The Future Of American Space Flight With the shuttle on the brink of retirement and plans for replacement rockets under scrutiny, what lies ahead for space flight in this country? Space policy expert John Logsdon talks about what's next for NASA and the future of manned spaceflight to the moon and beyond.
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The Future Of American Space Flight

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The Future Of American Space Flight

The Future Of American Space Flight

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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You're listening to Science Friday on NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're going to talk now about the space part of what's ahead in the future as we change administrations. You know, with the resignation of NASA Chief Michael Griffin and his possible successor, who's a military man, if he gets confirmed, Major General Scott Gration, there is talk of some sort of connection between the military side of rocketry and the civilian side. You remember back in the '50s - I'm sure you're that old - when we tried to match the Soviet Union in being - putting those rockets up with the military - there was a separate military side, and President Eisenhower said we're not going to use military rockets; we're going to use civilian rockets. Big controversy about that. Well, now, things are - have changed, decades later, and maybe we should be having some sort of a cooperation with the military rockets because, you know, we need to save money.

Should we be, you know, integrating our rockets from both the military side and the civilian side? We'll be talking about this hour. We'll also talk about the countries like China and India, which are moving rapidly, too. China had carried out a spacewalk last September. It hopes to land a Moon rover on its own there, right there on the Moon, in 2012, perhaps. There's talk. No confirmation. The humans may follow a few years later. Does all this sound like the beginnings of a new space race, a political space race?

NASA also faces a five-year gap. You know, the space shuttle is scheduled to retire in 2010, and when that happens, the next generation spaceship, the Orion, is suppose to replace it as the vehicle of choice to carry astronauts to the International Space Station. Well, why not have private companies fill in that space - storing in that gap as the carriers? Excuse me. Why not hire private company like SpaceX or Virgin Galactic to fill in the gap? So, we're going to (unintelligible) these ideas with one of the foremost experts on space policy, John Logsdon. Sorry. He's former director of the Space Policy Institute at GW University in Washington. He is also professor emeritus of political science and international affairs there. And he joins us over the phone. Welcome back to Science Friday, Dr. Logsdon.

Dr. JOHN LOGSDON (Former director, Space Policy Institute, George Washington University): Good afternoon, Ira.

FLATOW: I began with this talk about some sort of cooperation between the military and the civilian side of space. Is that just a lot of talk?

Dr. LOGSDON: Well, there's always been cooperation at the technology level, and the talk is about the use of launch vehicles, the Atlas V and the Delta IV, that are primarily used to launch military and intelligence payloads. But they're not DOD rockets. They belong to the private sector, to the company United Launch Alliance that builds and operates them. And NASA uses those launch vehicles already for its large science payloads.

FLATOW: So, wouldn't it make sense...

Dr. LOGSDON: There's a lot of mythology about this potential merger.

FLATOW: So, there's - you know, the logic was, if we have these rockets that are very successful and used on the military side, why do we now spend all this money building a new rocket ship, you know, that would take us to the Moon? Why don't we use some of that technology?

Dr. LOGSDON: Well, the spacecraft that is being designed for the lunar mission, which is called Orion, is too heavy to be launched by either the Delta IV or the Atlas V, and neither of them have the equipment needed for launching human beings. The jargon word is man-rated, the kind of redundancies that assure safety for the crew. So, either Orion would have to get smaller or there'd have to be a fair amount of money invested in these boosters to have them be able to launch the spacecraft.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And let's move on now to China. China has shown that it could blow up a satellite in orbit. It shown that its astronauts - what are they, taikonauts, I think they're called?

Dr. LOGSDON: Taikonauts.

FLATOW: Taikonauts can do some of the fundamentals that we used to do in the '60s like space walk when we were headed to the Moon. They've talked about putting a little lunar rover on the surface of the Moon. Does it look like they're heading toward to sending people to the Moon?

Dr. LOGSDON: Well, China's announced goal for its human spaceflight is a small space station. There's no official confirmation of plans to send Chinese people to the Moon. There's already a Chinese satellite, a robotic satellite, in orbit around the Moon, and then there is this rover, and then following that, a lunar sample return all done robotically. I tend to think the notion of a space race between the United States and China is mainly a kind of artifact of those in the United States that want to create some competition to stimulate the U.S. program.

FLATOW: And where do the Indians stand in all of this?

Dr. LOGSDON: Well, India is thinking about starting a human spaceflight program, first of all, going to low-Earth orbit, but they haven't even made that decision. I think they will. I think that they want a comprehensive space capability, but they are a long way away from anything capable of lunar mission.

FLATOW: The Japanese have sent probes to the Moon, have they not?

Dr. LOGSDON: They - there are three satellites in orbit around the Moon right now, one from India, one from China and one from Japan. None from many of the Western countries, so...

FLATOW: Do you think you would have ever said that?

Dr. LOGSDON: Yeah. And as a matter of fact, I think - I mean, it's a normal development of any serious space country. The first place to go once you leave the near vicinity of Earth is the Moon. So, I think it's a logical step for these countries.

FLATOW: Yeah. What is your take on the direction that President Obama might take vis-a-vis President Bush and his directions to the Moon? Do you think he's going to continue with that?

Dr. LOGSDON: Well, I think the best thing to go on, and absent anymore reason information, is his campaign statement on space. It was over seven pages long, by far in the most detailed statement that any presidential candidate is ever put out. And in that candidate, he endorsed exploration, both human and robotic, as a major purpose of the U.S. program. So, until we're told otherwise, I think the only reasonable assumption is that he's going to continue at least the general direction, if not the hardware.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm, and no switch in the ratio of a person versus robotic kinds of missions.

Dr. LOGSDON: I don't think so. I think that that the focus will be robotic precursors to eventual human missions, which is the current plan.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. But you get something like what we've seen, like methane on Mars now, you know, does that increase the odds for more robotic explorations of maybe Mars?

Dr. LOGSDON: Well, I think what it does is increase the desire to eventually send human explores to Mars, but we're not ready to do that. We don't have the basic scientific knowledge, and certainly we don't have the hardware, to design a human Mars mission. So, yeah, I think we'll do a series of Martian robotic missions. There's been lots of talk about a sample return, but the sample return can only sample small portions of Mars and not really do comprehensive exploration.

FLATOW: Yeah, in a recent MIT report, your co-authors write that science is only a secondary aim of putting human in space.

Dr. LOGSDON: Right.

FLATOW: What would the primary aim then be?

Dr. LOGSDON: Well, the primary aims are national prestige, international leadership, soft power, and they, according to the - my colleagues at MIT, are best serves by a program of human exploration.

FLATOW: Well, that's how it started, didn't it? I mean, it's....

Dr. LOGSDON: Well...

FLATOW: Science was always a secondary aim.

Dr. LOGSDON: Indeed. What I'm doing these days is writing a book about John Kennedy and the American space program that looks again at the reasons he chose to send Americans to the Moon. And it was purely a way of demonstrating U.S. technological and organizational power vis-a-vis of Soviet Union. So, that that's always been an important product of a human space exploration.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Could we have been the first satellite in orbit if we had gone with the military's rocket instead of...?

Dr. LOGSDON: Yes. President Eisenhower was presented with the alternative of the scientific satellite that he had approved in 1955 or a satellite proposed by Wernher von Braun and his associates that could have been launched but not do much science. And he said, we're going to stick with the science plan.

FLATOW: Yeah. Do you think Major General Gration is going to be confirmed?

Dr. LOGSDON: It seems...

FLATOW: Although we have wait for a new NASA...

Dr. LOGSDON: Less likely....

FLATOW: Less likely?

Dr. LOGSDON: Every day. He's a close associate of President Obama. He had some involvement in writing Obama's space campaign statement, but several key members of the Congress, particularly in the Senate, have kind of used a Mike Griffin model, saying we really want a high-quality engineer with background in space, and Gration doesn't fit that profile. So, I think it's still kind of up in the air whether the president will call in some of his political credit and say, well, this is the man I'd like to have this job.

FLATOW: Let's see if we can get a phone call or two. 1-800-989-8255. Phil in Circus, New York. Hi, Phil.

PHIL (Caller): Hello there.

FLATOW: Hey there.

PHIL: OK, I've got a question for Dr. Logsdon. What does he think about the alternative design that's been proposed by series of retired and some active NASA engineers for an alternative to the Aries I rocket called Direct? I think you may have heard of it. Sometimes it's called the Jupiter rocket, and it's called Direct also because that would utilize more directly much of the shuttle hardware, that would rocket boosters, the external tanks, and redesign it a little bit. And from what I've read, it is a design that would be ready more quickly, can be more cheaply, there's less risk for it, and it was resisted strongly by Dr. Griffin, who is now gone, of course.

FLATOW: All right. Let me get an answer.


FLATOW: Thanks for calling.

Dr. LOGSDON: Well, I think, ultimately, one has to trust the technical judgment of the people within NASA operating in the overall political and economic context that the agency operates in. And they've look at the direct proposal and said it doesn't do the job compared to Aries I. I'm not a technical person. I can't make that judgment. So, you either trust the people who are responsible for doing that or you fire them. So, the one thing to say is that proposal has been given a serious look and judged less desirable than the current plan.

FLATOW: Is NASA, in your opinion, open to new ways of thinking about space travel?

Dr. LOGSDON: Open? Yes. Wide open? No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LOGSDON: I think, you know, it's still an agency with remnants of a kind of internal arrogance that we know how to do this better than anybody else.

FLATOW: And what about this idea of using some of the private, up-and-coming, fledgling space companies to fill in that gap to the International Space Station?

Dr. LOGSDON: Well, I hope they can do it. At this point, SpaceX has had one successful launch of a small launch vehicle. They're going to try the larger vehicle and some demonstrations flights of the ISS supply mission later this year. And I wish them well in doing that, but you can't count on their being successful before they are. You can't make your plans for the future on hope.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Talking with John Logsdon on Science Friday from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about the space travel. Who would you - do you have any picks of your own, who you'd like to see at the NASA?

Dr. LOGSDON: Oh, that can only get me in trouble.

FLATOW: Well, that's OK. It's just you and I talking here.

Dr. LOGSDON: I think that there are several models. I mean, General Gration, who I do not know, is a person without deep experience in space and without deep technical credentials, but clearly a leader and clearly with close connections to the White House. That's the kind of Jim Webb model that was - Jim - Mr. Webb was the head of NASA during Apollo and generally recognized is the most successful NASA administrator. So, you don't have to be a whiz-bang engineer to do the job.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. You have to be better - more of a project coordinator?

Dr. LOGSDON: Well, and NASA operates in a totally political environment between the White House and Congress, and you have to be able to deal with that.

FLATOW: There's a lot of money that goes out to projects.

Dr. LOGSDON: Well, projects in places with people who have representatives in the House and the Senate.

FLATOW: What about international cooperation? Would that be on the mind of a new administrator?

Dr. LOGSDON: Oh, I think very much so. And certainly, the Obama space statement and his overall approach to the world is much more multilateral than has been the case in the past eight years. So, I expect a higher degree of international engagement with the United States and wherever we go in the future.

FLATOW: All right. Dr. Logsdon, thank you very much.

Dr. LOGSDON: Thank you. Good to talk to you.

FLATOW: Good to have you. John Logsdon is the former director of the Space Policy Institute at GWU in Washington. He's also professor emeritus of political science and international affairs.

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