphere 2, which, if everybody remembers is that big glass terrarium in the southwest part of the country, well, there were a lot of fights between the people there and NASA said, well, of course, you got eight people there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DUGGINS: You know, you're going to break into two parts of four, and you have a fight.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a break, come back and talk. We got lots more with Pat Duggins, author of "Trailblazing Mars." Stay with us. We'll be right back for a question or two. Don't go away.

(Soundbite of music)

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

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Pat Duggins, author of "Trailblazing Mars." Pat, one last quick question, have you any idea when Congress might make a decision on all this funding?

Mr. DUGGINS: Well, they're thinking of maybe having a lame duck session after the elections, at which time they might be able to put a budget together. But, however, the Republicans have said that if they get the majority back, then they may actually drive NASA's funding back to 2008 levels instead of the boost that they're talking about right now, so it just - it depends on the politics. And we'll see how it goes.

FLATOW: All right, Pat. Thanks very much for taking time to be with us, and good luck to you on the book.

Mr. DUGGINS: Oh, thank you so much. Oh, by the way, just a quick note here, I've just received a very flattering invitation from The Smithsonian to be up at the National Air and Space Museum to sign books on November 20th. So anybody in the D.C. area, there you go.

FLATOW: All right. There you go. Thanks, Pat Duggins, author of "Trailblazing Mars: NASA's Next Giant Leap."

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