Interview with Ben Bova

An Interview with Ben Bova

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Ben Bova.
Image Credit:
benbova.net

Ben Bova is best known for his imaginative science fiction novels, such as "Mars," "Jupiter" and "Saturn," where humans of the future travel to these planets and sometimes discover new life forms. In his newest book, "Faint Echoes, Distant Stars: The Science and Politics of Finding Life Beyond Earth," Bova again touches on the possibility of alien life. His book provides an overview of the current science of astrobiology, examining recent discoveries and suggesting what they could mean for the search for life elsewhere. Bova also discusses the politics and personalities that so often influence the direction and future of science. In this exclusive interview with Astrobiology Magazine, Bova shares his thoughts about astrobiology, space travel, and the discoveries of the future.


Astrobiology Magazine (AM): Why did you decide to write a book about the scientific field of astrobiology?

Ben Bova (BB): About five years ago, when I was invited to attend the first NASA-sponsored conference on astrobiology, I found the subject so intriguing that I immediately began to plan writing a book about it.

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Ben Bova is best known for his science fiction novels "Mars,""Jupiter," and "Saturn,"where humans of the future travel to these planets and sometimes discover new life forms.
Image Credit: Amazon.com

AM: You say that Jupiter may be the most likely place to find extraterrestrial life, since the planet has organics, water and energy. Yet Jupiter is rarely seen as a likely place for life by most astrobiologists. Do you have any thoughts about what sort of creatures could exist there?

BB: Most scientists ignore Jupiter because of the enormous difficulties of exploring the planet. However, in my novel "Jupiter" I postulated a biosphere that included airborne species below the Jovian cloud deck, and gigantic aquatic species in the planet-wide ocean that girdles Jupiter.

AM: In your book, you say there are interest groups who are afraid of what astrobiologists might find, so they are working to block the search for alien life. Do you think it likely that astrobiologists might open some Pandora’s Box that we would later regret, and that is reason enough to NOT look for life elsewhere?

BB: I think such fears are exaggerated. As I pointed out in "Faint Echoes, Distant Stars," we can use the International Space Station or a dedicated space station as an isolation laboratory in which to study samples returned from other worlds, without fear of contaminating the Earth. We have more to fear, I believe, from fundamentalist religionists who worry that astrobiological research flies in the face of their biblically revealed truths. And, of course, there are the Yahoos in Congress and elsewhere who chopped SETI out of the federal budget.

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"We can use the International Space Station or a dedicated space station as an isolation laboratory in which to study samples returned from other worlds, without fear of contaminating the Earth." -Ben Bova
Image Credit: NASA

AM: NASA missions and studies often are at the mercy of politics. As you note in your book, missions must continually fight budget battles in order to survive from inception to launch. Do you think President Bush’s call to go back to the moon and then send a man to Mars is likely to survive over time?

BB: I believe it will survive, mainly because President Bush has already allocated funding to the program. The battle will be over how large and how fast the program can be. If President Nixon had proposed such a program in 1972, we could have been conducting this interview on Mars today.

AM: But do you think, given the proper political backing, we would have been able to overcome the technological obstacles and health hazards of establishing a base on Mars within that time frame?

BB: I don’t see the technological obstacles and health hazards as being tremendous problems for Mars missions. Humans have lived in space for more than a year aboard the Mir space station. With incremental improvements in existing technology, we could go to Mars in an open-loop life support mode, sending re-supply vehicles ahead of the crewed mission. Radiation shielding will be needed for solar storms, of course. By rotating the spacecraft to give artificial gravity, the problems of long-term weightlessness can be averted. Of course, a closed-loop life support system would be preferable, although the practical answer might be a partially closed, partially open loop.

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"Nuclear power is the safest method yet devised for generating electricity, by any measure you care to apply." -Ben Bova
Image Credit: Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant, US Department of Energy

AM: One of the problems facing long-term space travel is propulsion. NASA’s Project Prometheus is studying the possibility of using nuclear fission-based systems for space missions of long-duration. As you note, nuclear propulsion is a very controversial topic; where do you stand on this issue?

BB: Nuclear power is the safest method yet devised for generating electricity, by any measure you care to apply. Fossil fuels pollute the atmosphere and contribute to greenhouse warming. Hundreds of coal miners are killed every year. Oil tankers pollute the oceans. Gas lines explode. Even with Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, nuclear energy is far safer. No one was even injured in the Three Mile Island incident. Nuclear propulsion for deep space missions makes sense.

AM: Toward the end of your book, you predict that within a decade, we will discover extraterrestrial life, and we also will create life in the lab from nonliving chemicals. What do you think would be the repercussions of these advances?

BB: Shock and awe, at first, among the general population. Then, as they see that the world is not coming to an end, they will gradually accept the idea that we are not alone in the universe. For scientists, the great question will be to determine if extraterrestrial life comes from the same origin as our own, or has arisen independently.


Related Web Pages

Future Exploration Missions
Project Prometheus