When one measures the return on investment for NASA's budget in terms of the fires it lights in the minds of those who go on to create tech companies that not only earn billions, but make life better, the decision to fund the space program is easy.
Regardless of one's views on space exploration, it's hard to make an argument against figuring out how to protect our cities and potentially our whole world from a devastating large asteroid impact. Whitesides outlined this and two other generation-inspiring goals for NASA after the space shuttle era when I spoke with him recently.
What's the next exciting goal - a mission to Mars?
Well, in my opinion, and if you talk to three different space people and each one of them will give you, as I'm sure you know, their own personal vision. But in my opinion, there are three major, really exciting things that NASA can tackle in the near term. I'm looking past the near term policy stuff, so looking out 5 to 10 years.
One is looking for life on Mars, whether past or extant, eventually with people, but I think we'll have the increasing growth in capabilities as we shift from completely robotic exploration to a mixture of robotic-human exploration. Eventually, where humans may be based on Phobos or Diemos operating robots on the surface and, then, eventually making it down to the surface to conduct research. That's number one.
Number two, I think researching and essentially practicing how we would avoid or deflect an asteroid heading for Earth is another really exciting and important endeavor for NASA. No one else is going to be able to do that. They might do it as a partnership with the U.S. DOD, but really I think it's NASA's mission. What's more exciting than saving the Earth, saving the planet, saving a city from an asteroid impact which is going to happen someday? It's just a question of when.
I think the third major exciting area for NASA is human-enabled, but maybe not human-present. That is the search for life around other stars on exo-planets. We're going to do that via astronomy, not via people there any time soon. What we'll need is a new, even more capable telescope in space in order to do that research, where we actually focus in an image on a planet that's orbiting another star. Then we use spectroscopy of that atmosphere to see whether there are biological signatures, you know oxygen, methane, other things. I think that of those three, that could really be the most exciting of all.
Those three things, all three of which are enabled by humans, because you know, it may be that with that big space telescope, in five or 10 years, we'll need humans to help build that, sort of like the space station. It may need to be that big. All three of those will shift humanity's relationship with the universe, and, I think, are capable of exciting the public and American students just as much as the Apollo program did.
What first inspired your interest in space exploration?
For me, it was a childhood love of space. I was one of those kids who was inspired by space. I grew up drawing pictures of the Saturn V. I was born in the early '70s, so right after the Apollo program ended, but while things were still flying -- Skylab and things like that. And so for me, it was just a very early love and one of those things where you just know you have to be involved in space. That was what it was for me.
At a time when the U.S. budget seems to be in a crisis, is the space program still a good investment in your opinion?
Absolutely. I think the space program has proven that it has both technological and educational benefits. And, I think, what is quite clear is that the Apollo Program did, in fact, inspire a generation of American students to pursue careers in science and technology. Why was that? That was because we were using science and technology to do things that were incredibly exciting, not just to students, but to the society as a whole. I think the key to making the next phase of NASA as successful as possible and as useful as possible for the nation is to engage in missions that are as exciting as Apollo, and that energize students as much as Apollo did.
The International Space Station (ISS) is an example of a joint effort between nations, although some countries took on more of the burden than others. Do you think that kind of a common effort should be applied to all space travel, development of launch vehicles, or is there value in having different countries develop their own systems independently such that we have redundancy as now have between Soyuz, the space shuttles, and all the rocket-based heavy-lift systems around the world?
That's a good question. I think what's clear is that all missions, all big space missions going forward, certainly the three missions that I identified just now, will have to be international. I mean these missions are so expensive that one nation, even the United States, finds it challenging to pay for it by itself. So that much is clear. However, your question is very perceptive, and I actually do think it is positive to have multiple launch vehicle systems and vehicles. Partly for redundancy, as you say, and partly because it's realistic. I don't think that we're going to see some sort of world launcher any time soon, but we may see international combinations. But I think that countries will decide for their interests that it makes sense to have their own vehicles, whether it's a national launcher or whether it's, as the United States is heading towards, maybe a mixture of private launchers and a national launcher, which is sort of where we're heading now.
Brad Sylvester writes about the space program for the Yahoo! Contributor Network. Watching the Apollo missions through the static on a small black and white television sparked a lifelong interest in the space sciences for him. Since then, he has spent 40 years watching improvements in the technologies of space travel and our understanding of the universe.