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Mr. NEIL ARMSTRONG (Astronaut): That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

(Soundbite of music)

LIANE HANSEN, host:

By the time Neil Armstrong stepped on the surface of the moon 40 years ago tomorrow, you could've stuffed a library with predictions of where his giant leap for mankind would lead: fleets of space shuttles by the 1980s, thousands of residents at space stations and lunar colonies by the '90s, the outer reaches of the solar system by the early 21st century.

There have been great advances in technology, thanks to space ventures over the past four decades. But the grand predictions of 1969 have made Neil Armstrong's giant leap seem more like a baby step.

Daniel Wilson is going to help explain what happened. He is a roboticist who poked some fun at sci-fi predictions in his 2007 book "Where's My Jetpack?: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived," and he's in our New York bureau. Welcome.

Dr. DANIEL WILSON (Roboticist, Author, "Where's My Jetpack?: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived"): Thanks for having me, Liane.

HANSEN: So, why am I talking to you from a studio in Washington instead of NPR's lunar bureau?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. WILSON: Well, you know, I think we can blame that squarely on a lot of optimistic predictions that came in the '60s.

HANSEN: Sure. Well, on the night of the Apollo 11 landing, you know, there was this big rush of pride. Why do you think the space program didn't really catch on with the American taxpayer?

Dr. WILSON: Well, I think it's interesting. We went there, we did it, we got there, we were, of course, engaged in a Cold War and so, the second that Neil Armstrong put his foot on the moon, in some sense, we won. To some extent, NASA ran out of money, but, also, popular interest waned, I think, after we had won.

HANSEN: How far do you think space exploration could've gone after 1969 if the United States had maintained the same commitment and ambition?

Dr. WILSON: Well, I think that certainly we could've made it to Mars. I mean, that's the real goal for going to the moon in the first place. Once you get to the moon you learn about, actually, setting up a habitation on a planetary body, and that's a step that we never quite got to.

HANSEN: Well, Buzz Aldrin, who was the second man on the moon, he said in an editorial in The Washington Post Thursday, no nation, including our own today, is capable of sending anyone beyond Earth's orbit, much less into deep space. How did all that collective knowledge that brought us to the moon in the first place disappear?

Dr. WILSON: Well, our priorities shifted and in the '80s we started building and using these space shuttles. And they were really all about going into low Earth orbit and that's it. And as a result, we got the International Space Station, I mean, which is an amazing piece of technology. It's as big as a football field. It's visible in the daytime from Earth. I mean, that's pretty significant, but that's never going to take us to the moon. And right now we are trapped.

And if you look at what we're doing right now with our space shuttles -nothing. We've lost two of them - I think we're down to three - and those are really headed toward the junkyard.

HANSEN: Let me ask you for your own predictions about the future of space travel, mostly so people 40 years from now can make fun of them.

Dr. WILSON: So that people in the future can laugh at me.

HANSEN: Yes, exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. WILSON: Well…

HANSEN: With you, laugh with you.

Dr. WILSON: With me, right, 'cause I 100 percent believe everything I'm about to say is absolutely going to come true. Well, we've already used robots to really explore a lot of our solar system. So, one interesting thing that we're going to do in the future with robots is explore other star systems and other stars. And I think that's going to potentially be something we can accomplish with very, very small robots, maybe even the size of coins or needles.

So, that's going to be something very interesting, to actually get out of our own solar system and go beyond. And, also, I really do think that human beings are going to explore the local solar system - so, the moon and Mars. After that, I'm not exactly sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Daniel Wilson is a roboticist and a humorist. Can you make a robot laugh? His most…

Dr. WILSON: If you're funny enough.

HANSEN: If you're funny enough. Well, listen, why don't you give us the title of your most recent book?

Dr. WILSON: The title is "The Mad Scientist Hall of Fame."

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Life on Mars")

Mr. DAVID BOWIE (Musician): (Singing) Is there life on Mars?

HANSEN: Daniel Wilson joined us from our New York bureau. Daniel, thanks a lot.

Dr. WILSON: Thank you for having me.

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