Thursday, Sept. 25, 11 a.m. ET

NASA at 50

Wayne Hale, deputy associate administrator for NASA.
Wayne Hale, deputy associate administrator for NASA. (Courtesy of NASA)
Wayne Hale
Deputy Associate Administrator, NASA
Thursday, September 25, 2008; 11:00 AM

Wayne Hale, deputy associate administrator for NASA, and Washington Post staff writer Marc Kaufman were online to discuss the future of NASA, as the U.S. space agency celebrates its 50th anniversary.

The transcript follows.

For more on this topic, read The Post's special report: NASA at 50.


Marc Kaufman: Good morning. We're here today to talk about NASA at 50, with an emphasis on where it's going rather than where it has been. Two big events in the world today point to the challenge -- the financial crisis in the U.S. (which could certainly limit funds for NASA and other departments of government for years to come) and the Chinese launch of a third manned spacecraft. It's a complex and unpredictable picture -- somewhat like the conditions that NASA astronauts often face and NASA probes and missions regularly find as they explore Earth, the solar system, and the far beyond.


Los Angeles, Calif.: In your judgment, when are we going to see more-or-less self-supporting lunar and Martian colonies? 50 years? 500 years? 5000 years?

"Exploration" is all very well, but to use a hoary example, the Americas would never have amounted to anything significant if Columbus's discoveries had led to nothing but 500 years of exploration. Sooner or later, these exotic places have to become homes for ordinary people -- lots of ordinary people -- or the interest in visiting them will die. And yet ... no government on earth seems to see the planets as anything more than Antarctica-in-the-sky. Do we really have to wait for the 28th century equivalents of pirates to see the planets colonized?

Wayne Hale: I couldn't agree more that exploration is merely the first stage. Estimating when there will be self supporting colonies is extraordinarily difficult at this stage. Certainly within 100 years, hopefully less. It took a long time for the American colonies to become fully self sufficient. Outposts first, then permanent bases like we have in antarctica, then colonies. No pirates if we can help it!


Baltimore, Md.: Mr. Hale and Kaufman, thank you for this chance to address NASA in a open forum. The Constellation program (with its Ares series of rockets) is a great idea but with current budgets, I would think that the Ares V (a Saturn class heavy lift rocket) is going to be extremely hard to secure funding for. Of course, without such a heavy booster, what chance does NASA have of continuing any usable manned program? As such, is NASA going to place all its effort into this program, or is this going to end up like the ISS/shuttle program? Too little money while all NASA programs suffer.

Marc Kaufman: I think there's a broad consensus that the Constellation program is underfunded, and that the U.S. faces a serious problem because it won't be ready until 2015 at the earliest. This means the U.S. is dependent on Russia to get to the ISS for several years -- and that option will only be available if Congress waives a law that forbids contracts with nations that a deemed to be helping Iran or North Korea in their nuclear programs. The House passed the waiver yesterday, but unclear what will happen in the Senate.

But these policy issues aside, I have to think that the current financial crisis will have a serious impact on all government spending -- especially "discretionary" programs that include NASA. We're in uncharted territory here, and I suspect we'll see some changed policies in the near future.


Reston, Va.: Is NASA going to make more of an effort to get independent inventors and amateur scientists involved in the space program? Programs such as the NASA Radio JOVE program of radio astronomy for the schools can be applied to get outside participation, ideas, and inventions. The National Association of Rocketry (model rocketry) and the American Radio Relay League (amateur radio) can organize and integrate individual inventors' contributions to NASA.

Wayne Hale: NASA has already established several programs to get inventors and amateur scientists involved. Some of our best ideas have come from outside the normal ranks of aerospace workers. I expect we will continue to do so. Look at the Centennial challenges, they are a great way to get involved.


NASA Vet, Md.: Is there any technical reason why the shuttle fleet cannot continue flying after 2010? I know the CAIB report recommended that cutoff date, but I'm not sure the board members would have done so if they'd realized there would be such a large gap between the retirement and having a replacement ready to fly. The arguments I've heard are all political and financial. I want to know the technical implications of flying past 2010.

Wayne Hale: Flying the shuttle beyond 2010 is a question of money, the national will, and priorities. There is no technical reason why the shuttle fleet could not continue to fly. I have addressed some of the logistical issues in my blog but none of them are insurmountable given enough money and time. Whether it would be a good choice for the country is another question.


NASA best kept secret: If you really want insight into space, the Goddard Space Flight Visitor Center is a hidden gem in Greenbelt, Md. Space exploration is truly captured at this small museum. As grand as the Air and Space Museum in D.C. is, Goddard breathes NASA and space and how far we have come in less than a lifetime.

Marc Kaufman: The visitor center is indeed interesting, and worth visiting. On a broader theme, NASA has (to my mind) done an admirable job of providing information and astounding images, displaying hardware and making astronauts available. Images from the Hubble space telescope alone have revolutionized how we picture space, and have helped expand our understanding of the cosmos enormously.


Rockville, Md.: In the science fiction stories of the 40's and later, if we managed to build a rocket ship we could fully send it to anywhere in the universe immediately. We had the idea that once we got into space it was all there for us. However, the actual progress has been much slower. Are we waiting for a breakthrough in propulsion systems to make this dream come true? Or should we settle down for a slower and more difficult exploration of the solar system? I think it could be much like our exploration of the Earth and we are in the log canoe stage. What are your thoughts? Slow and steady?

Wayne Hale: Chemical rocket propulsion certainly limits the access to space. Nuclear rocket propulsion has advantages but they come with risk and a large price tag. Science fiction devices such as warp drive don't have a basis in fundamental science yet, so we are trying exotic techniques like magnetohydrodynamics and ion propulsion. I personally like the solar sail idea!


Washington, D.C.: Is not the future of NASA in unmanned space exploration? Unless we can figure out how to transport humans near or faster than the speed of light, that's the only way to explore beyond our solar system.

Wayne Hale: Those are somewhat unrelated. Even robotic exploration of planets beyond our solar system are impractical when our propulsion systems only get us to a fraction of light speed. The real future for the next few generations anyway is to explore and populate our solar system. That is plenty to keep us busy. Robot and humans working together will be a theme, just as they are working together on the international space station right now.


Freising, Germany: China's third manned space mission blasted off from a remote desert site today and the trip will include China's first space walk. What are the implications to NASA of countries like China and India intent on creating their own space programs and perhaps sending men to the moon?

Marc Kaufman: I believe the implications are significant, and will ultimately require some serious attention. By this I mean that basic "rules of the road" in space remain vague and open for conflict. The current administration has generally resisted efforts to work on more formal guidelines, but that may change with a new administration.

But on another note, the rise of China in particular is very important if for no other reasons, they may well have astronauts on the moon before we return. China has an extensive and highly planned space program, and so far has not really been invited into the global space community. (China, for instance, was not allowed to join the international space station.) Yet especially if the financial crisis here slows down exploration, I think China would probably speed its programs up.

As for India (and ESA, Japan and others), the U.S. does work in collaboration with their space programs to a greater or lesser extent, but I think many in the American space community hope for even more joint programs.


East Amherst, N.Y.: Why did NASA chose to throw away so much multi-million-dollar hardware (e.g., the Earth Departure Stage, the Orion Service Module, the Altair lander stages) with each and every flight to the moon, when we spent the last thirty-five years of shuttle development and operations advancing the technologies of reusable spacecraft? What criteria determined that this disposable toss-as-you-go scheme was the optimum way to establish a long-term space exploration architecture robust enough to support continued operations on the lunar surface, asteroid exploration, and eventual manned Mars missions?

Wayne Hale: The question of reusable vs. expendible is basically an economic discussion. At low flight rates, expendible vehicles are clearly more cost effective. Only when flight rates get fairly high does it become practical to incur the expense of development and operations of reusable vehicles. The shuttle never achieved the flight rates envisioned early on (long story about why that happened) and thus is not as cost effective as we need. I am sure that reusable space vehicles will return when the total traffic increases. The real regret about the shuttle is that we did not build a second version that incorporated all the lessons learned to make it more economical and safer.


Washington, D.C.: Hi guys. Thanks for taking questions. I am 33 years old. Assuming I've got another 50 years left, what is the likelihood that I will see a human set foot on Mars in my lifetime?

Wayne Hale: I'm 54 years old and -- barring some stupid traffic accident -- I am confident I will live to see a human set foot on Mars. The only question is which nation will send them!


Washington, D.C.: Isn't NASA's plan of having 4 people at a time on the moon insufficient to start lunar industrialization and so will lead nowhere, just like Apollo?

Wayne Hale: Interesting question. Of course if we are permanently limited to only 4 people at a time that would put severe constraints on what we could accomplish. However, the Constellation plan is based on an outpost concept. Over time these outposts will grow. This will be a bootstrap operation and over time will lead to a bigger cadre and encourage private industry to come on board. Exactly where the tipping point will be to become self sufficient -- or at least a net exporter - will become clearer as we go.


Washington, D.C.: Are there any impacts of the ongoing U.S. presidential election to the direction of current space program?

Marc Kaufman: Definitely. While Obama started as a skeptic of the Constellation program, he has become a strong advocate (after some educating by Florida's Sen. Nelson in particular.) Both he and McCain have spoken of the possibility of extending the space shuttle program -- I believe by one mission or more. Obama has also spoken of the need to increase NASA Earth monitoring (to gauge global warming and weather trends) which has declined somewhat in recent years. McCain has spoken generally of wanting to keep the American space program second-to-none, but has also said all discretionary government programs (which includes NASA) will be in line for a haircut.

There is a large military component to space spending, and I would presume that Sen. McCain would be more inclined to keep that funding high while Obama might want to spread it around. The issue here is military "hard power" versus scientific and technological "soft power," and which helps the U.S. best in the world.


Ashburn, Va.: What are your thoughts on private space ventures like the one proposed by Richard Branson?

Wayne Hale: Absolutely wonderful. We all wish the private sector folks the best of luck. The world needs a robust set of space transportation options. The Virgin Galactic folks seem to be at the cutting edge and one success will encourage others to enter the field. Frankly there is a lot of room and a real need for these private ventures. NASA should be on the cutting edge going where short term business models don't show an immediate return. When it becomes a profitable business, space transportation will blossom and become much more robust and much cheaper.


Rockville, Md.: Has the thought of a joint moon base venture with China, Russia, Japan, and others ever crossed anyone's mind at NASA? It seems to me this new race to the moon is very "retro", given that China is essentially using 60's technologies for the very first time, and the U.S. is going back to the Apollo blue-prints for their new moon rocket. A joint effort with newer technologies would be more beneficial and economical to the global community as a whole, don't you agree?

Marc Kaufman: NASA has solicited other space-faring nations to join in the lunar base program, but with caveats. The agency wants to control the transport, but will allow partnerships on some less central aspects of the project. Indeed, NASA officials often say that international cooperation (and funding) is essential.

But there are other challenges. The U.S. does not allow cooperation with China right now, and relations with Russia are rocky at best. Congressional restrictions passed in the late 1990s also limit the ability of NASA (and private American space entrepreneurs) to enter into joint projects with other nations.


Greenbelt, Md.: Between the retirement of the shuttle and when Orion is operational, will there be a reduction in force at either Kennedy or Johnson?

Wayne Hale: NASA's agency budget remains stable with a small growth above inflation. In that regard NASA is doing much better than most other government agencies. All that money is spent on Earth! It all goes to paying for goods and services and virtually all of that in the US. Basically it goes to pay people's salaries. So at the top line, NASA will continue to employee more people every year as our budget continues to grow. The question is what will they be doing and where will they be located. NASA is working on a transition plan from Shuttle to Constellation that will help ease some of the dislocation. There will be some dislocations, but that happens in every business from time to time. Most of NASA's work is done by contractors and they tend to do work where there is a skilled work force available. Officially, since many of the Constellation contracts have not been let (waiting on the shuttle to retire to free up the money) we do not know where the jobs will be. NASA has published some worst case assumptions that indicate some fewer contractors will be employed at KSC, but I personally think that the dislocation will be small. But the jobs will change, so at a personal level you should be prepared with the maximum skills you can develop.


Baltimore, Md.: I've heard scientists say privately that the International Space Station is a huge waste of money; that unmanned exploration gives us a lot more scientific information at a much lower cost. But unmanned satellites are not as glamorous as astronauts in their spacesuits. Wouldn't unmanned explorers be more cost effective in times of shrinking budgets?

Marc Kaufman: Your question is important, and will doubtless become more so in the future.

From a scientific point of view, most of the discoveries made by NASA researchers and those working with its instruments has come from unmanned missions -- with the Hubble space telescope the obvious standout. This has indeed led many to conclude the manned program is unnecessary, or less necessary than the NASA budget would suggest.

NASA and other space experts respond that some things can only be done by humans -- and ironically the imminent repair and upgrade of the Hubble is an example of that. In addition, human spaceflight has a national pride/national security aspect that manned scientific missions generally do not.

All of this said, the ISS is often indeed described as an example of how the human presence in space can become overly expensive and scientifically limited. But I'm not ready to say it has been a huge waste of money and time -- the level of international cooperation has been exemplary, the technological achievement has been very impressive, and when completed the station could indeed become a significant research laboratory. I know that many disagree, and I think this will be debated long into the future.


Woodstock, N.Y.: Do you think a new Energy Agency modeled after NASA, would be a good way to solve energy problems scientifically rather than through politics?

Wayne Hale: Well, there is a cabinet Department of Energy which is working on some of these problems. In fact, NASA has contributed to their technology development program for automotive efficiency. So I think what you are after is in place.

A word about politics -- most people think it is bad word, but I would recommend you rethink that. The political process is how we as a nation come to a consensus on how to solve our problems. "The genius of the American system is compromise" -- Alexis De Tocqueville


Jackson, Mich.: Maybe people in the space industry don't understand the point of a Mars mission? From a cost-benefit standpoint, the costs seem clear. We'll spend billions of dollars for the mission while other worthy projects will take a back seat. What exactly are the benefits?

Wayne Hale: Hmm. Queen Isabella could have hocked her jewels and given the money to the poor people on the streets in Madrid, too. Exploration, by definition, will lead to discovering things you didn't expect. How do you do a cost-benefit analysis of that. Basic scientific research is the same. Right now the nation spends six tenths of one percent of its budget on space exploration. Is the cure for cancer going to be discovered on the international space station? Will the energy crisis be solved by mining the lunar surface for Helium-3 which could be used in clean nuclear fusion plants? Benjamin Franklin was asked about the usefulness of this "electricity" think he discovered with his kite. His response was "what is the use of a newborn baby?" A study of world history leads inexorably to the conclusion that investments in exploration and fundamental research pay off big time. Staying home based on narrow cost-benefit studies leads to the failure of civilizations. We spend more on pet food than on space exploration. What else are we doing at such minimal price for the long term future?


Little Rock, Ark.: How much do you think it would cost to extend the Space Shuttle? Do you think it's a good idea?

Marc Kaufman: NASA administrator Mike Griffin estimates it will cost about $2 billion a year to keep the shuttle program afloat, and then another $1 billion or so to actually launch vehicles.

While the fleet is aging and safety is an obvious concern, I wouldn't be surprised if the shuttle ends up flying additional missions after 2010. Some of that is to bring up (very expensive) instruments that would otherwise remain stranded on Earth, and some would be narrow the "gap" when the U.S. will have no spacecraft of its own to get to the station. As of now, the only sure alternative is pay the Russians a lot of money (billions of dollars) to fly our astronauts and those from allied nations to the station between 2011 and 2015. Is that a good idea? Virtually everyone thinks the answer is a resounding "no."

Another possibility is a speed-up of development of the private rocket/spaceship programs now underway--something that would doubtless cost government money and would carry some risk.


Anonymous: There could be an Alien City on the far side of the moon, with an alien Wolfman Jack broadcasting at 50,000 watts of Alien Soul Power across the entire radio spectrum and we would not know. What is your opinion?

Wayne Hale: Not based on the spacecraft we have sent in the past to the moon nor discovered by the current spacecraft in orbit around the moon. Unfortunately those spacecraft were sent there by Japan and China. America needs to get back into the game, and hopefully will with the Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter launching early next year.

Besides, Wolfman Jack was big into R&B, not Soul. Sorry.


Austin, Tex.: After the Columbia disaster, one of my professors, Dr. Hans Mark, gave a lecture comparing the Columbia and Challenger accidents. His talk about the lack of accountability at NASA soured me on the thoughts of working there, which for an aerospace engineer kind of limits my career opportunities.

Has there been a change in the climate of NASA over the past few years in terms of more accountability being seen, especially in regards to human exploration of space?

Marc Kaufman: Having observed or monitored launches for the last few years, I do believe a culture change has occured at NASA and safety issues loom significantly larger. It is often said that the shuttle -- and shuttle launch and flight procedures -- are safer now than ever before. But the Columbia accident board said that the three shuttled should be entirely examined and re-certified by 2010, and that would be a very expensive process.


Washington, D.C.: Why isn't NASA funding research to make Space Solar Power possible in this time of energy crisis as they did in the 1970s?

Wayne Hale: NASA is vitally interesting in the production of power in space and is funding both theoretical and applied research and development into improving solar (and other) forms of energy in space.

The conclusion of the Space Solar Power studies of the 1970s was that they were not cost effective. Putting large solar power satellites in orbit and maintaining them cost tremendously more than producing power from fossil fuel. Economics are changing (aren't we all aware of that!!) and there have been improvements in technology. NASA is currently studying a solar power demonstration project for the ISS.

So your idea is a great one, and we are on it!


Anonymous: Wayne, when STS-125 launches from LC39A, will the RSS be in place around Endeavour to protect it from debris and sonic concussion?

Wayne Hale: The Rotation Service Structure will be in place around Endeavour during the STS-125 launch. Remember, however, that the External Tank sticks up quite a bit beyond the RSS and unfortunately is not protected from things like . . . hailstorms . . . .


Fairmont, W.Va.: What effect will the current financial crisis and proposed bail-out have on the NASA budget in coming years?

Marc Kaufman: We certainly don't know the answer yet to this question, but I have to assume the impact could well be great. In addition, if we enter a deep recession, tax revenue will decline, already huge budget deficits will grow, and the needs of out-of-work people will be enormous. So unless the meltdown ends soon and more cleanly than most experts now predict, I think there will be an inevitable effect. And remember, NASA's budget is now 20 pc less in current dollars than it was in the early 1990s.


Dallas, Tex.: Is anyone at NASA studying the Fourth Dimension? I think if we can not travel in the 4th dimension, there is no space travel.

Wayne Hale: There is a huge amount of theoretical effort going on in universities and research institutions around the world on the fundamental nature of the universe. Many of these theoreticians believe that there are many more dimensions to the universe than we are aware of in ordinary life. I recently read an article where a serious physicist had calculated there are 17 dimension.

I keep remembering what Thomas Edison said: "We don't know one tenth of one percent of anything".


Los Angeles, Calif.: Can the COTS program, and particularly Elon Musk's SpaceX, succeed in bridging the gap between the Orion program and the end of the Shuttle?

Wayne Hale: We certainly have high hopes for the SpaceX team. They are benefiting from NASA's Commerical Orbital Transportation System program. Hopefully their Falcon 1 rocket will have a successful flight in the next few days. Getting to orbit is just the first step to getting to the space station and more work would have to be done to provide human transportation to the ISS by their proposed Falcon 9/Dragon spacecraft. Certainly there is a hope there, but much more work is ahead.


League City, Tex.: What are some things you think NASA could do to better excite the next generation about the space program?

Marc Kaufman: I'm a big fan of the astrobiology program -- which supports efforts to find life beyond Earth. The program has attracted hundreds of talented scientists, and discoveries are being made all the time. No life-forms have been found so far, but most experts believe it's just a matter of time. (Similarly, astronomers predicted the presence of planets orbiting other stars for decades, but only began to find them in the mid 1990s. Now they are up to 300 or so.)

Astrobiology includes disciplines ranging from molecular and evolutionary biology to planetary science and cosmology, and has the potential to give humans answers to questions asked (and unanswered) since the beginning of humankind. I believe this is already a key priority for NASA, and may become more so in the future.


Houston, Tex.: Wayne: Thank you for your service to the US space program. After the Columbia accident, in addition to leading the technical recovery, you led the rebuilding of morale on the Shuttle team. The NASA ASAP (Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel) reported "surprising anxiety among NASA employees associated with the Constellation Program". Do you perceive this anxiety, and what should be done about it?

Wayne Hale: Change is always tough. In my blog yesterday I quoted a business school instructor who observed that "half way through any project, it looks like a failure". I lived through the last part of the shuttle development and all of the ISS, and others like Hubble. They all looked like failures at some point. Hubble in particular. Now it is being called the most productive scientific instrument of all time. What an amazing comeback from the "Hubble Trouble" headlines of the early 1990's.

Hang in there. Of course there is anxiety. The ball is in play right now and we don't know how it will turn out. But we are on a good course with great people. That has been the formula for success in the past -- but only if we don't lose heart half way through. Perseverance!


Cleveland, Ohio: When NASA scales back research to support return to the moon (etc), to whom does the responsibility now fall for continuing the research needed to keep the United States preeminent in the sciences and technologies for improving air and spaceflight?

Wayne Hale: Private industry has cut funding for R&D by more than 80% in my professional lifetime. Government continues to do its part, but this is not a job for NASA alone or even the government alone. Wall street needs to realize that the economic future of the country can't always be justified by next quarter's profit and loss statement. But that would get me into the larger economic mess and I should avoid that.

Bottom line: if America wants to continue to have a strong economy, grow and be successful, we have got to fund R&D!


Westlake, Ohio: The goal to have NASA return people to the moon then on to Mars has been described as symptomatic of the "pride before the fall," where incumbent organizations try to recapture old glory instead of adapting to current challenges and opportunities. How is NASA maximizing opportunities for robotic space exploration, global space activities, entrepreneurial joy rides in space; and how is it adapting to challenges of fixed budgets and the risk to Earth from asteroids?

Marc Kaufman: A big set of questions, which I can respond to only in part. NASA administrator Mike Griffin is a big advocate of human space flight, but his successor (and the next president) might be less inclined. That could certainly effect the moon project and could direct more money into robotic missions.

As a final thought, NASA is clearly at a crossroads, and many policies and initiatives will no doubt change with the new administration. To my mind, the record of NASA over the past 50 years has been impressive and it has helped excite and educate generations for a relatively small amount. (The current budget is $17 billion. Compare that to the cost of the Iraq war or the upcoming Wall Street bailout.) I'm sure that NASA will change in the days ahead, and will continue to excite, frustrate, and amaze people around the world.

Many thanks for all your questions, and I regret that we didn't get to so many of them. But I will be online tomorrow with Elon Musk, president and founder of the private rocket firm SpaceX, so hopefully we can answer more than. The chat starts at 11.30.


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