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NASA's New Space Race Needs Life Support

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NASA's New Space Race Needs Life Support


NASA's New Space Race Needs Life Support

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GUY RAZ, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

Unidentified Man: Houston, we have a problem.

RAZ: And the problem is that the U.S. space program is on an unsustainable trajectory.

This past week, the U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee released a report. It's known informally as the Augustine report. Among its findings, unless NASA receives more money fast, the space agency will have to scale back its ambitions.

Now, five years ago, then-President George W. Bush envisioned sending a manned spacecraft back to the moon, and then eventually to Mars. But now, the agency risks building rockets to nowhere. So, is the solution to send more money to NASA?

Well, Leroy Chiao thinks so. He's on the Human Spaceflight Committee, and a former astronaut. Chiao says space travel speaks to the nature of what humans do.

Mr. LEROY CHIAO (Former Astronaut; Human Spaceflight Plans Committee): Just as a species, we're explorers. We are curious by nature. We need to know what's there. It's exciting for us to see humans exploring, because we can identify with those people. An analogy would be people who climb Everest or who explore the ocean depth. It's much more interesting when there's somebody there.

Scientifically speaking, of course, unmanned probes and robotics are capable of doing a lot of different exploration, collecting scientific data. And so, I think the key is balance. You know, you need both programs. And that's one thing the report emphasized.

RAZ: But I mean, what practically do we gain from pouring a lot of money into the possibility of a manned flight, let's say, to Mars, rather than continue to send robots?

Mr. CHIAO: I mean, from a practical standpoint, you know, humans are much more adaptable than a robot. And so, you've seen numerous examples in space and in other areas, too, where missions have been saved because of human intervention. There's no question that it's more expensive to send human beings, but at the same time, it offers operational flexibility that you can't get otherwise.

RAZ: Tell me, what would be the advantage of sending a man back to the moon?

Mr. CHIAO: Well, there are two things that need to happen for us to be able to send a human mission to Mars. The first thing is we need to relearn how to land and operate on another planet. The last Apollo mission was 37 years ago, so all the people who executed that program are long since retired from the industry. So we really need to relearn how to land on another planet, and we need to learn how to operate, if we're going to operate a habitat and rovers and kind of be there for an extended stay.

The other thing we need to learn how to do is operate in deep space: that is farther than low Earth orbit for a sustained period, say, 180 or more days. That's something we've never done. So those two things we need to build up in order to be able to go and send a human mission to Mars.

RAZ: I've read that one possibility would be to try and land a spacecraft on an asteroid.

Mr. CHIAO: Well, you know, just even a flyby would be an interesting thing to do because, as I said, we haven't operated outside of low Earth orbit for many decades with a crew. Landing, of course, would be its own - have its own set of challenges. A near-Earth object, a NEO, would have a very much reduced gravity, so it'd be a new set of challenges of trying to land on the thing and stay on the thing. No question, we would be learning and building infrastructure to go explore farther on to Mars.

RAZ: Leroy Chiao, do you think in your lifetime or in the lifetime of your children - you have young children - that we will eventually get to Mars, that humans will land on Mars?

Mr. CHIAO: I have no doubt that eventually humans will get to Mars. Will it be in my lifetime? I think so and I certainly hope so. Something, of course, that we thought back in the '60s, I was 8 years old when Apollo 11 landed, and I certainly hadn't in my mind as a kid, and even as a young adult, I thought we would land on Mars much earlier, at least to have returned to the moon before now. So I am realistic. But I am optimistic that we will go to Mars in my lifetime.

RAZ: Leroy Chiao is a former astronaut and a member of the U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee. He joined us from his home in Houston.

Thank you so much.

Mr. CHIAO: Oh, it's been a pleasure. Thanks.

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