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Science: Space Exploration

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Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Science Writer
Monday, December 4, 2006; 11:00 AM

Washington Post science writer Marc Kaufman was online to discuss his Monday Science Page feature story about the future of space exploration on Monday, Dec. 4 at 11 a.m. ET.

He writes that the Vision for Exploration that President Bush announced in 2004, a program to return Americans to the moon before 2020 and plan for travel onward to Mars, is an almost Star-Trek like vision, one that has ardent supporters and vocal detractors. Read more in today's story: NASA Looks to the Future With Eye on the Past.

The transcript follows.

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Marc Kaufman: Good morning everyone, and thank you in advance for your questions. This NASA story had its origins in a sit-down I had a while back with Mike Griffin, the administrator. His view of space exploration and zeal for the task struck me as fascinating and newsworthy. There are so many big (and often troubling) stories in the news these days that it can be a welcome relief to be reminded of other dimensions of our lives here on Earth.

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San Francisco, Calif.: Stephen Hawking says, "We must leave Earth," or something like that. Do you agree than humankind's future, ultimately, is off the planet?

Marc Kaufman: The question of the day. It certainly seems at times that we are headed to planet-wide troubles in the future, and so it's tempting to think that humans might be able to re-settle elsewhere. But at this point, our ability to actually do it is so rudimentary that it can also seem like a pipedream. Even when it comes to settlements on the moon, or traveling to Mars, the dangers from solar and cosmic radiation alone are enough to almost assure humans will not survive. A lot more study and development is needed before any of this can become a reality.

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Washington, D.C.: How much money will NASA spend to return to the Moon? How strong is support on Capitol Hill for spending that money, especially since Tom DeLay, a strong NASA supporter, is gone?

Marc Kaufman: The money question is clearly key, and at this point unresolved. When Bush announced the moon/Mars mission in early 2004, the administration also provided a chart with cost projections. They assumed that the NASA budget, now about $17 billion annually, would grow only to meet inflation, and that in effect no new money would be available for the initiative. However, the chart also showed that most of the current expenses of the manned exploration program -- for the space shuttle program and for the space station -- would terminate by 2010, when the station is supposed to be finished and the shuttle program ended. Griffin believes this newly freed-up money will allow the moon/Mars mission to flourish. Others are skeptical, and talk about the "cannabalizing" of other important NASA programs.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: How can any really rational scientists assume that the unknowns and hazards faced by both the Vikings and later more successful explorers are anywhere near the severity of what lies in space?

Comment: The lopsided competitive drive to dominate near space (solar system) by the United States without a balanced and supportive space science program is not just dangerous, it could introduce scientific and financial vulnerabilities that could threaten all humankind.

Marc Kaufman: You clearly have strong feelings about the Bush space program, and you are far from alone. Many in the astronomy and cosmology worlds are very unhappy about the moon/Mars mission because they fear it will strip them of funds for pure science in the future, whatever NASA may be saying now. But there are also critics who fear American unilateralism in space will lead to inevitable and destruction competition. As it stands now, the NASA plan is to build a new space capsule and rocket system on its own, and then to bring other nations into the picture when there are projects to be done. With this, they point to the space station as a model of sorts, though one that obviously has had its problems (it's many years late and way over budget.) For what it's worth, Griffin points to international cooperation on Antarctica as proof that American-led exploration can flower into multi-national exploration.

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Vienna, Va.: The truth is we've hit a wall when it comes to manned space flight. As hard as it's been so far, what we've done is easy compared to the next step--manned interplanetary travel. Technologically and financially, establishing a permanent moon colony and sending a flight to Mars is exponentially more daunting than the Earth orbit and moon missions. Plus, there's not question that the Cold War provided substantial political and social impetus to the program.

One of the prime arguments made for continuing the manned space missions is that the human urge to explore must be satisfied, or we lose something crucial as a species. Questions about the value of manned space flight were deemed illegitimate, almost heretical. Given the huge financial costs of a Mars flight, and the enormous scientific bang for the buck that unmanned missions seem to provide, I think we need to ask ourselves if further manned missions make sense for the for seeable future.

Marc Kaufman: A cogent summary of the questions surrounding manned space flight. These questions, however, have not loomed large in Congress, where the moon/Mars mission has ultimately been embraced and made the law of the land. A long-range appropriations was passed last year that puts NASA on a path to end the shuttle program, disengage to some degree from the space station, and head out to the moon and beyond. A different Congress can certainly change that direction, but Griffin rightly points out that the plan was almost unanimously passed in both houses.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: NASA has avoided nighttime launches since the problem with the tiles was isolated, but now says that they will try one this month. Is it worth the risk?

Marc Kaufman: High risk and space travel go hand-in-hand. There's no way to avoid that conclusion, and after the Columbia disaster NASA has embraced that proposition in a way that it did not before the shuttle was lost. Since then, the agency has done many, many things to improve shuttle safety -- both in terms of hardware and new safety procedures. One of the changes involved allowing only daytime launches because they can be better monitored and photographed for insulation foam loss. Three shuttles have gone up since the accident, all came back safely, and NASA now believes it is time to return to night flights (which are generally easier to actually get off the ground because of better weather.) But does that mean the risk is gone -- definitely not.

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Crystal City, Va.: In your article, you say that not all agree whether colonizing space is possible "or even desirable." Perhaps this question is a product of my having grown up with a steady diet of science fiction, but why wouldn't colonizing space be a desirable objective, and who argues this?

Marc Kaufman: The concern that I have heard generally involves the historical likelihood of conflict once humans (or nations) begin to compete for space assets, and the possible environmental issues. For instance, NASA (and other national space agencies) are exploring the notion of mining the moon for the oxygen prevalent in the soil. That process will 1/ quite possibly require nuclear power and 2/ create slag remains. It also will raise many very difficult questions about ownership and material rights in space. Can these kinds of issues -- to say nothing of the daunting technical obstacles to life in space--be resolved in a generally positive way. Some clearly think they cannot.

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Little Rock, Ark.: I have been a supporter of space travel going back to John Glenn and the Gemini days. I believe that we derive many benefits from the program. However, I don't think that NASA is doing a good job of making those benefits relevant to Joe and Jane taxpayer. Are the NASA PR wonks on top of this?

Marc Kaufman: Interesting question. I covered the FDA for many years and only recently began to cover NASA. An early observation was that the NASA press operation is much, much larger and better organized. Indeed, communicating with the public is an integral part of the NASA mission. And with that in mind, I've been struck that the agency does a very aggressive (and often successful) job of telling the public about what it does. But here's the rub: Most of its missions do not result in direct benefits to citizens (taxpayers,) unless you bring increased knowledge about the universe and a deeper fascination with the nature of the universe into the equation. Unlike almost all other government projects, the NASA mission is largely discretionary -- which is what makes it remarkable and always a target for budget cuts. The Griffin emphasis on the future colonizing of space and use of materials from space for earthbound purposes may be pie-in-the-sky, but it is also an effort to address the question of what the basic NASA progam might some day deliver to those who fund it.

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West Coast: Can you explain why Bush's plans to go to Mars are widely known and discussed, while his plans to totally militarize space are lightly reported, and rarely debated or discussed? THANKS

Marc Kaufman: As it turns out, I did write a front page story several weeks ago about the Bush space program, and how critics said its tone and conclusions were more aggressive and unilateral than the Clinton plan of 10 years ago. But that report was released by the administration 5 pm on the Friday before the Columbus Day weekend, and you can draw your own conclusions about whether that was an intentional effort to bury the news.

But this said, a relatively new reality that we must live with is that a large and growing percentage of our national security is space-based. I'm speaking here of navigational and communication satellites, as well as assets that help deliver missiles to their targets. These satellites are very important and quite vulnerable, and that situation raises all kinds of tough questions.

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Falls Church, Va.: I would like to see the United States pool more money together with other countries so that we can do more in the long run. I don't care if NASA, or an American, is the first person on Mars, I'd rather we just be able to get a person there.

Marc Kaufman: I think many people share this view; indeed, there is an international treaty forbidding nations from owning parts of the moon and other places in space, and there is a not unsubstantial history of international cooperation (on the space station, for instance.) But it is also true that nations including Russia, China, India, and possibly Japan and the Europeans have ambitions in space similar to ours, and sometimes they will clash. Going back to Griffin's analogy of space exploration and the seafaring exploration begun by the Vikings and continued by the evolving European colonial powers, it seems clear that human nature is not always altruistic and cooperative. Does the world have the smarts now to avoid the kinds of land grabs, exploitation and war that some of that early exploration led to? Who knows.

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Laurel: Would it be reasonable to require that a major space initiative must emphasize creating needed spin-off technologies, like an alternative renewable fuel that reduced greenhouse gases?

Marc Kaufman: Space missions have often been sold as likely to bring major terrestrial payoffs, and I think it would be fair to say they have generally not delivered. Some argue that the unmanned missions have been far more cost-effective than manned missions, and have been pioneers in developing some technologies (GPS, satellite communications. etc) with immediate benefits.

In terms of the planned moon mission, there is some real excitement about the possibility of collecting and bringing back to earth a gas called Helium-3, which is not common on earth but is prevalent on the lunar surface. Some believe the gas would make a perfect and clean fuel source for nuclear power.

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chestertown, md.: In your second paragraph you take known historical facts and reduce them to speculation, much like Rush Limbaugh treats current facts. The viking ruins in both Greenland and New Foundland conclusively prove that they got at least that far. If we are to trust you on current science and speculation about the future, you should be sure to get the past right.

Marc Kaufman: What I was referring to is that there remains some dispute about where Viking sailors touched land. Both maps from the time and legends passed on are sometimes at odds.

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bc in dc: Marc, I've noted that America and the other nations with actual spacefaring capability have not ratified certain provisions of the Outer Space Treaty, notably Article 11 (aka the Moon Treaty). Granted, Mr. Griffin is not in the position to comment on government policy as far as that goes, but did you discuss the recent changes in Space policy with him?

Marc Kaufman: Griffin said that he was not the person to discuss the national security side of space policy, but we did touch on one of the more controversial aspects of the moon treaty--property use and ownership. I believe that the Moon Treaty would have banned individual and corporate ownership in space -- an addition to the earlier treaty that banned national ownership. Griffin said that he did not believe the U.S. would ever give up that later claim to possible individual or corporate ownership.

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Houston, Texas: Do you think space exploration and the VSE is essential to the betterment of humanity? If so, how would you suggest selling or telling the story to make sure Congress and the American people are on the same page and know how crucial this is for America and the world?

Marc Kaufman: I personally believe that many of NASA's missions bring back information that makes life on earth significantly more rich and exciting. I can't imagine anyone looking at photos from the Hubble space telescope, or the Mars rover Opportunity, and not being moved. I know that NASA works aggressively to get its story out, and there are quite a few reporters who write about the agency and space. Whether they/we are succeeding in properly informing the public is certainly an open question. I for one am certainly trying, and look forward to learning much more and passing it on.

That said, many thanks for your great questions -- too many of which I was not able to answer because of time--but I must run.

A final thought: Look for stories tomorrow about NASA's plans for the lunar mission. Some big news may well be coming out today.

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