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First the Moon, Now Mars?

Audio

Aired 7/22/09

It's been 40 years since humans first stepped onto the surface of moon. What's next in space exploration? Some scientists have their sights set on Mars.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. This week we've been celebrating the 40th anniversary of that giant leap for mankind, when American astronauts first set foot on the moon. And that's got some people asking, whatever happened to America's manned space program? Despite six landings on the moon, numerous shuttle flights into space, and some interesting visits to the International Space Station, NASA astronauts don't have a mission to actually go anywhere in space. So what about Mars? Some say it would be the most difficult undertaking ever attempted to send humans to Mars, very risky, extremely expensive and technically complex but it might also get the public re-engaged into space exploration in a way that could benefit future generations with countless scientific advances. The rest of this hour, we'll be talking about where should we go next in space and why. I'd like to welcome my guest, Susan Hassler. She's editor-in-chief of IEEE Spectrum magazine which explores future technology trends and the impact of those trends on society and business. The current issue of Spectrum is a special report on traveling to Mars. Welcome, Susan.

SUSAN HASSLER (Editor, IEEE Spectrum Magazine): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And we'd like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you think we should continue to send humans into space? What do you think about a mission to Mars? Or do you think we have enough problems on Earth that need attending to? Give us a call. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. Susan, I'd like to start our conversation by acknowledging the anniversary of the moon landing, 1969. Some people say the moon landing was the greatest feat in human history. What do you think about that?

HASSLER: Well, I'm not sure that it was the greatest feat in human history. I mean, there are many, many other technological advances that you could think about, electricity being one of them.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

HASSLER: But it certainly was quite remarkable if you think about traveling all that distance away and getting back again in one piece.

CAVANAUGH: Absolutely. Now since that triumph, which was such a point of national pride for America, really the whole world was moved by that endeavor that we achieved to go to the moon, what happened to space exploration in the years since we landed on the moon?

HASSLER: Well, there are probably a number of different things. I think there's – there's always this question about how much it costs, and space travel is very expensive, I think that's one. I think also because of some of the tragedies such as the Challenger tragedy, I mean, that – and the Columbia, that – that people, that we became a little bit risk averse. And exploration of this kind is inherently very dangerous, which I think the people who are involved in it realize but sometimes it's hard for us, as spectators, to accept and witness that.

CAVANAUGH: Absolutely. So, in other words, when it became – When those risks became apparent to the general public, they were less interested in space travel?

HASSLER: I think people have had questions about that. And then there always is the question about aren't – don't we always have more problems here on earth that need solving rather than going into space? If you think about what was going on when the moon landing took place, it was the 1960s: the Vietnam War, President Kennedy had been assassinated, Martin Luther King was assassinated, Robert Kennedy was assassinated, we had very difficult economic problems. And yet the decision was still made to go forward with the moon landing which, I think, provided us with some respite from the problems that we had and also a lot of very important technological advances. I think that people sometimes forget how much technology has come out of the space program, and not just Tang and space pens.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

HASSLER: But satellite navigation, you know, their GPS system, television satellites, medical technology, lots of new materials, Teflon, I mean, there are – so there are a number of things that came directly out of the work from the space program that we now have as part of our everyday lives.

CAVANAUGH: And before we move on to the subject of Mars, why is it that we haven't even gone back to the moon since the seventies?

HASSLER: Well, I think there was, again, some decisions made about – there's always a question about funding and how much money to spend on space exploration. The main space station was set up – it originally was supposed to be sort of a platform for learning how to go into deep space. And some people imagined that that would – and, in a way, that is exactly what's happened because the international aspect of the space station is that people from a number of countries with many different kinds of cultural backgrounds have actually learned and been learning how to work together on the space station. So we sort of – I think we sort of dimished our own expectations in a way, so rather than looking outwards and thinking about how to go very far away—although that's been a fascination since the late 1800s. I mean, there was an astronomer named Percival Lowell who was the first person to suggest that there might be canals on Mars, which indicated that there might be life on Mars, and that sparked a whole wave of science fiction about Mars, if you think about it, H.G. Wells and all sorts of people who wondered about Mars. And then – And so people have been talking about going there for at least since that time. And in the fifties, again, with Wernher von Braun and all the rocket scientists who came out of World War II, there was this great interest in figuring out how to go into deep space, so we've had these waves, these cycles of excitement and interest followed by, well, maybe it's too hard.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Susan Hassler. She is editor-in-chief of IEEE Spectrum magazine. The current issue of Spectrum is a special report on traveling to Mars. We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 and right now Guillermo is on the line from Imperial Valley. Good morning, Guillermo. Welcome to These Days.

GUILLERMO (Caller, Imperial Valley): Oh, good morning. How are you today?

CAVANAUGH: Just great.

GUILLERMO: Great. I just have a quick little comment about this. You know, I really liked a lot of the stuff that, you know, space came from (sic) and, you know, including Velcro. I love Velcro. But at the same time, I think the United States has a lot of domestic problems that we need to take care of that are costing a lot of money, you know. Some of the, you know, immediate ones are the health reform and, you know, some of – and the recession that we're in right now. We need to work on that. FDR, I'm pretty sure would have never, you know, agreed to a space program exploration when we have the domestic problems we have today. After the domestic problems, I think we need to go international because there are a lot of problems internationally as well.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, thank you.

GUILLERMO: After that, I think space is a…

CAVANAUGH: Space, right.

GUILLERMO: …very good option.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that, Guillermo. So there it is, Susan, the idea that we have enough problems here on earth.

HASSLER: Well, especially here in California today, that's really quite true. So I don't expect that California will be funding its own space program in the near future. But there – the one thing you might think about, in terms of space programs, is jobs. California's home to many important aerospace companies and aerospace industry is – has, you know, a lot of jobs have come out of the space program through those industries.

CAVANAUGH: And as I've said, Susan, this issue of Spectrum magazine, the current issue, is a report on Mars, a special report on Mars. Why is Mars the next logical step for space exploration?

HASSLER: Well, there – in our own solar system, it's the most hospitable of planets. It's the one that probably has something that even remotely resembles an Earth climate and there have been suggestions and indications, from the robotic probes that have been to Mars, that there has been, in the past, water up there so – and may, in fact, still be water up there underneath the surface. And so there – the reason for looking at Mars is because it may be a place where human beings could live successfully. The rest of the planets that are near us are – the environments are very caustic and so you would be hard pressed to think that people could survive there.

CAVANAUGH: But the actual getting to Mars is extremely daunting. And it took only a matter of days to get to the moon. It's going to take a lot longer to get to Mars.

HASSLER: No, that's right. That's one of the problems that people are trying to solve and that's the propulsion problem, which is how do you get out of the Earth's atmosphere, how do you break away from the Earth and travel all that great, far distance away. Right now, everything is sort of based on chemical propulsion, which means basically that the astronauts, even for the space shuttle, sort of sit on top of a big bomb and then we blow it off and people go through the atmosphere and out into space. And so to go to Mars, which is millions and millions of miles away, with the propulsion techniques that we have right now, it could take anywhere from six to nine months and you can't just simply turn around and come back because you have to wait for the orbit of the Earth and Mars to be sort of as close to each other as possible. So you might have to wait out there another six months and then have six to nine months coming back.

CAVANAUGH: How far away are we from having another kind of propulsion?

HASSLER: Well, there are a num – I would say probably 20 years away but there are people like Frank Chang-Diaz from Texas who is working on – they're working on other kinds of propulsion such as solar to use, and to use solar winds nuclear propulsion. And if any of those were to take place – because what would happen now, is you would use a sort of a chemical rocket to start your trip and then you would, in a sense, sort of coast to Mars, the rest of the way. With some of these other kinds of engines, it might be possible to really travel to Mars, in which case you might be able to get there in as little as two months.

CAVANAUGH: We are talking about a possible – or a mission to Mars perhaps in the future. We are talking with Susan Hassler. She's editor-in-chief of Spectrum magazine, and taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let's take another call. John is calling from Poway. Good morning, John, and welcome to These Days.

JOHN (Caller, Poway): Good morning. I'm wondering if we might consider shifting our priorities a little bit from distance to density. I think if we spent NASA's resources learning how to put more people in space, particularly making it economically feasible for the common citizen like me to go up there and look back and discover things from up there that we don't see here, that over that 20 year period we will have discovered the economies of propulsion and safety that will enable an even quicker journey to Mars.

CAVANAUGH: And, John, do you mean just sort of like a pleasure trip to space?

JOHN: Yes, absolutely. Just a voyage of personal discovery to make it accessible to people, to learn many of the things that we learned 40 years ago that we looked back and discovered we're living in a finite planet that needs protection and preservation. More people will learn that. We'll wind up with a better planet and, still along the way, discover those technical discoveries that we need to go the distance.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that comment, John. I'm wondering, Susan, the Russians have had some paying passengers onboard their space shuttles, haven't they?

HASSLER: Sure. They've had a number of – Charles Simonyi from Microsoft has been up and Richard Garriott from out here has been up and there – But – But, at the moment, these trips cost an individual $30 million so you have to have a little bit in your bank account to think about joining on. You're – It's also helping to pay for the program. It's helping to support the Soviet space program. But, yes, I think you could imagine – there are a number of entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, from Virgin Air, who are working on low Earth orbit possibilities, which could make, you know, see – and there are states that are setting up space ports so that, for example, if you could get it economical enough that people could fly into low Earth orbit and then come back down again. So the idea being that maybe you could go from California to Europe in half an hour or an hour, I'm exaggerating, but the idea would be that you could use low space orbit for actual transportation needs.

CAVANAUGH: And that is – that's something that's actually being explored?

HASSLER: People are looking at this now, yes.

CAVANAUGH: Interesting. Let's go back to Mars. There are some Rovers on Mars now, is that right?

HASSLER: That's correct.

CAVANAUGH: And they're still working?

HASSLER: Some of them are still working. It's really quite remarkable at such a distance and for – now, for such a length of time.

CAVANAUGH: And what they've told us about Mars, has it been – has it raised hopes that we could actually send human beings to Mars?

HASSLER: Well, they – the Rovers haven't found the Holy Grail. You know, they haven't found – if they found any real, you know, concrete evidence of life on Mars or concrete evidence of a water sample, it would – I'm sure that it would – even that would be a remarkable human discovery, to really establish that for a fact. So I would say that what – all this information that the Rovers are sending back would be laying the groundwork for any human exploration of the planet in terms of where's a good place to land?

CAVANAUGH: Exactly, because that's one of the problems that the Rovers have had, is actually landing on Mars. I read that they basically hurtle down from their – from space and then just bounce around until they find a good place.

HASSLER: Right, it would be hard to imagine doing this with people.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

HASSLER: Right, we sort of wrap the Rover up in a kind of a set of balloons and plastic bags and let it bounce until it comes to rest. But, successfully, is the most amazing thing of all of this and at such a distance. But landing – finding a place to land is a problem. There are – Going to Mars for human beings involves a huge set of, you know, physical complications. I mean, to go from here to Mars, there's the issue of cosmic radiation, there's the issue of space dust. You know, Mars, the planet, in the course of a Martian year, the planet is often completely obscured by dust, so you're talking about a planet-wide dust storm, not just a local dust storm, and so how you get people and materials who can actually deal with that. There are all these questions about sending supplies from the Earth to Mars because unlike – because it's such a long trip, you can't possibly transport all that water and all that food and all the material you would need when you were out there. So you really have to think about recycling issues and repurposing issues or maybe about sending out some kind of freighter ahead of you that would drop off your supplies before any human beings came to be there.

CAVANAUGH: This is all fascinating. Jill is on the line from Clairemont. Good morning, Jill, and welcome to These Days.

JILL (Caller, Clairemont): Good morning. First of all, I'd like to thank the hostess for her charming, delightful laugh.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, thank you.

JILL: Now, to get in on this very hot day, to get out of this really heavy subject. I have no aspirations for making any trips out there but I'm curious to know if there is any interest among the young people these days in studying out there.

CAVANAUGH: In studying space?

JILL: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let's find out. Susan?

HASSLER: Well, that was one of the reasons we decided to pursue this a little bit. I have a friend named Leah Jamieson, who's the Dean of Engineering at Purdue University and this is – and they have a very large engineering school there and the freshman class, it's, I don't know, 2500 kids, I think, come to the class every year. And she meets every one of them and asks them what they want to do. And the – this year was the first year where she had a number of students who said they'd like to work on a trip to Mars.

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

HASSLER: That they'd like – they'd really be interested in working on traveling to Mars, to have human beings colonize other planets, to have the experience of going themselves. And so she was very surprised by that.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that call, Jill, and for the compliment. I wanted to ask you, Susan, the idea – One of the reasons that we got to the moon in the sixties was because we were in a space race. I have heard that some people say that there's a race going on now because China is interested in space exploration, European nations are interested in space exploration, could it be that one day in the future we will wake up and there'll be another nation who has attempted this Martian trip?

HASSLER: I think the Martian trip is probably too hard and too complicated and too expensive for any single nation to go by itself. And, in fact, if any, I think if we tried to do it by ourselves, as many of your listeners would agree, I'm sure, you could bankrupt the country. I mean, it would be on a par with our stimulus package plus…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

HASSLER: …I mean, if we were to try to do it ourselves. But so many people imagine that a Martian exploration would require the cooperation of a number of nations to actually make it work. In the short term, though, there are countries like China, which are very interested in going back to the moon and have great ambitions to go further out into space. So you could certainly imagine when the Chinese are able to circle the moon with their astronauts, called taikonauts, and in the next couple of years—they've already had a lunar orbiting probe that's been successful—that when that happens, that that will perhaps reignite American interest. And you can also imagine that if other countries finally establish their own national milestones, you know, a source of great national pride, landing on the moon, doing a number of space walks, maybe landing on asteroids, I don't -- You know, whatever it happens to be, I think then the interest in working collectively might be more apparent.

CAVANAUGH: Are we showing some international cooperation in exploring space already?

HASSLER: Well, there – I think the space station has really been a place where that has happened. And even though I don't think it gets a lot of public attention, if you talk to astronauts or people who have been on board the space station, even if official governments are having difficulties, if you're on a space station several hundred miles above the Earth with other human beings, it doesn't really matter where they're from and you have to really work together. So I think that has probably been a source of a lot of knowledge about how to do this in the future.

CAVANAUGH: Do you actually, Susan, think that there is going to be any movement towards a mission to Mars?

HASSLER: Well, I think any mission to Mars – I mean, it's funny. We've been talking about this for decades so in the fifties everybody said we would be on Mars—this is the United States—would be on Mars in the sixties. And then in the sixties, it was going to be in the eighties, and then in the early eighties it was going to be in the nineties. And doesn't seem like anything is happening but, in fact, many things are happening in little incremental steps. People are working on space suits. People are working on the, you know, what kind of an environment astronauts or space travelers would need to have. There's an experiment that just ended in Russia where people were sort of put into a simulated situation of staying locked up for several months with a set of people to sort of, you know, create – simulate the environment of a Martian mission. So there's lots of little steps that are being taken in that direction.

CAVANAUGH: Very interesting. I think we're going to have to leave it there. I want to really thank you, Susan. This has been a fascinating discussion. Susan Hassler, editor-in-chief of Spectrum magazine, and the current issue of Spectrum is a special report on traveling to Mars. Thank you very much, Susan.

HASSLER: Thanks, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And I want our listeners to know that we will be talking more about space tomorrow when my guest will be astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. He's host of Nova scienceNOW on PBS. And you can continue this discussion online by posting your comments at KPBS.org/TheseDays.

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