Earth Sky interviews me about NASA's future

By Phil Plait | February 8, 2010 12:00 pm

NASA logoI was recently interviewed on EarthSky about Obama’s budget and future plans for NASA. I talked about some of the things I covered in my earlier blog post, but I also added some thoughts about where I see NASA going and what I see its role is.

I’ll have more to say about this soon; I’ve been thinking about it more and I’m scratching my head over some of it.

Anyway, EarthSky is a site filled with interviews from scientists, and has a lot of great content. They cut my interview into two versions; a short 90 second one, and a longer 8-minute on. Both are recorded and on that page. They put up a transcript for the shorter version, but I suggest you listen to the 8-minute version instead.

I say that because whenever I read a transcript of an interview I’ve done, it reads like I’m on some sort of drug. But then I read transcripts from other people who are speaking extemporaneously, and they all sound that way. It’s funny how we parse information we read differently than that we hear. I swear it made sense when I said it– and I’m glad they have the interview recorded on that page as well. So again I’ll urge you to listen to the full 8-minute recording, since there’s more there than on the transcript anyway.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA
MORE ABOUT: EarthSky

Comments (27)

  1. Grand Lunar

    Great interview, Phil.

    I think more people ought to LISTEN to your views there.
    I have seen criticism of the sort you mention: doomsayers crying “It’s the end!”
    Congress members that think that also might benifit from what you say.

    I’d love to see a 2014 manned flight by SpaceX or whatever company manages to get to the ISS with a manned crew. I think that was the original year for Ares 1′s flights.

    What I’m curious of is what will NASA itself do?
    Will they eventually order up the Jupiter rockets?
    And if so, what new craft, if any, will ride on them?
    Will there be a different CEV? Or will private companies have a beefed up, deep space version of their ships?

  2. Jason

    Now Phil, you know there is no room for this kind of optimistic view on this budget on the Internet!

    Agree with what you said, BTW. I’m just afraid of what this budget will turn into once the US Congress gets a hold of it.

  3. Ferris Valyn

    Jason – worst case scenario, they’ll restore funding for Constellation as is, and try and wipe out the proposed Commercial Crew. Then we won’t be going anywhere

  4. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE

    Phil Plait:

    [W]henever I read a transcript of an interview I’ve done, it reads like I’m on some sort of drug.

    Whenever I read a transcript of an interview I’ve done, it reads like I’m Boris Yeltsin!

  5. Ferris Valyn

    Grand Lunar – Here is my expectation of what NASA – I think NASA will spend the next 3-4 years, doing tech development on game changing technology ( such as propellant depots, in-space propulsion, and other high tech stuff), while it is also priming the pump for private space. After about 4 years, there will be a new line item, and it will be for a deep space spaceship. That is, a vehicle that will fly only in space, between LEO and GEO, or LEO and Lunar Orbit, or LEO and NEOs, or LEO and Mars orbit. There will also be something related to the high tech development that gets utilized to make this a practical vehicle (either propellant transfer, or VASIMR, or something like that). And then NASA will start going between LEO and various deep space points (orbits or Lagrange points). And a few years later, you’ll see another line item show up – lander purchases from companies like Blue Origin, or Armadillo Aerospace, or Masten.

    Deep space here we come

  6. Jamey

    A couple of things I’ve read, or heard, over the last few days have me kind of confused.

    1) I need to find it again, and see if I can find the original interview, but one article said that Buzz Aldrin had said that Constellation building one large, and one small rocket was a bad choice, and that they’d have been better off making two medium ones to give them more flexibility. I can’t see how two of similar capacity is more flexible than two of quite different capacity.

    2) Wasn’t Constellation supposed to re-use a lot of the tech from the Space Shuttle systems? The SRBs were getting extended and topped off to become the Ares I, and the ET and the original Shuttle Main Engines were getting re-jiggered to become the Ares V… So what’s all the big new development needed? Where was all this development money going?

    3) What is so different about how NASA goes to develop a heavy lift booster, than how Falcon will have to do it? Won’t Falcon have to go through all the same over-the-top paperwork to prove the vehicles flight-safe, if nothing else for the insurance companies?

    4) What’s wrong with how the Russians have approached things, using a couple of designs, and then simply making enough of them that mass production techniques can actually start to make sense? It seems like the US makes a dozen or so of a particular design, and then is off chasing some new and supposedly better design – which frankly, as it never seems to really get here, leads one to wonder if new, but non-existent, is really that much better than old, reliable, and actually flying.

    5) Why can’t we just develop a capsule that can ride on these Delta and Atlas rockets we already have launching satellites on a semi-regular basis?

    6) Will the new up-and-coming rocket companies get complete access to the data NASA has developed over the years on rocketry? Or is that all tied up behind contracts with the United Launch Alliance or hidden behind TOP SECRET stamps with the military?

    There’s some weird stuff that really makes no sense going on in the rocket industry – at least, looking at it from the outside.

  7. Jasso

    “It’s funny how we parse information we read differently than that we hear. I swear it made sense when I said it…”

    It’s because text speech doesn’t have the intonation and rhythmic cues that vocal speech has. There is a lot of extra information in speech than just the words themselves.

  8. Ferris Valyn

    Jamey

    1. I remember a similar article – I think it was in a Pop Sci article, or something similar. The benefit, I suspect, when something like this – Ares I & Ares V were incredibly expensive, but by having 2 vehicles (that were the same vehicle) they could save money. There was also another thing.

    2. It was. The problem that a number of changes were forced on the rockets (such as extending the length of the SRB, changing the Diameter of the ET, switching engines, and so on) made them incredibly expensive. The fact was, we were spending the money to recreate the Saturn V. But, the fact is having Saturn V didn’t change the game, because it was still going to be incredibly expensive. What the tech that is being talked about will be game changing, such as propellant depots, or VASIMR.

    3. Not necessarily. It might even be that we don’t need HLVs

    4. Noting is wrong with that idea. In fact, that is what I would argue Obama’s proposed budget is trying to do. Constellation was a repeat of re-inventing the wheel.

    5. Again, thats what Obama’s budget is trying to do. Constellation did the exact opposite, and wouldn’t put them on Atlas V, or Delta IVs

    6. Some of them certainly will. ULA, for example, will be to, since its owns the rockets.

    I hope this makes sense

  9. DenverAstro

    “I swear it made sense when I said it…”

    You crack me up Phil, you really do :o ) I can SO relate to this…

  10. Jeff

    It is too bad someone didn’t program BHO’s teleprompter to give a larger fraction of the trillions of dollars he is printing to NASA. Unfortunately that doesn’t make good socialist jobs.

  11. Excellent interview, Phil, except you made several mistakes …

    1. It is the end of NASA.

    2. It also represents the end of the Human Spaceflight Era … that is, the all-inclusive end. Russia and China will soon follow America’s lead not because they are emulating America’s decision but because they happen to live in the same sort of planetary global economic catastrophe which is afflicting the USA and won’t end until capitalism has finished collapsing and technological civilization has crumbled into dust.

    3. There is no need whatsoever for humans in space, either in low-earth orbit or on the moon or on Mars or anywhere else in the Universe except under the Earth’s protective atmosphere and magnetic field. Humans evolved on the Earth and humans will go extinct on the Earth. This animal (yes, humankind) isn’t leaving the Earth. Not now. Not ever.

    4. I would greatly discourage anyone for making any plans for 2014. The problems which our civilization has delayed by spending trillions of dollars will have thoroughly overwhelmed our civilization by 2014. There is an economic tsunami coming and it will essentially wipe our civilization off the map and off the pages of history. We’re living at the end of an era and the next era which follows will be horrendous and horrific and much worse than anyone today can even imagine.

    5. Peak oil has occurred. Climate change is accelerating. Humankind’s days are numbered. Extinction happens. Our species hasn’t yet encountered Nature in one of her really bad moods. Humankind will, though, and the outcome won’t be pretty.

    6. Just as there was a real estate bubble there is a human population bubble. The human population bubble will reach its apex between 8 – 9 billion … after that comes the human population collapse. If you want to know what this means just keep your eyes open and wait and you’ll find out by direct personal experience.

    7. In other words: Just as humankind doesn’t have a future in space, humankind also doesn’t have a future on the Earth.

    8. Tecnological civilization has thoroughly trashed the Earth, depleted its resources and provoked radical changes which will prove extremely inhospitable to humankind. The end of technological civilization is the extinction of humankind.

    9. No, I won’t hear any bleating about how wonderful technological civilization is nor any complaints about myself criticizing technological civilization while using a computer. Nature doesn’t care what you like or want or need. The Universe doesn’t care what humankind likes or wants or needs. Technological civilization will end against the objections of humankind and it will end even if by doing so it renders humankind unable to survive.

    10. There is a long history of extinction on the Earth and this history of exinction includes plenty of primate species, including all of humankind’s ancestors. In the great scheme of things the extinction of humankind will prove to be just another day in the life of the planet. Yes, there is life after humankind just as life flourished after the dinosaurs went extinct. The Universe, Earth, Nature and God aren’t under any obligation whatsoever to humankind. Life will go on and the sun will keep on rising after humankind is extinct.

    11. Forget science fiction and fantasy. Technological civilization isn’t James Bond … that is, able to escape from each and every catastrophe without a scratch or a bit of dust on his expensive suit. Technological civilization is already dying, technological civilization is crumbling away right under your feet, and it will continue to do so until it exist no longer. The downfall of technological civilization isn’t the sort of thing which you can wish away. Nature doesn’t care about what you want or the future you prefer. Nature doesn’t care about humankind at all.

    12. Although humankind enjoys boasting about the species’ intelligence and superiority over Nature, everyone should keep in mind that the dinosaurs dominated the Earth for 150 million years compared to humankind’s dominance over the planet which won’t even last a 1000 years. Judged by those standards the human species is a failure of the very worst sort. Please do keep in mind that the history of humankind on the Earth would average down to “zero” within the context of the history of life on this planet.

    13. Ideally a means would exist for humankind to escape the horrors which are coming but it is already too late for humankind. When the carbon concentration passed 350 ppm and the human population passed 6 billion the species’ fate was sealed: Extinction.

    So you people can stop dreaming about a future in space. The decline & fall of the human species has already begun and it won’t end until Nature has erased all memories of humankind’s existence from the surface of the Earth.

  12. Ferris Valyn

    David,

    Well, after that piece, I am certainly going to nominate you for uplifting spirit of the year award

  13. Messier Tidy Upper

    Gee, David (11) you *are* just such a cheery, over optimistic ray of sunshine aren’t you? :roll:

    And your proposed solution or suggested positive course of action we could take to counter these dire problems you describe would be …???

    I second (12) Ferris Valyn’s nomination! ;-)

    PS. Do take some prozac or get some appropriate pyschological treatment, David. It is very evident that you need it. “Blind Freddy” could diagnose you with severe depression. Seriously.

  14. Messier Tidy Upper

    That noted, given the abandonment of our plans to return to the Moon & the looming retirement of the space shuttle with no replacement space vehicle in sight, I too can’t help feeling a bit glum & wondering “what future?” now.

    Sorry BA, but I don’t share your optimism for NASA’s future (esp. on the human spaceflight side) either – much as I wish I could.

    I don’t think its the end of the US manned space program – & I sure *hope* it is not but..

    ..At best, we would seem to be stuck in Low Earth Orbit & restricted to the International Space Station depending on the Russians to get our astronauts there for many years to come. And that sucks. :-(

  15. Pi-needles

    @12. Ferris Valyn Says:

    David, Well, after that piece, I am certainly going to nominate you for uplifting spirit of the year award

    Ah but what if he *wins*? ;-)

    Pictures a crowd seriously expecting a bubbly, jolly, light-hearted positive thinker & getting .. David instead! Y’know, it’d *almost* be worth it to see the looks on their faces! ;-)

  16. Markle

    David,

    How do you propose to expand human population by 40-50% in the four years before we meet your predicted doom?

    It’s not really accurate to say that Homo Sapiens Sapiens predecessors (ancestors?) went extinct. Some (depending on how far back you wish to push it) evolved into us. Some evolved into the great apes (and us). Some evolved into Aligators (and us). Some evolved into Paramecium (and us). Some evolved into Sequoia (and us).

    If you are spending your life in despair, I suggest you talk to someone about counseling. If you don’t, then please don’t try to drag the rest of us down with you.

  17. Ferris Valyn

    Messier Tidy Upper
    Actually, we have 4 replacement vehicles in sight.
    Dreamchaser
    http://www.flightglobal.com/blogs/hyperbola/2010/02/picture-dreamchaser-docks-with.html

    Orion-lite
    http://www.flightglobal.com/blogs/hyperbola/2010/02/pictures-boeingbigelow-aerospa.html

    Dragon
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2w3hPA4WpNE

    Cygnus
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBya5YAUm5k

    I have no doubt we’ll see at least 2 of these fly. And I am quite optimistic that we’ll see all 4 fly, by 2016, and quite possibly as early as 2013. Not all will necessarily be manned, but we are not pulling away from manned spaceflight. We are trying something as bold as the 60s landing on the moon.

    As for being stuck in LEO
    1. We were stuck in LEO under Constellation, since we wouldn’t have Ares V until 2028, which means we’d only be going to LEO, when Ares I arrives in 2017-2019 range (and no station either at that point)
    2. After the demonstration of the above mentioned vehicles, and the R&D that will be going on during that time, I have good reason to believe we’ll see a move towards developing a true deep spaceship (as I’ve talked about)
    3. And so we’ll be able to leave LEO sustainably, sometime in the early 2020s

  18. James

    It’s funny, because the descendents of our predecessors are alive today. That much should be obvious.

  19. T_U_T

    @11 David. Why don’t you just kill yourself now so that you don’t have to watch the whole mankind dying ? Killing yourself will abolish your suffering, and it will also help us, who think that humankind has still a chance because a mindless doomsayer like you only distracts people from actually doing something to help themselves.

  20. Cheyenne

    @T_U_T- Really classy idiot.

    @David- Buck up there buddy. Things ain’t that bad. And they will get better.

  21. David,

    You are far from correct (very very far), but there is a chance you may not be entirely wrong:

    1. “It is the end of NASA” — No, it’s still there, but it’s glory days are likely passed. Even if all of its current projects were axed, it would likely go on for quite a while existing as a grant giving institution.

    2. “end of the Human Spaceflight Era” – No, at least not the immediate end. It very well could be another step on the way towards a cessation of manned spaceflight. There is a distinct possibility that energy concerns could cause a suspension of manned space missions for decades or even centuries. More in bullet point 5

    3. “There is no need whatsoever for humans in space” – correct, space doesn’t need US, however, we will eventually need IT.

    “humans will go extinct on the Earth” — possible, but not likely in the near future.

    “Not now. Not ever.” I would say instead just “not soon”.

    4. “2014” — While the problems you are referring to could cause a significant decent of civilization, 2014 would still be early on in any catastrophe.
    “We’re living at the end of an era and the next era which follows will be horrendous and horrific” — It’s certainly possible (see point 5), but still far from certain.

    5. “Climate change” – Certainly has the potential to create a great deal of economic stress. It could also cause a great deal of disaster related deaths (but those will be local, not worldwide). You seem to think that climate change is somehow going to make earth unable to sustain human life. I have yet to see any legitimate prediction that such a thing will occur.

    “Peak oil has occurred” – Highly debatable (and debated). However, nearly every energy expert out there agrees that it will happen and soon (within the next few decades). This is really the crux issue on why you may be somewhat correct in that the future is not all rosy. Peak Oil is actually part of a larger issue – the end of cheap energy. This IS an issue which could very well result in a Malthusian catastrophe. It wouldn’t wipe out humanity, but it could cause significant population loss and even kick off a dark age.

    Even if the effects of climate change and energy concerns turn out to be mild, the stress to the economy that they will cause could very well result in the suspension of humankinds more ambitious and expensive endeavors.
    “Our species hasn’t yet encountered Nature in one of her really bad moods.” – There no reason to believe we will encounter one in the near future of such magnitude that human extinction would be even a remote possibility

    6. “after that comes the human population collapse” again possible, but a plateau with noise at the top is more likely as various stressed raise the death rate to be roughly equal to the birth rate.

    7. “humankind also doesn’t have a future on the Earth.” While we may be in for a rough time, there really is nothing to indicate any probability of imminent human extinction .

    8. “The end of technological civilization is the extinction of humankind.” Why? You need some sort of catastrophe to actually kill 6 billion people…all of them. Simply having the lights go out, so to speak, is not enough. I think you are seriously underestimating just how, not just adaptable, but how widespread humanity actually is.

    9. “The Universe doesn’t care what humankind likes or wants or needs.” Correct, but nor is the Universe out to get us. It’s not sentient.

    10. “The Universe, Earth, Nature and God aren’t under any obligation whatsoever to humankind.” Same point as before. Universe, Earth, and Nature are not conscious beings. Therefore they can have no intentions to help or harm. They are simply the matrix in which we exist. There is no real evidence for God, so it would be safe to assume no help or harm from that source either.

    11. “technological civilization is crumbling away” Maybe, or it could just be changing. Even in a REALISTIC worst case scenario, there would be many aspects of our current society that continue.

    12. “dinosaurs dominated the Earth for 150 million years compared to humankind’s dominance over the planet” — Apples and oranges…

    13. “the species’ fate was sealed” do tell, why exactly. What is the actual mechanism of extinction? What exactly do you think about climate change + peak oil is going to cause the death of every last person?

    _________________________________

    Don’t take my word for it. I’m often Wrong

  22. Chip

    Despite all their past rhetoric about free enterprise and privatization, we can certainly expect the Republicans and conservative Democrats (i.e. Vichy Democrats) in Congress to shout “No” to any privatization of space exploration simply because it comes from the White House.

    This does however present the opportunity to write a little note to your Senator and Congressman/woman in support of President Obama’s Nasa proposal, and if they happen to be a Republican, use a little “support free-enterprise” psychology.

    Personally I think if they’re in the “No Party” they won’t listen to you but it will make you feel good about expressing your thoughts.

  23. MartyM

    Phil,

    I’m presently listening to a podcast from NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook aired on Feb. 8th, 2010 titled What’s Next for NASA? Have you heard it. There are a lot of opinions expressed and I thought you might be interested. Buzz Aldrin comments as well.

    http://www.onpointradio.org/2010/02/whats-next-for-nasa

  24. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 17. Ferris Valyn Says:

    Messier Tidy Upper
    Actually, we have 4 replacement vehicles in sight.

    Dreamchaser
    http://www.flightglobal.com/blogs/hyperbola/2010/02/picture-dreamchaser-docks-with.html

    Orion-lite
    http://www.flightglobal.com/blogs/hyperbola/2010/02/pictures-boeingbigelow-aerospa.html

    Dragon
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2w3hPA4WpNE

    Cygnus
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBya5YAUm5k

    I have no doubt we’ll see at least 2 of these fly. And I am quite optimistic that we’ll see all 4 fly, by 2016, and quite possibly as early as 2013.

    Great artists conceptions and simulations. But I’m afraid that I’ll beleive them only when I see them fly.

    There have been many cleverpalsn and proposals befroe which never got off the drawing boards. Ihope I’m wrong but well ..as Isaid, I’llonly believe it when they’re running.

    You really don’t doubt you’ll see these working that soon? Why so may I ask?

    Not all will necessarily be manned, but we are not pulling away from manned spaceflight. We are trying something as bold as the 60s landing on the moon.

    That being … what?

    Not going back to the Moon, not replacing the shuttle immediately and having a gap of some years – likely more – where we are depending on the Russians just to get us to the ISS in LEO.

    That’s “as bold as the 1960′s” moon landings?!

    That’s not “pulling away from manned spaceflight?!

    Afraid I can’t see it as anything *but* the latter – wish I could but I can’t. :-(

    As for being stuck in LEO
    1. We were stuck in LEO under Constellation, since we wouldn’t have Ares V until 2028, which means we’d only be going to LEO, when Ares I arrives in 2017-2019 range (and no station either at that point)
    2. After the demonstration of the above mentioned vehicles, and the R&D that will be going on during that time, I have good reason to believe we’ll see a move towards developing a true deep spaceship (as I’ve talked about)
    3. And so we’ll be able to leave LEO sustainably, sometime in the early 2020s

    I hope so. I really do.

    But Ares was at least *something* that was actually being built, planned, tested and even flown. If there’s nothing solid actually there except drawings and ideas and computer simulations however snazzy then .. I’m not convinced.

    I want something really physically *there* that I or others can actually touch, climb into & fly. Methinks we were just startng to get that with Ares-Constellation but now it is back to the drawing board with nothing physically flight-ready for who knows how long? :-(

  25. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 21. Daniel Wrong – Good analysis of our global situation there & one which I largely agree with. :-)

    I’ll just add it is increasingly looking more like the threat of Climate Change is, at best, vastly over-exaggerated & over-hyped and, at worst, an outright myth foisted on us by possibly well-meaning but seemingly incorrect individuals and lobby groups.

    Peak oil & bio-diversity loss are real & serious problems as are pollution, over-fishing, deforestation, desertification, fresh water shortages, etc … “Climate change” (The scare formerly known as ‘Global Warming’ & even formerly-er known as “The Greenhouse Effect”) not-so much. Which is good news for us generally even if it does harm science’s reputation because some “scientists” got a bit too carried away by the hype and failed to excercise proper scientific skepticism about some very extraordinary AGW claims. ;-)

    @ 17. Ferris Valyn :

    I’ve replied to you separately in another comment (24 a?) above – but its currently in “awaiting moderation” limbo as, alas, I forgot to take your links out so I’ll summarise it here :

    Thanks for those links – they look awesome. 8)

    However, a lot of awesome plans have been proposed and yet have failed to take off over the years.

    It was finally starting to look like Ares was going to an exception to that – that it was starting to take solid, tangible form & begin to actually fly – then it got cancelled & we’re back to square one. :-(

    Artists conceptions and snazzy videoclip simulations are good but I wish I had your confidence that they’ll ever really fly. I really do.

    Why may I ask, please, are you so sure that *these* 4 craft will actually be built and fly when history suggests many similar plans stayed on the drawing boards and never got built for real?

    Also, if this is your idea of us *NOT* pulling back from manned spaceflight then I hate to think what your idea of us *actually* pulling back from manned spaceflight might be. ;-) :-(

  26. Travis D

    What bugs me is that all this talk is about human flight to LEO orbit which is inconsequential. The big thing Constellation was going to give us was a true Heavy Lift Booster. The Ares V was going to lift 160 metric tons of payload which not even the Saturn V could do. Even at that, though, it was estimated it would take up to eleven Ares V launches to get to Mars.

    So now what for the heavy lift business? Private companies are not going to build these things on their own since there is only one customer, NASA, so are we just giving up on going anywhere but LEO?

  27. Ferris Valyn

    Messier Tidy Upper

    With regards to Dragon, Orion-lite, and Dreamchaser – the rockets they would fly on (Atlas V), are already either flying, or about to fly (Falcon 9).

    Second, in regards to Dragon, the first flight of Falcon 9 will include a Dragon test module. In regards to Orion-lite, well, Boeing has substantial history, the design isn’t overly complicated, and so I think they can do it. In the case Dreamchaser – well, all SNC has to do is produce the capsule, so I am doing a little finger crossing there.

    finally, with regard to Cygnus – Orbital has a good history, and has made progress. Its hard to describe it without spending much more time on this then I can realistically.

    With regards to what is bold…

    What is bold is we are trying to create a real justification for human spaceflight, that can extend itself beyond LEO. Specifically, its an attempt to create the organic way to become a spacefaring society.

    With regard to Ares Being at least something – It wasn’t. When you compare the timeline for Ares I, to Falcon 9 (and particularly the already operation Atlas V), it becomes clear there IS something that you can touch, and feel.

    Travis D – Ares V was almost 2 decades away from first flight. Second, I don’t believe that there is only one customer. If there is, then we’ll never do deep space spaceflight

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