Examining the Future of the U.S. Space Program The space shuttle, still plagued by the problems that doomed Columbia, is slated to fly again in May. The shuttle program is due for retirement in 2010. What will the next era of human spaceflight look like?
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Examining the Future of the U.S. Space Program

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Examining the Future of the U.S. Space Program

Examining the Future of the U.S. Space Program

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From NPR News in New York, this is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY.

I am Ira Flatow. This week marks the anniversaries of two deadly space shuttle accidents: Challenger, 20 years ago; Columbia, 2003. The shuttle is due for retirement in 2010, but what's next for humans in space?

President Bush said we should aim for the moon and then for Mars, but independent space explorers are not waiting. Next week, a company called SpaceX hopes to launch a rocket that will carry a small satellite into orbit, and it's building a bigger rocket to carry heavier payloads and people into space and eventually to Mars.

Where do you think we should be headed? What are some of the out-of-the-box but feasible ideas for future space travel? Some answers and your questions after this break. Stay with us.

(Soundbite of the news)

This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. This hour the future of space travel.

Two years ago, President Bush announced a new goal for the U.S. space program. Return to the moon and after that aim for Mars. Last week, NASA's new chief, Michael Griffin, said that the current space shuttle program and International Space Station were, quote, "Not the right path," unquote, for the space agency after the highly successful Apollo moon missions of the '70s.

So, after billions of dollars and two deadly accidents, the shuttle will be put to rest by 2010. Its successor the Crew Exploration Vehicle, dubbed Apollo on steroids, is now in the planning stages. It appears that we're picking up where we left off in 1975, back to the future.

People outside the space program have been saying for years that we need something different, some new thinking, some fresh ideas about space travel. Some say the space agency needs to partner with private companies to make it to the moon and Mars. Others say these are not the right missions to begin with. We've heard cries for the privatization of space, to allow independent designers, the Burt Rutans, if you will, to design and build the next generation of spacecraft at a fraction of the present cost.

This hour we're gonna try to encompass all of these ideas as we talk about the future of space travel. We've got a panel of thinkers and futurists, including a former astronaut and the head of a private launch firm whose first rocket is scheduled to launch next week.

We'd like to hear your thoughts about the future of spaceflight. So if you'd like to join our discussion, give us a call. Our number, 1-800-989-8255, 1-800- 989-TALK. Let me introduce my guests.

Tom Jones is a planetary scientist and a NASA astronaut from 1990-2001. He flew four shuttle missions and led three spacewalks during the construction of the International Space Station. He's the author of a new book, Sky Walking: An Astronaut's Memoir, out this week from Smithsonian Books. He joins us by phone from Houston. Welcome to the program, Dr. Jones.

Dr. TOM JONES (Former Astronaut and Author, Sky Walking: An Astronaut's Memoir): Hello, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi, there. Elon Musk is a CEO and chief designer of SpaceX in El Segundo, California. He joins me by phone from his office there. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. ELON MUSK (CEO and Chief Designer, Space Exploration Technologies): Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Rick Tumlinson is the founder of the Space Frontier Foundation and the editor of Return to the Moon, a book about alternative approaches to space published in 2005 by Collector's Guide Publishing. He joins us by phone from North Hollywood, California. Welcome back.

Mr. RICK TUMLINSON (Founder, Space Frontier Foundation; Editor, Return to the Moon): Good afternoon, Ira.

FLATOW: Good afternoon to you. George Whitesides is the executive director of the National Space Society in Washington. He's in our NPR studios in Washington. Welcome to the program, Mr. Whitesides.

Mr. GEORGE WHITESIDES (Executive Director, National Space Society): Thanks so much.

FLATOW: Thank you. Let me begin with Tom. We've been talking about the shuttle tragedies in terms of what they mean for the space program, but I want to acknowledge, I know that you lost friends and colleagues on the Columbia accident.

Dr. Dr. JONES: Three years ago, right. Seven of my colleagues who I had worked heavily with on the space station program took their first trip into space, in many cases, on that crew, and they had a very successful mission. I was enjoying their success and watching them on TV. It was actually a very upbeat mission until the very last moments of it, and so we lost those seven astronauts three years ago today, and that's what the catalyst was for propelling us into the future. We're now in a very uncertain transition that NASA and the country hasn't faced in decades, trying to design a new space vehicle while recovering from an accident with the old one, at the same time trying to draw plans that will credibly get us out to places we've never touched before.

So this is really a time of flux, and it's a big challenge for the space agency, and that's what we're seeing right now is a lot of struggling with trying to get on track.

FLATOW: You know, the shuttle was the only manned vehicle ever built, the U.S. or Soviet, without an emergency escape rocket at the top of it, and that would have helped, might have saved the Challenger astronauts. In retrospect, is this, do you think there's a design flaw because it looks like the Crew Exploration Vehicle has one of these new rockets, at least on a design board.

Dr. Dr. JONES: And that's good news. We want the crew of this new vehicle to have a much better chance of escaping any problem with their launch vehicle, and coming back to the Earth with an almost bulletproof heat shield and recovery system, and that would have gone a long way towards, you know, preventing the Columbia tragedy from ever happening. However, the shuttle was built in the early '70s, designed in the early '70s as part of a compromise in cost and capability with the government and its budgeteers...


Dr. Dr. JONES: ...and so its very design was made fragile and vulnerable three decades ago.

FLATOW: Un huh.

Dr. Jones: And now we're still paying the price for that. It had been envisioned that it would be a very safe, almost indestructible or infallible vehicle, and of course, our confidence in conquering the hazards of spaceflight was oversold, and so now the shuttle, as we realize, is a somewhat fragile and now aging vehicle that needs to be replaced.

FLATOW: Hey, let me ask all of you. Why not just scrap it now? I mean, why if it's still shedding the heat, you know, the heat shield foam from the tank, we don't know what's gonna happen on the next flight, they've been trying to fix it, why not just say, you know, we gave it our best shot, it doesn't work, let's just move on from here, George Whitesides? Why don't we just do that?

Mr. WHITESIDES: Well, I think the main reason is that we need to finish the International Space Station and fulfill our commitments to the international partners who have been literally working for a decade or two on their pieces of the space station. You know, I mean, I think, you know, there's a lot of debate about the ultimate value of the International Space Station right now, but I mean, it is a triumph from the perspective of international cooperation, and I think we owe it to our international partners to fulfill on the promise that we made which was, essentially, to launch their laboratories and their modules.

FLATOW: Rick, do you agree?

Mr. TUMLINSON: Not really. I think...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUMLINSON: Surprise. No, I think the issue with the space station, it's very ironic. NASA already is planning to walk away from the space station as soon as they get it built. So not only are we draining money to keep the shuttle going, which I think is partially political. There's a large standing army of political constituency of people who depend on shuttled-related jobs to keep going. I do understand fulfilling the, our promises to the foreign partners, and I think there could be ways to work around that. There are other ways of doing it.

I think it all boils down to this. We have created and designated a national space transportation entity in NASA, and come hell or high water, they're gonna hang onto their own ability to have access to space, which I think is not what we need to open the frontier. That's a different approach than, shall we say, creating the mechanisms to allow people, the American people, to get out into space, as opposed to having some, a designated team that says we're it, we have to have a rocket, we have to have, you know, we've, already in the show there's been talk in terms of the follow-on to the space shuttle as if there is some requirement for a nationalist space transportation vehicle.

Whereas what I would rather see is all kinds of vehicles, such as Elon's and others, accessing space so that we can start creating a frontier up there and create an economy that would allow us to expand and, in the end, stay.

FLATOW: Elon, is there a barrier for the privatization of space?

Mr. MUSK: Well, I don't think there is a barrier in the sense of there being, say, some law against it or something like that. There's a barrier of execution, which I think has not been exceeded. It is extremely difficult to do. There's a reason why there's an idiomatic expression about something being, very difficult being, you know, or something being easy not being rocket science. It is really difficult, and it's a problem, which is both a problem of technical execution and business execution, and nobody's really been able to solve that yet, and we're aspiring to do so with SpaceX. But it's really up to us. I think if we fail, it's our fault, not anyone else's.

FLATOW: Tell us a bit about SpaceX: what it is and why you're doing it.

Mr. MUSK: Well, that's a pretty big question. SpaceX is a rocket company. Our goal is to solve, or help solve, what I consider to be, by far and away, the great problem of space, which is the cost of getting there.

We're starting off with a small launch vehicle called the Falcon 1, which, incidentally, is named after the Millennium Falcon. I hope George Lucas doesn't sue us. And, that'll put about half a ton into orbit. And it's designed to put small satellites into orbit and test out the key technologies necessary to go bigger and to build manned rockets and manned capsules.

So we've started off with that. In fact, we have our first launch scheduled for 4:30 p.m., on February 8tb, California time. So that should be, hopefully if things go well that day, it's going to be quite a milestone for us.

But looking into the future, the big development at SpaceX is something called the Falcon 9, which is considerably larger. In its largest version, the Falcon 9 would be capable of putting 25 tons into Earth's orbit. And it's also capable of missions to geosynchronous orbit and to escape.

And the Falcon 9 is also being from the ground up with what's called a manned safety rating. So that the margins of safety in the design of components are higher than they are in an unmanned rocket. That's something that isn't all that hard to do, if you start, if you design the rocket from the beginning to do that; but it's very difficult to retrofit a rocket to be man rated. If someone considers man rateing to be important. The very long-term goal of SpaceX is really to help enable humanity become a space-faring civilization and one day, a multi-planet species. And that's why I started the company.

FLATOW: Are you saying you you're going to be taking people to Mars or other places?

Mr. MUSK: Well, I mean that's a very long-term aspiration.

FLATOW: Mm hmmm.

Mr. MUSK: ...realizing of course that's incredibly difficult journey, with numerous pitfalls and perhaps the chances of us getting all the way there are very low. But that is the aspiration, if I was to describe the, you know, Holy Grail objective. And it's to lower the cost and improve the reliability to the point where if you want to go, ideally, if you want to move to Mars, you should be able to do so if you can afford, say, the median house in California.

So I think that there is actually, you know, it sounds a little odd to contemplate, but I think there actually is a business model, potentially, if you can make it, one day it cost somewhere around a few million dollars...

FLATOW: Mm hmmm.

Mr. MUSK: ...to move, a one-way trip to Mars and become one of the founding people of a new planet.

FLATOW: Mm hmmm. Elon, I'll tell you to hold on tell you to hang on because we have to take a break, okay?

Mr. MUSK: Sure.

FLATOW: To everybody: Elon Musk, Rick Tumlinson, George Whitesides, and Tom Jones. Stay with us. And stay on the line, because we'll be taking your calls; lots to talk about on the future of space travel. I think we've entered just the first stage of our conversation, so stay with us.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow, and we're talking this hours about the future of space flight with Elon Musk, CEO and chief designer at SpaceX, in El Segundo, California; Rick Tumlinson, founder of the Space Frontier Foundation and editor of Return to the Moon, published in 2005 by Collectors Guide Publishing; George Whitesides, executive director of National Space Society in Washington; Tom Jones, planetary scientist, former NASA Astronaut and author of the book Sky Walking: An Astronaut's Memoir, just out from Smithsonian Books.

Our number: 1-800-989-8255; let me ask each of you gentlemen to comment about, in general, let me begin with you, Rick. Do you think that, let me start with Tom. Tom, do you think that NASA's taking the right approach here or should they be more open and exactly, and wait a while, maybe throw out the design a little bit and see what comes back from the general designing public?

Dr. TOM JONES: First thing we need to do is get the shuttle out of the way as soon as possible.

FLATOW: Mm hmmm.

Dr. JONES: A vehicle that has a job to do in the next few years to get the most important components that are sure on the ground, already checked out, up to the space station. Those include the Japanese and European laboratory, for example, that our partners have been waiting on for years.

But the standing army that Rick referred to that keeps the shuttle flying is a very expensive operation to support...

FLATOW: Mm hmmm.

Dr. JONES: ...and that burden on NASA's back, they need to retire that vehicle, move to a lower cost vehicle that can get people up to the space station and then beyond, cheaply and safely. In fact, there are 10 more safe than the shuttle can ever be because of its limited, built-in design vulnerabilities.

So that's the first thing, is to get the space shuttle's expenses put to bed. And then that'll free up, I hope, some money from some commercialization activity that will support the space station. All the supplies and cargo shouldn't be flown up on NASA rockets they should be flown up on commercial enterprises that can bid for that business and, you know, get NASA out of the freight business and get it back in the exploring business. And that may be the surface of the Moon where we go or the asteroids, which I would like to see visited pretty quickly and then, eventually, to Mars.

The key to that is just going to be to get a new way to take people out of Earth orbit.

And so on the Lewis and Clark end of the spectrum, I think we do need a new space vehicle. That's what NASA's trying to design right now. My friends that I've talked to this week in Houston are working very busily on the cockpit design for this new vehicle. And that's going to be a vehicle that's a lot safer for my colleagues and, I think, it's going to be something that can carry us decades into the future.

FLATOW: Mm hmmm.

Dr. JONES: ...all the while, filling in that commercial exploring, will be the commercial spacecraft that Elon talked about that can take some of the burden off the taxpayers and put it where the biggest bang for the buck is.

FLATOW: Rick, give me a critique of your problems with the space vehicle NASA is designing.

Mr. TUMLINSON: Well, first of all, everything Tom said.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. JONES: It can't all be wrong, can it?

Mr. TUMLINSON: Yes, I, you know, that's my spiel right there, and I love it and love hearing it.

FLATOW: And you're sticking to it?

Mr. TUMLINSON: I'm sticking to it, basically. What we really need is a partnership, as we move out, between the government; playing the Lewis and Clark role on the leading edge and constantly, and this is where we screw up and have screwed up in the past, built into that Lewis and Clark function, should be a constant handoff of operational activities to the private sectors, such as Elon's company, and the things Bert(ph) might build, and others out there. Just constantly shedding that so we have what I call, lean mean exploration machine, in the form of NASA moving outward. And then the settlers and shopkeepers...

FLATOW: Mm hmmm.

Mr. TUMLINSON: ...bringing up the rear and creating an economy.

My concern with some of the things that are happening right now is that, for example, NASA is going to be subsidizing this new rocket, which is probably going to be built by one of the two major contractors, two or three major contractors out there, who are already incorporating in their plans, sort of a backup plan. That they're going to use the money that they get subsidized development of this vehicle to actually do those things Tom was talking about, which the current administrator is saying is for the private sector, which is carrying goods and cargo to and from space stations.

So we already have the aerospace companies, the traditional aerospace companies as I call them, saying that they're building a variation of their vehicle which will actually compete with these non-subsidized, private companies that are going to be allegedly carrying stuff to and from stations. So I see a few years down the road, we could have real trouble there, as the smaller guys get kind of booted out of the way by these heavily subsidized aerospace companies.

So it's a little bit complex, but it is something that, you know, I keep coming back the fact, if we're going to settle and stay and create the communities that Elon was speaking of, we have to make all of our decisions with that in mind. And that gets to the Lewis and Clark function for government and the enabling and protecting and nurturing the new private sector companies that are going to be the ones who actually create the economy that allows us to stay. Because as we say in our group, nobody stays until somebody pays. And I really don't want it to be the taxpayers.

FLATOW: Mm hmmm. George Whitesides, want to jump in?

Mr. WHITESIDES: Sure, I mean, I think, you know, I represent an organization that has about 20,000 members, mostly in the U.S. And there's a large constituency of people who don't particularly care one way or the other about the intricacies of cargo versus crew or whatever, these other things, which are really important in a sort of inside baseball space way. But, you know, they care about that our nation and the world is dedicating significant resources to going out into the solar system and starting to explore and starting to settle.

And I think the most important two things that NASA can do, as it goes forward, is: one, to do a better job of explaining why we're going, which I think it has not done a great job of recently. And I think that it's a great story to tell. It's one of the greatest stories of our time: the idea that we're going out and we're going to actually have a lunar settlement by 2022, by the time, you know, some of the kids in elementary school are just about the right age to be astronauts themselves.

So I think telling the story is absolutely critical and something that NASA's got to do a better job of.

FLATOW: On the other hand, if the government keeps running into a large deficit, the deficit runs higher every year, and we just heard this week about another $100 billion or more for Iraq and Afghanistan and for the war there. Isn't it possible that the government's whole mission to the moon and Mars can sort of evaporate in red, not red tape, but red ink and there will be a natural boost for the private people to come along?

Mr. WHITESIDES: I think, you know, I mean, sorry to jump in, but, I mean, I think the funny thing is, you have four people on this show with you who basically agree that the private sector is absolutely critical, is indeed indispensable to NASA's exploration plans.

Ira, it is literally impossible for NASA to do what it wants without bringing in strong involvement of the private sector.

FLATOW: Mm hmmm.

Mr. WHITESIDE: So that's almost a given now inside the space community. I don't know if other people believe it. But if you look at last 20, 30, 40 years, there has been sort of a base level of funding that's bounced around a lot, but it's sort of has tended to zero in certain level of our federal budget. And I think that's very unlikely that will go away.

Dr. JONES: I think it's so important NASA and the country keep in sight the fact that space investment is the engine that drives a lot of the high-tech capabilities of our country. You know, when you look at the fact China graduated 700,000 engineers last year and we produced 60,000, the long-term ability of this country to compete on a hi-tech world economy is going to depend on us being very innovative and constantly challenging our educational system and our young people...

FLATOW: Mm hmm.

Dr. JONES: ...to pick up these challenging careers. And investment in space and moving forward with new goals in space that excite people, grab their attention, inspire them to take on tough curricula, that's the kind of seed money the government has to find, despite its deficits...

FLATOW: Mm hmmm.

Dr. JONES: ...on a year-to-year basis.

FLATOW: Well, China, speaking of China, China itself has its own space program, does it not? And has talked about going to the Moon and other places?

Dr. JONES: Sure, yeah; 2020, I believe, is their latest announcement of when they'd like to have a piloted lunar landing. And they've already flown two spacecraft, and three cosmonauts or taikonauts as they call them in China. So I would hope they would co-op their efforts, get them involved in the move out of the lower orbit regime and make them part of this partnership that's going to explore the planets together.

FLATOW: So we actually have another de facto space race going on?

Dr. JONES: I doubt it. I don't know if I want to comment on the likelihood of that. But I think there's no driving geo-political reason to have space race. In fact, I think it's more likely that they'll provide a modest spurt to our own efforts to get somewhere else beyond the space station...

FLATOW: Mm hmmm.

Dr. JONES: ...and in the long term, they probably like to cooperate with us.

FLATOW: Mm hmmm. 1-800-989-8225 is our number. Let's go to Robert in Wichita, Kansas. Hi, Robert.

ROBERT (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?


ROBERT: I just had a quick comment. I'm really concerned about the privatization about space and space development, from the standpoint of safety. Much of what we have that's wrong today with the shuttle is because of the business model has to do with money. And with a private effort, that's going to be even a more increasing factor in calculations, which are provided.

FLATOW: Elon, how do you answer that?

Mr. MUSK: Well, I couldn't more radically disagree with the caller's sentiment. You know, the airliners that are built are all built by, you know, by Boeing and Airbus and have extraordinary safety records. In fact, I just saw a study recently that you're actually safer being on a Boeing airliner than sitting in your house.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MUSK: I'm not kidding. Your house can be hit by lighting and...

ROBERT: That's probably true...

Mr. MUSK: It is statistically true; at least it has been...

ROBERT: Companies have to meet regulations and currently the regulations that are used for guidance for people who are developing private space travel don't include levels of safety that equal the FAA levels of safety. They only talk about levels of safety that have to do with hitting something on the ground should something go wrong and I'm afraid that the public may be misled if they opt to spend a few thousand or a few hundred thousand dollars for a four to ten minute space ride and not realize that the levels of safety don't anywhere approach the levels of safety required for an FAA certified aircraft.

Mr. WHITESIDES: Ira, do you mind if I jump in on this?

FLATOW: Let me let Elon answer first and then you can jump in.

Mr. MUSK: Yeah, let me just grab this. You know, again sir, you're quite incorrect. The legislation requires that anyone who, any private individual who does space travel, be informed explicitly, and I mean explicitly about the risks by whatever company is providing that trip and, I mean, the language will be, you know, it has to be formulated in the most extreme manner. I mean, you're basically gonna be signing something that says I almost expect to die.

ROBERT: That's my point. You don't do that on a commercial aircraft and the reason you don't do it, we know what those levels of safety are. For a catastrophic event, it's (unintelligible) by law. For space travel there is no equivalent level of safety required.

Mr. MUSK: Right, well, but it is expected to be dangerous and that's, informed consent is the only way that somebody could actually fly on either suborbital or orbital craft and initially the danger will be high and, certainly, nobody's going to be duped at all. In fact, I mean, that would be completely against the law.

ROBERT: But the main impetus in trying to get some sort of privatization has been based on the fact that we have this notion that what we have right now with the government space program isn't safe. And that is true, there are some safety risks involved, but I do not believe that the safety record will initially improve by an effort to privatize it so that folks can make money sending people to space for four to five minutes.

FLATOW: Okay, let me just jump in because we have to take care of business, pay the bills. We're talking about space this hour on Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News. Yes, go ahead, Elon.

Mr. MUSK: Well, yeah, I think, you know, there will be initially a higher level of danger which people will be informed about (unintelligible) that's if they, that they can fly, but I think in the long term, it will be considerably safer by virtue of commercial companies entering the space transportation business. Like, I expect that one day we will indeed have reliability levels, which are comparable to that of airliners.

FLATOW: Robert, thanks for that informative question.

ROBERT: Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. 1-800-989-8255. George Whitesides, did you want to jump in there?

Mr. WHITESIDES: Well, I just want to make one quick comment, which is that I'm one of those people. I've got a ticket on one of these suborbital providers, Virgin Galactic, which is the same company that, you know, group of companies that Richard Branson runs, and I think there is a very explicit recognition among the group of people who've bought these first tickets to be private, you know, space travelers, that it is dangerous, but we know that it has to get started somewhere and I think that there is a link in a sort of a higher level way between the suborbital stuff that Virgin's trying to do, and other providers, and the orbital stuff that Elon is trying to do.

They're fundamentally different in certain respects but I think the point is that we need to get that dynamic, that dynamo of commercial demand linking in with private providers and just as Elon says, that's what has brought about the extreme safety level in today's air transport industry and I think that that's what'll (unintelligible).

Dr. JONES: From an astronaut's point of view, if the private company wants to take a human being to orbit or on a suborbital flight, if they don't provide some level of safety commensurate with the expense, they're gonna go out of business. So, after that sorting out process occurs, I think that, you know, that might be a way to farm out or bid for transportation of crew to the International Space Station on a very safe commercial system that eventually evolves.

Mr. TUMLINSON: If I could toss a quick one in.

FLATOW: Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. TUMLINSON: It's not really a fair comparison to take the mass transportation--mature mass transportation industry that we have today and compare it to an industry that is possibly at the level of, you know, barnstorming in the early days.

We are, these people that travel on planes today are moving in a transportation system that has been through decades and decades of a shaking out period, whereas, the people who are gonna be signing up for these suborbital flights know that they're going on an adventure. And, in fact, are going on it because it's an adventure and they know that they are at the first wave, they're riding that first wave and that there is risk involved. So that by the time that Elon is transporting families to Mars who will also, by the way, be aware of the high risk and are probably going because, you know, when you're in a risky situation you are at your best, we're gonna be reaching higher and higher levels of safety just as the industry matures; it's going to happen.

Mr. MUSK: I mean, this country was founded by people that took great risk in an ocean passage where there was risk of, I mean, in a tiny boat that you wouldn't conceivably imagine using today, and risk of death not just from storms and that sort of thing but also from disease and all sorts of things on board and, in fact, even when you arrived it was a very difficult situation in the early days, you know, that many people died or were injured, but they felt it was worthwhile and, you know, when you're trying to do something that is really great, there is risk but a certain number of people will decide if that risk is worth taking.

FLATOW: Well, we're going to have to take a short break. Stay with us. I want to remind you that we're talking with Elon Musk, CEO and Chief Designer of the SpaceX in El Segundo, California; Rick Tumlinson, Founder of the Space Frontier Foundation and Editor of Return to the Moon; George Whitesides, Executive Director of the National Space Society in Washington and Tom Jones, Planetary Scientist, former NASA astronaut and author of the book 'Sky Walking: An Astronaut's Memoir,' just out from Smithsonian Books. As I say, stay with us, we'll take a short break, come back and take lots more of your calls about the future of space. Maybe we'll talk a little bit about the space elevator; interesting concept. Stay with us, we'll be right back.


You're listening to Talk of the Nation Science Friday. I am Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the future of space travel with George Whitesides, Tom Jones, Elon Musk and Rick Tumlinson. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Tom, I want to pick up on a comment you sort of just slipped in earlier in the program and I want to follow up on it. You were saying that you think we should be going to asteroids. Why not the moon? Why asteroids?

Dr. JONES: The asteroids are a favorite of mine. That's what I studied back in graduate school at the University of Arizona so I'm a little biased, but the asteroids, energetically in terms of rocket power, they're the closest objects in the solar system to earth so they're easy to get to. In fact, if you built the moonship that NASA is planning to build to get there by 2017, that same ship could take you out to the nearest, near earth objects that come close to our orbit in space for less energy, in terms of rocket power again, and on a round trip that might last just a couple of three months. So, well within the experience we have on the space station, we could send human explorers to a totally new solar system body --

FLATOW: Oh, looks like we lost Tom altogether. We'll have to get him back. 1- 800-989-8255. Good time to segue to the following; let's go to a Dario(ph) in Los Gatos, California. Hi, Dario.

DARIO (Caller, Los Gatos, California): Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi there.

DARIO: I always enjoy your show immensely and it's...

FLATOW: Thank you.

DARIO: ...very nice to hear so much common sense talked about space exploration.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

DARIO: Yeah, my point is that I think we should definitely go ahead with the private sector exploration and, obviously, launch costs will come down as we develop new technologies but, ultimately, isn't the problem always one of getting out of earth's gravity while using canonical(ph) rockets and I personally think that maybe NASA's fairly substantial budget might be best applied to developing the space elevator or skyhook concept. I think we have technologies developing which make it a strong possibility in the not-too- distant future and I'd like to hear what your panelists think about that.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling. Let me start with our panelist with George Whitesides. This space elevator concept--lot of people, I'm sure, in the National Space Society must talk about it.

Mr. WHITESIDES: Absolutely! It is a very hot topic and, in fact, we're doing a big focus on this issue at our conference in May out in Los Angeles. You know, I think, the way I talk about the space elevator is that we know that as a society or civilization, we're serious about space exploration when we build the space elevator. It's really, you know, the Brooklyn Bridge to space, you know, it's the infrastructure. Now, we also have to be a little bit realistic in that this is not, you know, gonna happen by 2010 or whatever. You know, we're still gonna have to build these rockets in the interim period, but your caller's absolutely right that in terms of fundamental improvements of what can enable us to send ships, you know, throughout the solar system and send those settlers out to different parts of moons and planets, it's really gonna be the space elevator. And the exciting thing is that with these carbon nanotubes, the technology is getting closer. I wouldn't say that it (unintelligible)--

FLATOW: How does it work? What's the idea of it? How do you make a space elevator?

Mr. WHITESIDES: It's basically, you build a big ribbon and you put it out in geostationary orbit and you let it fall back down to earth so that you literally have a ribbon connecting the surface of the earth out into space and then you have an elevator literally, sort of a climber that hooks on the side of it and it uses, well, different kinds of power, solar power or laser power, and it climbs this elevator up into space and the wonderful thing about that is that you don't have to go through, you know, use rockets, you know, which require very high thrust to get out of the so-called gravity well of earth. You can sort of slowly ascend and then get up to the top and then off you go into the solar system.

FLATOW: And this is feasible?

Mr. WHITESIDES: It's nearly there but maybe Elon wants to say more.

Mr. MUSK: Yeah, I don't really, I think, you know, it should be pointed out that we've yet to build a cognitive footbridge, let alone something that would be somewhere on the order of, depending upon, you know, what sort of och test you have, at anywhere from 30,000 miles long to 60,000 miles long. We've never, you know, really built anything that long ever before and, you know, not even made something as big as a pencil with carbon nanotubes which are the only thing that would be able to survive the enormous stress that would be on this cable and I think there would be some hesitation for people to have this gigantic cable wrapped, you know, sort of spinning out from earth and potentially coming a hazard if it ever does break or come loose, or something like that. And quite frankly I think it's going to, you know, long before it makes sense to build a space elevator, it'll make sense to build, you know, a trans-Pacific bridge from Los Angeles to Tokyo. And I don't see anyone proposing that. And that would be considerably easier, by the way.

FLATOW: George, George, let me give you advice. When you talk about selling an idea like the space elevator, don't use the Brooklyn Bridge analogy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHITESIDES: Ira, on the, I'm actually going to cite the Brooklyn Bridge concept, and the, but from a different angle.

Something like a space elevator, which is getting into the level, I won't comment on the technology development, because I basically agree with Elon, it's way in the future, but that' a demand-based proposition. The reason there was a bridge built, you know, across the river there in New York, was that there was large, thriving economies on either side. By the time we have large cities and economies on the moon, mars, on the asteroids in space between worlds, then the demand might be there for that sort of technology. And commensurately, that technology will have developed to a level to be able to fulfill that demand.

Just as, when they first landed on Manhattan, the idea of a bridge that could span that river, of course, was something that was, you know, difficult. I think that when we begin to see these large populations moving off space, that demand will grow.

But I think what's really interesting is, when we're talking about NASA current day, and we're talking about the Lewis and Clark and leading-edge side of things, is unfortunately a lot of NASA's budget that would look at advanced technologies, be it nuclear rockets to take you to and from Mars, whatever, are being sort of jettisoned in the current budgets. And that's something that's of great concern. Whether its nanotubes or whatever, we need to make sure that NASA, where our taxpayer dollars are being put, is putting its money into looking way beyond the horizon rather than trying to build the trucks that Elon can do better.

FLATOW: Jettisoned in favor of what?

Mr. WHITESIDES: The money going into building this sort of monolithic government rocketing, rocket system, the CEV. It's an all-hands thing. They're throwing out technologies that would be very useful.

For example, recently they haven't quite done it yet, I gather, but they're going to toss the idea of using methane for propellant. Now the beauty of that is that you can create propellant on the surface of Mars and other bodies in space, which is the equivalent of living off the land, and propel your rocket ships using those kinds of things in the early phases; and avoid using these sort of dangerous propellants that we use nowadays that require a lot of infrastructure. But NASA's tossing that. Which means...

FLATOW: Because?

Mr. WHITESIDES: ...means we may get there, but we can't today.

FLATOW: Yeah, because I, well I had heard, you know, that there were proposals if you go to Mars you send the rocket, you send a payload there first that sits on the surface and makes the return fuel. And then you would come and get...

Mr. WHITESIDES: Right. And we're jettisoning the research on how to do that.

Mr. MUSK: Right. Although I should point out that you could have liquid oxygen and hydrogen engine just from any water you could find, and, so, and in fact a lot of the comets and asteroids are believed to hold a lot of ice. And certainly there's a lot of ice on Mars. So if you took a liquid oxygen and hydrogen engine, which is by the way the most efficient engine, that you could realistically build, based on the chemicals, you know, you actually are able to refuel anywhere that there is any kind of water ice.

Mr. WHITESIDES: Yeah, but it's important to make sure that we have somebody who's, especially those who are, where we're pooling our tax dollars, we're looking into those sorts of pioneering technologies. I'm not specifically saying it's this or that or methane or space elevators, but that, the best use I believe of our tax dollars as opposed to private funds is to look into these advanced research projects that, in the long term, might provide us to live off the land once we get there.

FLATOW: So are you saying we've made up our minds how we're going, we've got the ideas down, and therefore we're not looking into these other technologies? And...

Mr. WHITESIDES: What I'm concerned about is that we're throwing out our ability to stay there in order to meet some artificial goals as to get there quickly. And what I'm very concerned about is we're marching headlong towards another flags and footprints dead-end, like Apollo, if we are not careful.

Mr. MUSK: True, that is a very, very serious risk.

FLATOW: Tom, how do you react to that?

Dr. JONES: Right, I, in fact, that's the way I end the book "Sky Walking", is with this look at this transition period that we're in. After the accident three years ago the Congress said, and the President agreed proposing this new plan, that its time to renew our goals, challenge ourselves in the future, and put the resources behind this effort to make it happen. And now we're three years later and NASA's in such a tight budget box that it's throwing overboard perhaps technologies that will make it easier to operate just ten to fifteen years down the line. And that might truncate or make it easier to walk away from our ability to get out beyond earth orbit, stay on the moon if that's our goal, if the resources are there, or prevent us from going to the asteroid.

So I think it's time for the country's policy makers to say, "It's important to stay in space, it's important to try to tackle these new goals." And then put the necessary resources to work. That's what got us into the Columbia box, fifteen years of neglect of NASA and a goal for NASA. And I think that's what we need to do now; make up for that lack of support in the last decade and a half and go forward in the future on a firm footing.

FLATOW: So that, but who makes that decision? Does the President? Does the Administrator of NASA? Does Congress and earmarking money for how it might be spent?

Dr. JONES: Well, if the President has said we are going to do A, B, and C, you know, restore the shuttle for flight, finish the space station, replace the shuttle with a new vehicle and go back to the moon, and that's what he's told NASA to do, then Congress has endorsed those goals in its regular, in its legislative language. But the budget numbers to support the execution of those goals has not arrived yet. Those funds have not been given to NASA. So Mike Griffin, the NASA Administrator, has the tough job of trying to keep moving on all these fronts but he's not been given the resources.

FLATOW: You know, and that's almost, to me, from living through the space race of the 1960's, what was the miracle of the 1960's is that you had this ten-year period where, you know, there was not a change of an Administration killing the project, bringing it back, doing, and that sort of thing. So you had ten years of consistency.

Dr. JONES: And it started to wane at the end of the Apollo project.


Dr. JONES: Congress started to pull support. And that's the danger here, is that we might starve the future just to make it through these next few years of shuttle operations and finishing the space station.

So, you know, we as a country have to decide whether we're really serious about sending people into space or we're going to be right back into the same situation, where we've compromised the design of some very complex and hazardous machinery by making short-term budget choices. So, I've written that it' time to put up or shut up.

Mr. WHITESIDES: Can I just say one quick thing? And, uh...

FLATOW: Yes, you can right I just remind everyone that this is TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR News. Yes, go ahead.

Mr. WHITESIDES: I just wanted to say one quick thing, which is that, you know, NASA's got a lot of problems, that's for sure. But I think we should give some, in fact, a lot, of credit to the new Administrator, Michael Griffin. He is, he's actually a guy who believes a lot of what we're talking about here during this show, in terms of the vision for where we as humanity need to be in the future in space, going out and settling these places. And he's really trying to do what he can within the constraints that he's faced with.

One of the things that I think we should give him credit for is that unlike any other administrator in NASA history, he's carved out about a half a billion dollars to give to these commercial operators. That's never happened before. And he's protecting that, and I think that that's really his way of saying, you know, we want to place a bet on these commercial operators, we want to give them a real chance to start to succeed. And I think, you know, frankly, I really hope that Elon goes out and, you know, and takes that and proves that the private industry can really do it for the future of NASA. For servicing those things. Because I think that's the key to it all.

FLATOW: And let me just add that we have invited Administrator Griffin on many times to come on Science Friday and he has yet to avail us of an invitation. So, it's still out there, maybe he'll come after this.

We've had the other administrators on, I don't, you know. Yes, go ahead.

Mr. TUMLINSON: Yes, a couple of points that are kind of building on. I am a, shall we say, in our field, in the inside baseball side as George puts it, known as a bit of a critic of the administration, and I do give Mr. Griffin a hard time. But I do want to concur that, you know, he is a good guy trapped in a bad system.

And, you know, I'm still convinced that there's something in the air filters at NASA headquarters, because people go in there with great ideas and then suddenly become very bureaucratic. And then when they leave they have great ideas again.

But I think that there is a system that has been built up, in one way that came from the over success of Apollo, in a sense, of, you know, our way or the highway approach at headquarters. And, what I'm very afraid of is this 500 million that was put aside to help fund companies carry payloads to and from stations, we'll eventually be goggled up or killed off by the very powerful lobbies for the large aerospace companies which exist largely, right now. And I'm not saying everybody in those companies, because there are some very enlightened people working in all of these industries and in NASA and elsewhere, but they exist to kind of keep the money flowing. And what I'm interested in seeing is people like Elon and others get a chance to break out.

Now that having been said, one thing that I see coming down the road, and, you know, that will be a very interesting point in the future, is, there's a fellow named Bob Bigelow building a space hotel, for example, in Las Vegas, which will be an orbiting commercial facility. And it's a hotel and a lab. At some point in the future, hopefully not that far away, maybe before 2020, we're going to see vehicles like Elon's carrying people and payloads to that private facility. At which point, if the NASA human exploration goes away, yes that would be sad, we would lose the Lewis and Clark function, but the breakout, the human breakout of the planet, would have moved to a sustainable level and we would be on our way.

We would have commercial vehicles servicing commercial facilities, carrying private citizens to do whatever they want.

FLATOW: All right. Rick, you had the last word today. And it's something we'll always come back and talk about; space. Rick Tumlinson, founder of the Space Frontier Foundation and editor of Return to the Moon, by Collector's Guide Publishing. Elon Musk, CEO and chief designer at SpaceX in El Sugundo, California. Tom Jones, planetary scientist, former NASA astronaut, and author of Sky Walking: An Astronaut's Memoir, a very interesting book just out from Smithsonian Books. George Whitesides, Executive Director, National Space Society. Thank you all for taking time to talk with us.

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