Interview on The Alyona Show about our future in space

By Phil Plait | April 19, 2012 10:30 am

On Tuesday, the Space Shuttle Orbiter Discovery took one last flight from Florida to Washington DC, where it will be placed in a museum. This event really put a big punctuation mark on America’s ability to put humans in space. I was on The Alyona Show Tuesday to talk to her about what this means, and what’s next for us. That interview is now online:

I had to squeeze in a bunch of things there at the end, and I hope I didn’t gloss over ideas too much. I said, for example, that nationalism is fine; but what I meant is that national pride is fine, and American citizens wanting our country to do what’s best — specifically, to explore space — is fine by me. I do think that a key step in that is getting people educated and excited about space travel.

Many, perhaps even most, people are interested in it, but in a vague, fuzzy way. Apollo galvanized that natural desire, but we don’t have an Apollo-scale program in the works right now (or do we…?). I’m attending several meetings in the next few weeks with space scientists, astronauts, and movers and shakers in both private and public space exploration, so I’ll be very curious to see what they think about this. I may have one or two things of my own to say to them as well.

[Updated to note: for some reason, every time I type Alyona’s name, I misspell it. There are a handful of typos like that I always seem to make, and someday psychologists will have a name for it. Perhaps Plait’s Phumble Phingers. Anyway, I apologize to Alyona and I’ll try harder to spellcheck next time!]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics, Space

Comments (31)

  1. SLC

    And once again, the blogs resident contrarian, namely me, weighs in with a paragraph from the latest Bob Park posting on What’s New. This is, of course, with all due respect to those in these parts who opine that Prof. Park doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

    Retirement of the aging Space Shuttle fleet last summer (WN 8 Jul 2011) grounded the 62 remaining NASA astronauts. Although the US is one of the 16 partner nations of the International Space Station, an American astronaut would need a ticket on a Russian Soyuz to get there. The Bush plan was Constellation, a new program to deliver astronauts and supplies not only to the ISS, but also to the Moon, to Mars and “other destinations beyond.” Constellation would have indulged all the space-colony fantasies at a cost that would retard genuine progress. Worse yet, astronauts romping around Mars would almost guarantee contamination of Mars with terrestrial bacteria, ending any hope of answering the profound scientific questions about the origin of life that draw us to Mars. In the end, common sense prevailed; Constellation was canceled.

  2. frankenstein monster

    Future in space ? Maybe. But surely not before this civilization blows itself up or suffocates in its own refuse and a new one picks up where we left off.

    It is true that a lot of people are kinda vaguely interested in space, but they are unwilling to act on that, and just a vague feeling of interest is not enough to get things done.
    But also, a lot of people are completely indifferent to it, and a surprisingly big group of people are actively opposed to it for various reasons.

    And the rest is just a small minority which are not capable to go against the apathetic or hostile majority.

  3. Boomer

    I’m curious, what was the mood like in 1975 after the final Apollo/Skylab mission? It was almost six years before the next American space mission with the first Space Shuttle flight. I think it’s analogous to the current situation as far as the time-frame goes. Is it because plans seem to change on every political whim now and we have no clear-cut plan for the future? Or was it the same in the late 70s? (I was only five then so a little young to have gauged the country’s mood!)

  4. Patrick

    Ugh, RT television. I lean way to the left, and still find their anti-American, pro-Kremlin lean to be sickening.

    I made the mistake of watching it for a bit the other week while in Berlin, and their bookend to commercial breaks was the reading of a US soldier’s suicide note. No context, just the letter over and over again, every commercial break.

  5. Craig

    Yep, RT…anti-American, pro-Kremlin and best of all, made in the USA!

  6. @frankenstein monster

    I, for one, am much more optimistic. The people in charge now are largely children of the cold-war era who, for many, science was demon that introduced the threat of nuclear destruction; they grew up in a culture where “nerd” and “geek” were derogatory terms.

    For the up and coming generations, science is something that bestows the gift of iPhones and video games. To be a nerd is a great deal more socially acceptable than it once was. Though perhaps not for a decade or two, I think that interest in manned space exploration is going to come roaring back.

  7. frankenstein monster

    @Daniel. I wish I could share your optimism, but self-professed ‘geeks’ are such a small minority that even if their ranks grew by an order of magnitude, they would be still all but insignificant. And the majority of today’s young people is no more friendly towards space exploration than the previous generation.

  8. Mike Saunders

    Russia Today? O_o

    The same website the reports on alien sightings maybe once a week?

  9. Mike Saunders

    I mean look at the other people that get interviewed by RT: A mother of an alien race who is also a creationist.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZfRQ0KZLa8

  10. MadScientist

    Nooooo … you forgot to mention the probe headed for Pluto!

  11. Wzrd1

    @SLC, the constellation wasn’t cancelled over fears of bacterial contamination by astronauts. That wasn’t even near being on the map.
    The constellation was cancelled because it was crazy over budget, didn’t even have a prototype and indeed, was pure vaporware and insanely behind schedule.

  12. Electro

    BA, I think everyone here appreciates the great work you do in making astronomy, critical thinking and science in general more accessible to us all….but…..Not all publicity is good publicity.
    I understand why you patronize C2C radio, but RT?
    I watch this on cable only to gain insight into how passive propaganda is spread on the other side of the US / Russia divide.
    It truly is, every bit as bad as Fox, maybe worse.

    Just to pick an example at random; Last spring they aired constant coverage of “NATO Colonialist aggression” over Libya. Not as opinion pieces, but as their lead story on a loop.

  13. I act like im listening to every word your saying but im focusing on how good looking you are!

  14. Grand Lunar

    I agree in that the word needs to get out what NASA’s future plans for HSF are.

    The mass media just doesn’t do such a good job at getting that word out, and because NASA is trying to figure out the details, it hasn’t been so good at that task either.
    Websites like NASASpaceflight (if there are any others like it) seems to do a good job on that, including putting out ideas that are being considered.

    Perhaps if such sources were more publicized, then the public would realize that the end of the shuttle era isn’t such a sad event. It’s just another sign of change, just as the end of Apollo was.

    Wasn’t until near the end that I noticed the placement of “Death from the Skies” on the shelf. Nice touch!

    And I think you look better with glasses.

  15. Messier Tidy Upper

    Slightly off-topic but thinking of interveiws regarding space travel check out this :

    http://news.ninemsn.com.au/national/8454539/buzz-aldrin-interview-full-transcript

    Buzz Aldrin interviewed online via nine MSN news site.

    I also saw him interviewed on a breakfast TV show (Sunrise?) this morning too.

  16. Nigel Depledge

    SLC quoting Bob Park (1) said:

    Retirement of the aging Space Shuttle fleet last summer (WN 8 Jul 2011) grounded the 62 remaining NASA astronauts.

    Aside from the fact that there’s nothing stopping them going to the ISS on a non-US vehicle.

    So that’s not exactly grounded, is it?

    Although the US is one of the 16 partner nations of the International Space Station, an American astronaut would need a ticket on a Russian Soyuz to get there.

    And this is noteworthy for what reason, exactly?

    Only a small handful of those 16 partner nations have human-rated space vehicles at their disposal at all, so all the other nations have always had to cadge a ride from some other nation’s space agency.

    Why is it suddenly a big deal?

    The Bush plan was Constellation,

    Constellation was not a plan. More of a kind of dream.

    a new program to deliver astronauts and supplies not only to the ISS, but also to the Moon, to Mars and “other destinations beyond.” Constellation would have indulged all the space-colony fantasies at a cost that would retard genuine progress.

    Given that Constellation never had a candle’s chance in hell of getting proper funding, money spent on it thus far was pretty much wasted.

    I notice that “genuine progress” is left undefined.

    Worse yet, astronauts romping around Mars would almost guarantee contamination of Mars with terrestrial bacteria, ending any hope of answering the profound scientific questions about the origin of life that draw us to Mars. In the end, common sense prevailed; Constellation was canceled.

    What?

    So, contaminating Mars with terrestrial bacteria is a reason not to send astronauts to Mars?

    Well, if that’s the biggest issue, we can rest easy. There are pretty much zero known terrestrial microbes that could survive more than a few hours on the surface of Mars in the daytime.

    Plus, we’ve almost certainly already contaminated Mars with terrestrial microbes – or, at least, the desiccated corpses of terrestrial microbes.

  17. Nigel Depledge

    Patrick (3) said:

    I lean way to the left, and still find their anti-American, pro-Kremlin lean to be sickening.

    What, so they must be some kind of anti-FoxNews, right?

    How can that be a bad thing? ;-)

  18. Peter Davey

    With regard to “Daniel’s” comment, “Nerd” and “Geek” are still derogatory terms. If you don’t believe me, you should watch a recent episode of “CSI”, with Ted Danson replacing Grissom.

    It was entitled “Geeks and Freaks”, and was largely set in a travelling show, which is where the term “Geek” came from, although we didn’t actually see one of them performing their traditional act, involving biting the heads from live chickens.

    The science fiction writer, the late Poul Anderson, once wrote that the true purpose of propaganda is not to convince everyone of the correctness of a particular policy, programme, etc, but to ensure that any discussion on the policy, programme, etc is conducted in terms favourable to the people using the propaganda.

    In this case, by using terms such as nerd and geek, you are handing the advantage to those who would argue that there is something odd, freakish, etc to those possessing high intelligence.

    In this case, one word is worth a thousand pictures – all of them unflattering.

  19. James Evans

    @Electro

    Rather than knock Phil for going on RT, I will instead give RT credit for inviting him on one of its shows. And should Fox pull its collective head out of its collective ass and do the same, I’ll give it credit as well.

    Even if you believe RT is the political anti-matter equivalent of Fox’s right-wing chaotic misinformation maelstrom, should a little, bright beacon of sanity and reason shine out amid either demented, raging tempest, can you honestly argue that such an admittedly all too infrequent happenstance is a BAD thing?

    Also, this is yet another example of Phil being a champ for making the actual science and its teaching/understanding more important than politics and pettiness.

    It’s gotta come down out of the Ivory Tower and break through the madness at some point.

  20. Electro

    Fair comment, James.

    It’s just frustrating that when some people see someone as credible as the BA on a network like that, they then assume the Witchdoctor Homeopath that follows him on, is just as qualified.

    And apart from RT’s more obvious anti-west, biased stories, they are truly insidious in how they worm their viewpoint into even the Headlines of the day.
    After 2 hours of watching RT, even Ted Nugent would hate Americans.

  21. James Evans

    Correction: Ted Nugent would hunt Americans.

  22. David

    First, her name is spelled “Alyona,” not Alonya.

    Second, every time I see her, I can’t help but think, “Holy Jesus is she hot.”

    Lastly, I disagree with allowing private for profit companies ANY foldhold on space. There is a great big planet to make money on… leave space alone. (Since when is Planet Earth not big enough for Republican money pigs?) Space should be like Antarctica, yes to science and no to rich, polluting, money grubbing, sexist Republican C.E.O.s messing the place up. Go somewhere else and make your money.

    In fact, living here in New Mexico, I want to see that Spaceport ripped out of the ground. How much tax money went into that thing, and only super-rich people will be able to use it? (Even Lance Bass couldn’t buy a way into space.) Which means the Spaceport is just a taxpayer funded gift to the rich 1%. No one else will be able to use it, even though everyone paid for it with tax money (and in a poor state, mind you). Poor black kids from the ghetto will never get a ride into space, now will they? Only rich people. But the rich don’t complain about the socialism that gets throw their way now do they?

    LEAVE SPACE ALONE! NO SPACE PROFITEERS. NO STAR WARS SPACE WEAPONS. NO TO USING SATELLITES TO SPY ON AMERICANS WITHOUT A WARRANT. PERIOD!

  23. David (22): thanks for noting the typo. I fixed it.

    However, I think your idea about the privatization of space is fairly naive, as well as simply wrong; I am not a Republican by any stretch of the imagination but I think it’s a good thing. I’ve written about it many times; search for “Space X” on the blog to see some of my posts.

  24. Electro

    @David (22)

    Read “A step farther out” by Niven and Pournelle.
    Specifically the essay titled “How to get into space and get rich doing it”.
    Somewhat dated, but germane.

    (and relax, just a little bit)

  25. Great article on the final flight of the Discovery linked to my name here.

    Ninety-year-old John Glenn, the first American to orbit the planet, spoke for many.
    “The unfortunate decision eight and a half years ago to terminate the shuttle program, in my opinion, prematurely grounded Discovery and delayed our research,” he observed crisply. … (snip) … President Barack Obama cancelled Constellation – the shuttle replacement program – in 2010, a decision astronaut legends Neil Armstrong and James Lovell called “devastating”.

    “For the United States, the leading space-faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low-Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature,” they warned in a letter.

    Maybe there will be a mission to an asteroid or Mars in the next 20 years or so, but NASA’s part in that is far from clear.

    One of my first memories from being a really little kid was watching the very first – aborted – launch attempt of the Space Shuttle Columbia back in 1981. I stayed up way past my bedtime awed by this then all-white, all-new, sleek reusuable spaceplane that like something out of an SF cartoon come to life.

    The Space Shuttles have flown so many times – 135 or so – since and all but two of those flights landed safe and sound.

    The Space Shuttles have delivered so much joy and science, provided such a lot of wonder and knowledge for us all. :-)

    I’ve seen or listened to many of those flights – at least parts of them like the launches. Sometimes on TV, sometimes on the internet, once whilst on an astronomy camp looking at the stars listening to the radio coverage as Andy Thomas, Adelaide’s own astronaut headed up to Mir for a stay. :-)

    Were the Space Shuttles perfect? ‘Course not.

    Were there problems and issues with them and maybe, could we, perhaps, just possibly, theoretically have flown some of the same stuff (if far, far fewer people) some other way?

    Sure – but, the thing is, we didn’t.

    The Space Shuttle carried the Hubble Sapce telescope to orbit and the astronauts who repaired it several times. They built the International Space Station. They sent Galileo to Jupiter, Magellan to Venus, Ulysses to the poles of our Sun and so much more.

    We ought to thank and appreciate the Space Shuttles for all that I’d say.

    Doing otherwise is, frankly, churlish, like being ungrateful for being given a hundred bucks and claiming you should have been given million instead. (Yes, “vince charles” I’m looking at you there! :-P )

    The Space Shuttles were one of the wonders of the modern world.

    They will be very sorely missed.

    It will be a very long time before we see their like again – if we ever do. :-(

  26. @16. Nigel Depledge :

    “Although the US is one of the 16 partner nations of the International Space Station, an American astronaut would need a ticket on a Russian Soyuz to get there.”
    And this is noteworthy for what reason, exactly?
    Only a small handful of those 16 partner nations have human-rated space vehicles at their disposal at all, so all the other nations have always had to cadge a ride from some other nation’s space agency.
    Why is it suddenly a big deal?

    Well maybe because of history and where the USA used to be relative to then USSR now Russia. Ever hear of the little thing called the Space Race? ;-)

    Who would’ve thought when Apollo 11 finally won the race tothe Moon -which incidentally was closer than many people realise – that forty years from then, the victorious Americans would need Russian help – capitalist Russia’s help – to reach an international Space Station?

    Who would’ve predicted in 1969 that the USA would make that One Giant Leap only to fall backwards and take no further bigger steps at all?

    That far from having the human Moon bases and first human Mars landings that (almost?) everyone expected to see by now the US of A wouldn’t even be able to get to Low Earth Orbit itself and wouldn’t have travelled any further since? :-(

    That’s clearly a lack of progress however you choose to define it.

    Constellation was not a plan. More of a kind of dream.

    More than just a dream. It had just started to fly, they’d built and successfully flown the first the first rocket in that program, a physical, tangible spacerocket that flew into orbit -click on my name here for video – just started to get off the drawing board and animation stage – when Obama killed it. :-(

    Given that Constellation never had a candle’s chance in hell of getting proper funding, money spent on it thus far was pretty much wasted.

    Why do you say it never had a chance of gettingproper funding? Because Obama was against it? Because it -like Apollo and Mercyuryand the HST had teething torubles and was criticised? Because it was Bush Jrs baby and Obama’s Democratic party was in power? It was funded enought to start flying. They should’ve kept it going.

    We’ll never know now where we’d be if Obama had been able to support Constellationand keep it going. Or what we’re missing out on as a result.

  27. Nigel Depledge

    MTU (25) said:

    The Space Shuttle carried the Hubble Sapce telescope to orbit and the astronauts who repaired it several times. They built the International Space Station. They sent Galileo to Jupiter, Magellan to Venus, Ulysses to the poles of our Sun and so much more.

    Most of these missions could have been launched on any rocket system.

    What if, for example, NASA had continued to develop the Saturn series of rockets instead of spending so much time on Shuttle?

    Was Shuttle used for those launches because it was the best vehicle available, or merely to justify its huge development cost? I certainly don’t know, but you seem to be not even aware of the question.

    We ought to thank and appreciate the Space Shuttles for all that I’d say.

    Did any of those missions need Shuttle, as opposed to any other vehicle?

    Doing otherwise is, frankly, churlish, like being ungrateful for being given a hundred bucks and claiming you should have been given million instead. (Yes, “vince charles” I’m looking at you there! )

    Not really. Feel free to call me a churl if you will, but Shuttle’s replacement should have been on the drawing board by 1987. Shuttle never fulfilled its immense promise.

    The Space Shuttles were one of the wonders of the modern world.

    Well, they were an engineering marvel, but they were also a symbol of the realpolitik of the 1980s. I don’t think I’d call them a wonder in the same way that, say, the Hoover Dam, the Thames Barrier, the Saturn V or the Sydney Opera House are engineering wonders.

    They will be very sorely missed.

    By some.

    It will be a very long time before we see their like again – if we ever do.

    I hope all our future rockets are significantly cleverer designs.

  28. Nigel Depledge

    MTU (26) said:

    Well maybe because of history and where the USA used to be relative to then USSR now Russia. Ever hear of the little thing called the Space Race?

    No. Do tell.

    Oh, wait.

    Of course I am aware of the space race. Do you seriously take me for an idiot?

    Who would’ve thought when Apollo 11 finally won the race tothe Moon -which incidentally was closer than many people realise – that forty years from then, the victorious Americans would need Russian help – capitalist Russia’s help – to reach an international Space Station?

    No-one, probably.

    Perhaps of more relevance:
    Who’d have thought, in July 1969, how few Americans would care about space exploration just one year later?

    NASA made a big deal about making access to space cheaper, and so the Shuttle programme was born. Perhaps what they should have done instead was point out what value the Amrerican public was getting from launches of their various single-use rockets.

    The 1960s and 1970s were the era of Mariner, Pioneer, Viking and Voyager (continuing into the 1980s, with Voyager 2 passing Neptune in about 1989 IIRC). For the most part, these were as successful as Apollo. But the unmanned probes had not been sold to the US public as a simple race to the flag, whereas this is exactly how the media (and NASA to some extent) had portrayed the Apollo programme. To a large extent, the US public lost interest in manned space exploration once the crew of Apollo 11 had landed and been suitably fêted.

    One of the big criticisms was that a Saturn V was a huge and expensive vehicle. Perhaps it was expensive in some terms, but maybe NASA should have pointed out that it wasn’t all that expensive, considering what it could do. Instead, NASA tried to make space access cheap.

    And they could have done so, had they not asked the USAF to share its data on high-altitude supersonic flight. From what I have read, USAF shared their data on the condition that Shuttle be large enough to take the satellites that the USAF specified. And thus Shuttle changed overnight from a sleek, lightweight vehicle into a truck. As such, it could never deliver its initial remit.

  29. Messier Tidy Upper

    @28. Nigel Depledge :

    Of course I am aware of the space race. Do you seriously take me for an idiot?

    No I don’t. We disagree on a few issues here (*cough, the definition of planet, cough*) but I do usually respect and enjoy your comments which are usually better and smarter than what you’ve said in #16.

    You seemed to forget all about the Space Race and its significance there wrongly saying “its no big deal” that NASA now has to rely on Russia to get its astronauts in orbit. That’s kind of a notable indication that we’ve gone backwards -along way backwards since then. Hence my reminder to you.

    Who’d have thought, in July 1969, how few Americans would care about space exploration just one year later?

    That certainly is a good question and a baffling situation. I don’t get how Americans can care so little and give up so much when they abandoned the idea of returning to the Moon and going further. I find that very sad and puzzling. I don’t expect everyone to share my own dreams and hopes and feelings on space exploration but for so many in the States to not seem to care at all after Apollo 11 .. yeah, I just don’t understand that. :-(

    .. maybe NASA should have pointed out that it wasn’t all that expensive, considering what it could do.

    Agreed 100%. Yes.

    Instead, NASA tried to make space access cheap.

    Which is a good and necessary goal – and they did manage to bring the price down a bit with the Space Shuttle relative to what it was. Adding so many more seats and the Shuttle’s cargo payload bay did give them some pretty impressive extra capabilitities.

  30. Messier Tidy Upper

    Continued :

    they could have done so, had they not asked the USAF to share its data on high-altitude supersonic flight. From what I have read, USAF shared their data on the condition that Shuttle be large enough to take the satellites that the USAF specified. And thus Shuttle changed overnight from a sleek, lightweight vehicle into a truck. As such, it could never deliver its initial remit.

    Yes. Okay.

    I’m not saying the Space Shuttle couldn’t have been better – that it couldn’t have been built differently and we’d have ended up with something even greater and more capable. However, I am saying let’s not overlook all the Space Shuttles still could do and did do and how very remarkably good they were even if they could have been better.

    What we got wasn’t perfect – but it was *good* all the same and better than any other human rated spacecraft except the Saturn V -Apollo systems.

    Let’s be happy about what we got with the Space Shuttles at least as well as miserable about what we didn’t get, ‘k?

    @27. Nigel Depledge :

    Shuttle’s replacement should have been on the drawing board by 1987. Shuttle never fulfilled its immense promise.

    I agree.

    I’d even say there were plans – not sure if by 1987 but some plans later on – for Shuttle replacements but they sadly never got off the drawing boards. That was the problem. NASA should have funded and insisted that a replacement for the Shuttles – an even better, even more capable spacecraft was built and flying before the Shuttles retired.

    Well, they [The Space Shuttles] were an engineering marvel, but they were also a symbol of the realpolitik of the 1980s. I don’t think I’d call them a wonder in the same way that, say, the Hoover Dam, the Thames Barrier, the Saturn V or the Sydney Opera House are engineering wonders.

    Well, I would and do call the Space Shuttles that. Guess its a subjective matter of opinion. (Shrug.)

    “They will be very sorely missed.” – MTU
    By some.

    I’m one of that ‘some” and I think as time goes by we’ll increasingly realise and appreciate too late what we’ve lost.

    I hope all our future rockets are significantly cleverer designs.

    Me too, Nigel Depledge, me too. I really hope so. I can’t wait to see them.

    But I’m not seeing anything like the Space Shuttles only better – or, ditto, like Apollo but better being built for a long time to come. Which really depresses me. :-(

  31. Matt B.

    @0, Phil: You should fix the spelling of “Alyona” in the tag too. And if that’s possible, you could probably add that tag to the post you made on Feb. 6th.

    I suspect this tendency to misspell is akin to “nucular”, which happens because of a predominance of words like “avuncular” and “molecular” over words like “nuclear”.

    It’s kind of a shame her name isn’t Alonya. She could use it in a slogan: If you’re the news, I’m all-on-ya.

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