Punching Through the Night´s Curtain (Q & A, Part II)

Chartered to study how best to set priorities for the next moon and Mars initiative a newly-formed Presidential Commission — including four prominent scientists — held its first public forum and announced its nine commissioners. One task for the blue-ribbon panel, chaired by Defense veteran, Pete Aldridge, is to sustain a space exploration goal for several generations.

The following session is the second installment of a question and answer session between leading space scientists and the commissioners, including Neil Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium and Carly Fiorina, CEO of Hewlett-Packard. Dr. Jonathan I. Lunine is professor of planetary science and physics and the chair of the theoretical astrophysics program at the University of Arizona. Dr. Michael Carr is an astrogeologist in with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California. David Morrison is a senior scientist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

edited Q & A session with David Morrison, Jonathon Lunine and Michael Carr: Part II

Laurie Leshin: When the President announced the vision, I think he stated very well that the goal is to advance the economic security and scientific interest of the nation, and so science is an important leg of that stool, if you will. It’s one of the legs that holds up the exploration vision, and to me it’s so compelling to hear you talk about how we stand on the precipice of being able to make some of these discoveries that would truly change our view of ourselves and fundamentally change people here on this planet. And I just wanted to get you all to talk a little bit more about that what you think it would mean to actually be enabled to go off and aggressively pursue and make these incredible discoveries. You can talk about how the public responds to what you do, what you’ve observed in your careers in terms of how people engage with this idea of the quest for understanding how we fit in; I’m pushing you to take the science hat off and speak from the heart.


Michael Carr.
Image Credit: UGS

Michael Carr: I’ve been working on Mars for 30 years and I continue to be amazed at how interested the public is in what we’re doing on Mars. I give public talks and the place is jammed. There are people standing around the walls and there are people lying on the floor in front. Our website for the Mars rovers had more hits than any website in the history of the Internet. There were more hits than there are people on Earth. The interest is just astonishing. And I think it does reflect back to what I talked about at the beginning of my talk, this feeling of awe about the universe and the pride we have the capability and we are doing this. We are going out there and exploring and I think it resonates enormously with the public and I think the response is indicative of that.

David Morrison: We have all had that sort of experience. This week at Ames Research Center we had open house, and more than 700 people came to hear about Mars and specifically to talk about the search for life on Mars. It included the mayor of one of the local towns, CEOs, little kids, everybody. That seems to be an interesting thing to everyone as well as to scientists. And I remind you of the great interest that was aroused a little less than ten years ago with the Mars rock -ALH84001- that had the President holding a press conference, it had all of this coverage for the possible discovery of fossil microbes. Think how much more it would be if we actually found real life and were able to analyze it the way we do the genomics on our own life and make comparisons. I think we would all be blown away.

David Morrison.
Image Credit: NASA

Jonathan Lunine: I would add two things. I do from time to time read the foreign press, in particular Italian newspapers. And about the only non-jaundiced coverage of the United States is the coverage of science and space exploration. Actually mostly space exploration, because on the biological side there’s the whole issue of human embryos and so on. And so it brings home to me again the point that this kind of activity of exploration and discovery is an activity of humankind that we are doing as leaders of this effort because of our technology and wealth. But it is something that brings everybody along. And there are very few activities, I think, that this nation is engaged in today where we can say that. I also would add that Dr. Tyson’s point about the lack of ability to see the sky is not a trivial issue. Fewer and fewer people are able to actually look up at the sky and commune with the universe the way humans have done for presumably tens of thousands of years. And so we’re drawing a curtain across that sky, and space exploration is the only way that we can punch through that curtain now. But in some ways it’s a race against time, because we will eventually close off to ourselves the heavens, and it won’t be a part of our experience at night anymore. And I wonder what that will do to our thirst for exploration.

David Morrison: The other issue that I mentioned, defending our planet from asteroids, is something else that the public very much resonates with. Our impact hazard website at Ames is the most popular website that Ames maintains. And there are people who think that it’s a reasonable thing for us, as the one superpower, the leading technical nation on Earth, to do – to assume some responsibility for protecting us against a catastrophe that could be avoided.

Maria Zuber: That’s a good lead-in to my next question. You mentioned a possible nuclear propulsion mission and the Prometheus project as one way of testing the technology for asteroid deflection. But we’ve been charged by the President to think about how humans and robots could work together in space, and when it might be appropriate. Has any thought been given to how humans could contribute to the asteroid deflection problem, and if not, should they be?

David Morrison: I think a couple of Hollywood movies were made along those lines.

Maria Zuber: That’s not what I’m talking about. [Laughter]

David Morrison: A robot is not an independent thing. It is run by people, it is built by people, it is controlled by people. So humans are very much involved in all of what we call robotic exploration. I think right now we are talking about the ability to give a first demonstration of controlled moving an asteroid robotically relatively inexpensively, and we don’t for that purpose need asteroids, we need humans, although we may later.

Carly Fiorina, Hewlett-Packard CEO.
Image Credit: HP

Pete Aldridge: Let me butt in here for just a minute. It does seem that the mission, the vision, for the Moon, Mars and Beyond would be developing technologies that are directly applicable that if we found some potential dangers, could be used for the purpose of asteroid defense.

David Morrison: Indeed. This leads to a robust infrastructure in space. If we become a true space-faring civilization and a multi-planet species, then probably, if there were an asteroid threat a century or two in the future, you would just contract out to someone like Jim Benson and say, “Go take care of it.” The structure would be there.

Pete Aldridge: I know in the press conference the President did mention the fact that while national security was a different path, the technologies that are associated with it do contribute to national security, and I would guess defense of asteroids is very much related to national security as anything we know about.

Carly Fiorina: I’m struck always, when I listen to people like you describe the enthusiasm of the public and watch each of us get spellbound all over again. I’m always struck by the difference between that reaction and the cynicism and pessimism that any discussion of a NASA mission always elicits. And, in fact, when the President announced this mission, there was the inevitable discussion of “Why go? It’s not affordable.” From a political point of view we rapidly spiral down into all the reasons it’s a bad idea and it can’t be done. And I wonder if you have a view on why that is.


Jonathan Lunine of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona
Image Credit: space.com

Jonathan Lunine: Well, let me take the first crack. There are several issues. One issue is that I think there is a general misperception in the public as to how much we actually spend on space endeavors, and very often if this comes up in class or I’m giving a public talk, I’ll ask people how much they think this nation spends on space exploration. And usually no one answers because people confuse millions and billions and so on, and then I say, “OK, let’s take out a dollar bill. This is a federal tax dollar; how much of this dollar bill is spent on NASA?” And they usually come back with a gross overestimate: Twenty cents, forty cents, fifteen cents. And I tell them it’s a penny and they don’t believe it. So I think some of the cynicism and mistrust really has to do with the fact that people somehow believe that we are spending a very large fraction of our national wealth on space exploration and we’re not.

Pete Aldridge: In fact, it’s less than a penny.

Jonathan Lunine: It’s now less than a penny. It’s half a penny.

Pete Aldridge: Point seven [0.7].

Jonathan Lunine: It’s almost a half percent.

Michael Carr: As far as the scientific exploration of the solar system, the missions like Voyager and Viking and the present Mars rovers and so on, I find nothing but enthusiasm. I think there is enthusiasm for true exploration. Going to places that people have not seen before. I think the cynicism with respect to NASA has come from another source. I think it’s come from long-term problems with Shuttle and Space Station, that have been extremely costly, and promises were made that were not fulfilled. I think that’s where the cynicism has come. I think one redeeming aspect of the agency is its continual exploration of building things like Hubble, and on the science side. The science side continues to be inspirational. I don’t encounter much cynicism associated with that aspect of the agency.

Pete Aldridge: Dave, you want to comment on that?

David Morrison: I’m a NASA employee. I’m enthusiastic. The people I work with are enthusiastic, the public I speak to is enthusiastic. That’s all I can say. And it is centered on the science and exploration, which is what I know something about.


Neil Tyson.
Image Credit: AMNH.org

Pete Aldridge: It is interesting to note that if you ask people about the space program, nobody would really argue against the robotic missions or the scientific missions and some of the things that NASA is doing. Seems like the criticism comes when the human spaceflight element is where the question and the controversy surrounds it. I know that that’s only about a third of the NASA budget. The rest of it is other things.
Robert Walker: I remember, though, in the Hubble mission, some of us who were supporters of the Hubble mission in its earliest days and helped come up with the funding for it took a lot of public hits when it ended up having a flawed mirror. There was not universal enthusiasm for some of that. And as somebody who has fought for about 20 or 25 years now to see that Gravity Probe B ultimately flies, I can assure you that there are some science missions that have a lot of critics and concerns about them.

Neil Tyson: The three of you spoke about public interest in talks you’ve given and website hits and the like. I wonder, Dr. Carr, could you foresee that same level of public interest in this vision if life were a lesser part of that vision and it became more of sort of a planetary geology exercise rather than a “life in the universe” exercise? Because in my personal experience I don’t see the public enthusiasm with rocks, if the rocks are not specifically tied to the search for life. In your own experience, what have you seen in this regard?

Michael Carr: I do think the potential for life is a grabber. But I also think that just exploration, irrespective of the prospects for life, resonates with the public and that when we go to Io or Europa or whatever, people are interested.

Neil Tyson: New places.

Science fiction author, Raymond Bradbury.

Michael Carr: Other places where really there isn’t a life issue well, there is with Europa, but not with Io. And yet people are interested people are really interested in what’s out there.

Neil Tyson: So, not to put words in your mouth, but to maintain public support and to have checkpoints on progress, you might then suggest that we install milestones of new places to go, to see new ridges to climb over, so that there is a new thing people can look forward to that they haven’t seen before.

Michael Carr: A new place to go could be a different planet but it could also be just going over the horizon.

Jonathan Lunine: But I have to say that ultimately people are interested in these worlds in the context of whether either they do have life or whether someday people are going to be climbing over those ridges, and so there is always the connection in some way between the rocks and biology either our own or some strange biology we haven’t discovered yet.

David Morrison: Let’s recall Ray Bradbury’s statement. If there is no life on Mars now, there still can be in the future, and we will be the Martians. We are in that transition from being citizens of planet Earth to being citizens of the solar system.

Related Web Pages

Great Impact: Part I
Roam in a Day
Mars Reloaded
Long, Strange Trips
PBS: Is Science Fiction Science? Michael Crichton, David Brin, Octavia Butler
Search for Life in the Universe: Part I
A Perfect World I: Tyson