NASA's Griffin: 'Humans Will Colonize the Solar System'

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Sunday, September 25, 2005

NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin met last week with reporters and editors at The Post. Here are some of the questions and answers:

What can humans learn in space that robots couldn't?

The thing that you can learn with humans in scientific enterprises are all of the things that you didn't send the robot to find out. With a human you're doing the opportunistic plan, the uncorrelated observation. You know, you see this over here and that over there, and you put them together.

When you know what question you want to ask and what measurement you want to make, it's almost always to your advantage to do that robotically or, at most, use the human to put the thing in place. There's no question about it. When you don't know what you don't know, when you don't know what the questions are, we do very poorly at attempting to figure out what those questions ought to be by using robots.

But the goal isn't just scientific exploration . . . it's also about extending the range of human habitat out from Earth into the solar system as we go forward in time. . . . In the long run a single-planet species will not survive. We have ample evidence of that . . . [Species have] been wiped out in mass extinctions on an average of every 30 million years.

But are there examples of multiple-planet species?

We don't know of any other species anywhere, but while I cannot say that multiple-planet species will survive, I think I can prove to you from our own geologic record that single-planet species don't.

Now, you know, in the sense that a chicken is just an egg's way of laying another egg, one of our purposes is to survive and thrive and spread humankind. I think that's worth doing. There will be another mass-extinction event. If we humans want to survive for hundreds of thousands or millions of years, we must ultimately populate other planets. Now, today the technology is such that this is barely conceivable. We're in the infancy of it.

So you're actually talking about a community on Mars that has a large enough population and can sustain itself for thousands of years anticipating this event?

Not necessarily. I'm talking about that one day, I don't know when that day is, but there will be more human beings who live off the Earth than on it. We may well have people living on the moon. We may have people living on the moons of Jupiter and other planets. We may have people making habitats on asteroids. We've got places that humans will go, not in our lifetime, but they will go there.

Is it important that Americans lead the way?

To me it's important because I like the United States, and because I know -- I don't know the date -- but I know that humans will colonize the solar system and one day go beyond. And it is important for me that humans who carry -- I'll characterize it as Western values -- are there with them.

You know, I think we know the kind of society we would get if you, for example, carry Soviet values. That means you want a gulag on Mars. Is that what you're looking for?

Given the laws of physics and the distances involved, where is the place "beyond the solar system" we could go?

Well, I mean, there are other stars in our near neighborhood . . . four light-years away . . . 12 light-years away.

Is it a concern that you believe that others will get there first?

I don't know that it's a concern that others get there first. What does concern me is that where other people go, the United States must also be. I'm not trying to stomp other people into the ground, but I would like to be assured that wherever the frontier of human civilization is, that people from America are there as well. . . . It should be viewed as an investment in carrying American culture, American values.

Can the United States afford such a program?

The amount we spend on space exploration is seven-tenths of one percent of the budget, not even. Your tax bill, if you're an average citizen, is around $8,000 per year. Of that, $55 is spent on space. So when you say, why don't we concentrate on the problems of today, in terms of how we actually spend our money, that is precisely what we're doing, to a level higher than 99 percent.

Americans seem to demand that space travel be absolutely safe, that no one will die. Is that unrealistic?

Incredibly so . . . It is a risky activity.

And people in this country don't seem prepared to accept that?

Correct. Now, part of the country doesn't seem prepared to accept it because generations of upper-level NASA managers have tried to characterize the shuttle as routine and safe, and it is not routine, and other than in the sense that a mountain climber would use the word, it's not safe. Mountain climbing is an activity that's riskier than flying on the shuttle. If we elect to go climb Mount Everest, the odds are 10 percent we're going to die. That's riskier than getting on board the shuttle. Okay? But most other things are not.

We want to learn how to make it safe. We believe that one day we can . . . but it is like the early days of airplane flight. That is what it is.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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