Our Future in Space – panel at TAM 9

By Phil Plait | October 20, 2011 12:26 pm

In July 2011, at the JREF’s TAM 9 meeting in Las Vegas, I moderated a panel discussing the future of space exploration. On that panel were some familiar faces: Bill Nye (the Science Guy), astronomers Neil Tyson and Pamela Gay, and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss. All of us have, ah, some experience talking to the public about matters spacey, so I knew it would be a fun panel to moderate.

I had no idea. The video of the panel has been made available by the JREF, so you can see it for yourself! I’ve embedded it below. It’s an hour long, but I think you’ll find it absolutely worth your time to watch all the way through. A lot of people came up to me afterwards and said it was the best panel at the meeting, and one of the best we’ve ever had at TAM! As a participant, modesty forbids me from saying more, but then, who am I to disagree?

It was a rollicking discussion, and very interesting. Neil was in rare form, and I think my favorite moment was when Pamela was making a point, and Neil jumped in to give an opinion… and Pamela held up a finger and "shusshed" him! It was extremely funny, especially when Neil got this, "OK, fine, you got me" expression on his face. After the panel, Neil was signing books, and I got Pamela to sit down next to him and recreate the moment:

Someone else was able to capture it during the actual moment on the panel, too.

I do want to comment on one thing. At about 44:00 minutes in, during a discussion about dark energy and the James Webb Space Telescope — which in July was already in trouble — I said that JWST would help characterize dark energy, allowing us understand it better. Lawrence then said that this wasn’t true, and that we need to be careful about overhyping the capability of JWST. I was about to reply to him when Neil jumped in, and I decided to let Lawrence’s comment go; as moderator I didn’t want to derail the flow of the conversation, and at the time thought it better to let things move on.

However, I disagree somewhat with what Lawrence said. Extremely distant supernovae are what were used to discover dark energy in the first place, and JWST will be able to to get better observations of them than we could previously. I think part of Lawrence’s point was that our observations have already nailed down some of the characteristics of dark energy pretty well, and the way JWST will work won’t add much to what we already know. I suspect that’s mostly true, but then when it comes to really distant supernovae our observations get a bit shaky. The better we nail them down, the more we can say about them, and JWST would be able provide cleaner data from those distant exploding stars.

I did say that JWST "would go a long way" in helping us understand dark energy, and looking back on that I probably should’ve phrased this as it simply being able to help us. Although it is a very powerful observatory, JWST isn’t optimized for that sort of thing, so it probably wouldn’t be able to do as much to increase our knowledge of dark energy as much as, say, Hubble did. I would add though that whenever we increase our capability to observe in a new way, we learn new things. This point was made both by Lawrence and Neil a moment later; but we should be careful before the fact not to rely on a telescope showing us something we didn’t know. It’ll happen in some ways but not others, and we can’t know until we build the thing and find out! So in that way, I agree with both Neil and Lawrence.

[UPDATE: Hmm, perhaps I wrote too soon. Adam Riess, who just won the Nobel prize for his part in the discovery of dark energy, gave a talk recently where discusses how JWST can help characterize dark energy. The important part starts about 29 minutes in, and is a bit technical. Thanks to Jason Kalirai for the tip!]

I actually enjoyed this discussion for another reason: I like it when people can disagree on big issues and do so intelligently and with evidence to back up their claims. There were some points being made by panelists that I agreed with, and some I didn’t. But I found myself thinking about space exploration in different ways, seeing other perspectives. That always gives insight into an issue, and whether you ultimately agree with the point or not, you’ll wind up thinking better about it.

I’d argue that’s one of the major benefits of skepticism.

Image credits: me; Jamie Bernstein.


Comments (45)

  1. Michael Swanson

    Well, you just get to hang out with the coolest people in the world, don’t you? Just because you’re an accomplished astronomer and author.

    [/jealous sarcasm]

  2. Jeff

    I think big meetings like this are key. They help to bring this schizophrenic world back to one mind, one goal, or at least some type of direction.

    I remember Carl Sagan, Phil Morrisson, Richard Berendzen, etc., back when I was a grad student in the 70s, that mobilized us. This reminds me of those halcyon days.

  3. AliCali

    I haven’t seen the video, but your statement about predicting what a bigger telescope would show us reminds me of a comment just around 1900. I can’t remember the year and who (I can look it up if need be), but a pretty respected astronomer stated that we’re approaching the limit of our knowledge of astronomy, and he intimated that bigger telescopes wouldn’t really give us all that much. (The biggest at the time was probably the 40″ at Yerkes, but I’d have to check the year to be sure.) This was before we discovered other galaxies for what they were, the expansion of the universe, the evolution of stars, exoplanets, Kuiper belt objects, dark matter, dark energy, supernovaes, gravitational lensing, etc. etc. etc. Bigger telescopes were built and revealed knowledge we hadn’t even expected.

    Costs aside, I’d be excited by the knowledge JWST would give us, especially the areas completely unknown to us today.

  4. Jeff

    I watched this again, and I think it is an excellent meeting, a starting point for the next decade of debates. This panel had the perfect mixture of the astrophysicists, planetary scientists, and hard-headed practical NASA considerations. After years of this type of debate, maybe the parties will get space flight, manned and unmanned back on track, if people think it went somewhat off track.

    But this all depends on the world condition, we musn’t forget the bigger picture, the forces that exist in this world . For example, although I am very proud of all the contributers to this panel, I really hate to hear any talk of Chinese vs. American vs. Soviet, those are all old paradigms, and shouldn’t have any thing to do with the current space situation.; although practically they are, I am disappointed humanity hasn’t gotten past that.

  5. With that group it would have been interesting and entertaining even if it were a panel on ’70s television.

    This panel seems to be on “Our future looking at space” rather than “in space” as the name suggests. Shouldn’t there have been someone actualling involved in getting into space?

  6. frankenstein monster

    Shouldn’t there have been someone actualling involved in getting into space?

    If they think that ‘our future in space’ is to stay permanently locked down here, then no. because the entire planet is already flying through the universe, that would count as ‘our future in space’ too, albeit a bleak one…

  7. Martin

    That was a great video and it made me think that if one of the biggest problems NASA has is funding and money, couldn’t NASA try to be more profitable in a sense that it wouldn’t cost the taxpayers as much and it would be easier for politicians to approve funding.

    For example, NASA could divert some of the funding towards mining asteroids. Some of the asteroids are close enough and have lots of minerals which would help fund programs. I know it’s very difficult to do and it probably can’t be done at this moment but if it could be done and it became profitable, private companies would definitely want a piece of the action and this would advance the science of space exploration.

  8. Thopter

    Does anyone have a direct download link for this video? I cannot get past 13 minutes without my ISP dropping the connection. And Vimeo doesn’t let one start in the middle of the video, you have to load from the beginning every time.

  9. BJN

    Give us 3D HD telepresence (even with substantial delay) and let us all explore the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

  10. andy

    Why Tyson no like Lawrence? lol

  11. Is there a version of this on Youtube? The Vimeo video is so slow that I only get two or three stills from the video each minute, and the video crashed completely 22 minutes into the talk.

    This is true of every Vimeo video that has been posted on this blog. Vimeo simply does not work for my machine or connection.

    Is there a Youtube version of this video? I would really like to watch the whole thing.

  12. Henrik

    What an interesting discussion, Europa really intrigues me. Are there people working on a mission to explore Europa or is that still in a very distant future?

    If i could live long enough experiences human exploration of that moon before i die it would be awesome.

    Thanks Phil for the web’s best blog!

  13. I hope that when Neil films “Cosmos” he acts like he did at the meeting. That would be awesome.

  14. 11. Boingo try not watching in HD, older computers will freak out, over heat and prefer to crash than to deal with that.

  15. magetoo


    Vimeo has download links right there on the video page if you log in.


    Downloading might help you as well, takes the connection out of the equation at least. It does seem to be very slow at the moment though.

  16. artbot

    Best panel ever. Thanks so much for posting this.

  17. tacitus

    One of the best science panels I have ever seen. Everyone was engaged, engaging, passionate, informed and opinionated, and didn’t get in each other’s way (too much anyway).

    If only our political leaders were as informed and as passionate…

    Regarding the question at the end concerning the next big thing in space science, I believe it’s the forthcoming exoplanetary survey. I’m still a bit fuzzy on the limits of what we will be able to detect at long range (and I”m not even sure we know yet) but given the near impossibility of interstellar travel (economically, if not physically), our window on the Universe will continue to be an increasingly capable set of space (and Moon-based) telescope that will eventually capture the spectral light from the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of planets in orbit around the stars in our part of the Milky Way.

    So even before we set foot outside our own Solar System (which will probably not be for hundreds of years yet) we will undoubtedly have whole fleets of telescopes roaming the cold depths of the outer Solar System photographing planets, rocky planets, Earth-like planets, and even Earth twins (hopefully) and maybe even the signature of life on those distant worlds.

    Also, I’ve always been a fan of Lawrence Krauss’s “One Way Mission to Mars”. Even if death was the certain outcome of the mission, I believe there would be no shortage of highly qualified volunteers to go, and it’s only PR and political concerns (which would not be insignificant) that would prevent such a mission from being attempted.

    Those concerns would be mitigated if there was a way to maintain the volunteer’s life on Mars for several years (with a reasonable degree of certainty) with the good chance that within that time, the return leg of that mission would eventually be provided, thus spreading the cost of the mission over several more years, noting that nothing improves the funding pipeline more than needing to launch a rescue mission!

  18. Duane

    A little annoyed with Dr. Krauss for continuously shutting down Bill Nye’s speculations. Just sayin’.

  19. We simply -MUST- get Neil to come to Dragon*Con next year!
    Then you, Pamela & he can do a reprise of the panel.
    {Picard} Hilton Crystal Ballroom. Make it so! {/Picard}

  20. Blake

    These are some of my most favorite people in the world but Jesus, that was so acrimonious and edgy (in the bad way) I couldn’t really enjoy it at all. It just had a nasty vindictive vibe about it from 15minutes in on. Neil seemed cranky and annoyed that he even had to be there. :(

  21. JediBear

    I think we should declare war on space. Then there would be money for exploring it.

    Nobody declares war on things that can’t be warred with like the US.

    Though maybe we should cut down our total count of wars first, or at least bring in some revenue?

  22. Joseph G

    UPDATE: Hmm, perhaps I wrote too soon. Adam Riess, who just won the Nobel prize for his part in the discovery of dark energy, gave a talk recently where discusses how JWST can help characterize dark energy. The important part starts about 29 minutes in, and is a bit technical. Thanks to Jason Kalirai for the tip!

    Fortunately, Phil is the humble sort. If it were me, I’d probably post something along the lines of “Neener neener, the Nobel Prize winner agrees with ME.” 😛

  23. Joseph G

    @21 JediBear: Great idea. Hell, let’s declare a War on Peace. If it goes anything like the War on Drugs, we should have world peace within the year.

  24. Teshi

    What a shame that political discussions aren’t like this one: “Can you give some examples of your claim?” “Yes. Example, example, example.”

    This was a very well chosen panel.

  25. Electro

    Ya know, this batch of commenters is one of the most eloquent I have ever seen on this website, and that is saying something. Thank you my fellow BaBlogee’s.

  26. JimTKirk

    Excellent panel! Neil was in rare form. Lawrence seemed to inadvertently shoot himself in the foot toward the end, which proved to be hilarious! Being a fan of Phil, and as an extension George Hrab, it was neat to see George there manning the mic and taking a shot at Neil! Pamela and Bill provided a balance to the group that made it all the better too.

  27. John EB Good

    Loved every minute of it. It’s not that long as each minute subjectively (or relativisticaly? These people are fast!!!) passes as ten seconds. I can only empathise with the poor people who didn’t had time to ask their questions. DeGrasse-Tyson often mentions in his lectures that the odds of meeting an astrophysicist is one in a million, well, imagine the odds of having such a knowledgeable panel in front of you! If only to ask one quetion bugging you for a long time. I sincerely hope for these people they had the chance to meet them all (yes, including the «engineer»!) afterward to chat.

    @10 andy: I don’t think they hate each other. If you read the Black Hole War from Leonard Susskind, the story of this wager between him and Hawking about the loss of information or not in black holes, you see that when they held strong opposite opinions, it might look that this argumentation would be about break into a fist fight, if Steve wasn’t nailed in a wheelchair. But Susskind and Hawking are really good friends and strongly respect each other. When one definitively proves his point, the other is quick to rally to the opinion he fighted so strongly against. Imagine politicians acting like that and try to figure how the world would become so rational that the evening news would be quite dull to watch.

    Without such strong arguing, (and given a public opportunity like this, they won’t be able to resist cracking each other) I don’t think science would advance at all.

    About the thin inhabited can that is the ISS, I am surprised that Bill Nye didn’t make the engineering point that it made us learn so much about building complex structures in LEO, debug so many technical problems and teached nations how to work together. Those things will be deeply needed, or should I say, a basic prerequisite, if ever we’re the least serious about going to Mars and establish the smallest of semi-permanent or permanent presence up there. To me, the ISS has long earned a Nobel Peace prize, if we could give it to a machine. One day, maybe.

    I didn’t know Dr. Lawrence before this flick. And saw through Wikipedia that he has published more than one book for the public at large. As I’m finishing the Black Hole War (the wager is won and I’m left with only 20 or so pages to read) and was lacking inspiration about what next book I should read. I’ll certainly look him up on Amazon for my next reading.

    I also found that Pamela Gay has her own blog, not as regularly updated as this one, so it should be much work to follow her too, along with this one. I bookmarked it. And shushing Neil? WOW! Never seen anybody as talkative as Neil deGrasse-Tyson being shut up this quick. Not only once, but TWICE!!! Way to go, girl! Seing such a strong personality is leading me to believe we lack more women in science than we could ever figure.

    And I will strongly agree with you Phil. It was deeply sadening to see, next to you, Dr. Rodney Meredith McKay’s chair empty! 😀

  28. PJsD

    Off topic, but this is cool. Plots of the barycenter of our solar system when you set masses of big planets to 0. http://www.orbitsimulator.com/gravity/articles/ssbarycenter.html

  29. Lawence Krauss comes across rather bad in this video. Almost to the crank level.

    “The laws of physics say it’s just exponentially more expensive and exponentially more difficult [to get to] somewhere interesting.” – Krauss @ 14:15. Speaking in comparison to Earth orbit; and with reguards to his perception of the limit for commercial spaceflight.

    That’s wrong, that’s simply wrong. The maths says, in fact, as Bill points out later, that it’s only about *twice* as difficult (as a broad rule) to get to other places. There is a very large difference between twice as much and exponentially more. What Krauss said was as accurate, and in pretty much the same spirit, as someone saying that North America is only 8 yards wide.

    I’m getting a strong reading on my Balooney Detection Kit
    *Krauss made a statement that wasn’t true
    *The false statement was unequivoical
    *He claimed the rules of physics supported him when they don’t
    *Ponderence of evidence and experience says the vacuum of orbit makes things easier (ion engines, solar sail, absense of atmospheric ISP losses, orbital fuel transfer, etc) which is the polar opposite of what he claimed
    *The false statement seems to serve a political agenda as aluded to by other panelests: “Robots first, humans stay home.”
    *Krauss tried to speak with authority in an area he isn’t qualified (engineering) by hiding behind a qualifacation that is only partially relevent (physics).

    Now he might have mispoken, and I might be making a mountain out of a mole hill, but he didn’t correct himself at any point, and this was presented as a reasoned arguement, not an off the cuff comment. Quite frankly I feel that if you’re going to sit up on stage at a convention like this, you really should either get things right, or not comment on that particular subject area.

  30. MadScientist

    Lawrence Krauss is awesome; I wish he had more time. I agree that there will be no shortage of volunteers for a 1-way trip to Mars, but personally I’d rather not waste money sending people there to begin with. I also like how he explains how some things just can’t be done, but I wish Tyson would have just said he agreed rather than teasing Krauss about saying “it can’t be done” before quickly waving his hands and saying “naah, I agree with him”.

    @Blake: I agree – it’s like Neil wanted the spotlight all to himself. I think Bill Nye, Pamela Gay, and Lawrence Krauss played nicely though, but Nye and Krauss were my favorites by a long shot.

  31. BGC

    Is it just me or does Dr. Krauss sound just a little too much like the Brain from “Pinky and the Brain?” I kept expect him to say “Are you pondering what I’m pondering?”

  32. Awesome. I’m with Dr. T — we can afford lots of cool space endeavors if we decide to. We’re finally, after almost a decade and tens of thousands of lives, finishing up a trillion-dollar war we decided to have for no good reason.

  33. John Sandlin

    My thoughts on the Manned versus Machined missions:

    Dr. Krauss contends that we shouldn’t waste money on human missions because robotic missions can do many times the science for the same money. I expect, based on my observations of our human species and the politics that are inevitably involved, that should you cancel the human missions and try to redirect the money to robotic missions that you would soon find your robotic missions cancelled too.

    As far as I can tell about half our population wishes science would stick to making better TV sets and leave all this controversial “the universe is 13.7 billion years old” and other “ain’t in the Bible” stuff alone. Another significant chunk wouldn’t care one way or the other so that there would never be a decent voting block to support science for science’s sake. It’s only ever been just a tiny fraction of the population pushing boundaries that move humanity forward.

    It’s the glamour of people exploring and going where no one has been before that captures the public and by extension political attention that makes funding possible. Without human exploration there wouldn’t be much other exploration.

    The challenge is finding that balance. Enough human exploration to fund the real science (not that humans in space isn’t real science too) should be the goal. Dr. Tyson nailed it when he suggested our expenditure on space exploration is too small and we should fund human and robotic missions both at a higher level.


  34. I really got the impression that Neil de Grasse Tyson REALLY doesn’t like Lawrence Krauss. He bristles everytime Krauss speaks and won’t even look at him.

  35. I like Lawence Krauss a lot but I get the impression he doesn’t want to spend money on sending humans into space. 😉

    I have to disagree with that as there is something a lot more awe inspiring about sending a human up on a rocket. It’s something that we can connect with and it surely influences a space program as a whole. I’m looking at you, observatories, probes and rovers!

    Anyway, isn’t the AMS on ISS doing some pretty important science? Not to mention that studying humans and long duration flights is important. One astronaut goes up for two weeks and is a wreck when they come back to 1G whereas another goes up for 3 months and is fine at 1G. Why is that? Pretty important to figure that out.

    We’ll just have to agree to disagree. :)

    Clear skies!

  36. Michael Dean Lewis

    If you believe in dark energy and dark matter then I pity you. No way, no how I will ever believe (faithless I am) BUT to say we don’t understand why the universe is accelerating, or other cosmological oddities that are not explained by those pretending they do, is my contribution. To hear of these phony explanations and proofs of dark matter and dark energy,…really! When? Where? Re-inventing gravity (John Moffat) and further insights do me far better a reality than dark matter or dark energy…ugh! Space travel in the future? Unmanned robots, huge laser propellant engines and small spacecraft with lots of devices…YEAH!

  37. Matt B.

    I remember Almost Live. I loved that show but IMDb has little info on it.

  38. Satan Claws

    At 41:45 I chuckled when Krauss snapped his neck and jumped in when Nye was talking about finding out about the nature of dark energy.


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