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Why the moon? And why Mars?

By MICHAEL GRIFFIN
Published December 17, 2006


Not even four years have passed since the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated, throwing the safety practices and culture of the U.S. space program into question. Now NASA has embarked on what may be its most ambitious phase since the 1960s and 1970s Apollo moon missions.

As you read this, the shuttle Discovery is orbiting 220 miles above Earth and NASA is designing a spacecraft to take astronauts to the moon, and also to send them on a three-year mission to Mars.

Michael Griffin is a blunt-speaking 57-year-old rocket scientist with six advanced degrees who earns $165,200 per year as NASA administrator. He believes these missions are not only possible but essential. He discussed them in an interview this month with St. Petersburg Times reporter Curtis Krueger, starting with NASA's newly announced plans to build a base on the moon in about 2024.

MG: You mentioned a lunar base. What we're talking about there is a man-tended research station ... very much like what we see in Antarctica today. But what I'd say is hit the rewind button. ... Humans had been to Antarctica in 1912 ... And then nobody went again for 40 years. And when we went back it was with completely different technology and with research in mind and a long-term presence....

That's the kind of thing we're talking about on the moon. By the time we go back it will be 50 years since we've been and we'll be going back with different technology and in much greater force.

TIMES: When you were a teen, did you read science fiction about water on Mars and lunar colonies and things like that?

MG: Some. I was probably more into science fact ...

TIMES: Do you ever feel like the line is blurring? You're entering the realm of what used to be science fiction?

MG: Maybe a little bit. When Jules Verne wrote Around the World in 80 Days that was science fiction. And today you can take a flight around the world and be done with it in a couple days. The name for that is human progress.

TIMES: The findings on Mars (the recent discovery that water may currently exist on the red planet, sometimes washing down craters and forming gullies)... does that suggest a new mission for you all?

MG: No, not yet because returning to the moon and then going on to Mars is already part of our congressional direction. That is the strategic plan for NASA. It will take a while to recreate the capability that we had developed for the Apollo program and then let go of. For the next few years we're in the business of recreating that capability. And then we will of course extend it. And I expect to live long enough to see the first people set down on Mars.

TIMES: There's going to be a lot of options for this spacecraft and that mission. I'm wondering, is one of those options maybe we can't go to Mars? Maybe it's just going to prove too challenging?

MG: No I absolutely disagree with that. We know enough about how to get to Mars that we know that we can do it. It's a question of maybe a little bit more risk or a little bit less, it's a question of how much do you want to spend, how quickly do you want to do it. But we know how to get to Mars.

TIMES: You mean, with people?

MG: With people. We know how to do that. Not to say that there are not some unknowns, not to say that there aren't plenty of technical challenges, in fact we do it because it's challenging. But we know how to get to Mars.

TIMES: Should NASA send an unmanned rover mission into those craters where they saw those gullies?

MG: I'll give you an unqualified maybe. What we try to do is to let the scientists pick out the most scientifically promising targets. With photographic evidence of recent water on Mars, my guess would be the scientists will decide that's pretty important ...

TIMES: Are you convinced, by the way? Do you think there's water on Mars?

MG: I definitely do. I think there has been ample evidence for the presence of frozen water ice under the surface in many places on Mars and it would not be surprising at all if under particular geologic conditions sometimes it warms up and spurts out. And I think that's what they're seeing. That's entirely credible.

TIMES: You mentioned the congressionally approved plan, the vision for space exploration, laid out by the president.

MG: Laid out by the president, approved by the Congress, with a quite substantial majority I was pleased to see.

TIMES: Have you sensed any change in that support with the new Congress?

MG: Well not yet. I mean, they haven't even taken office. I would observe of course that we didn't get the ... very one-sided majority ... without plenty of Democrats pitching in. NASA has not historically been a partisan agency ...

TIMES: What do you think is the possibility that a future president will want to change course?

MG: I can't guess on that, I just really can't. I would hope that doesn't happen. But I think really the choices are pretty stark ...

Following the loss of Columbia, the (official investigating commission) pointed out rather starkly that the United States space program had to that point suffered from a lack of strategic goals and vision. And they did not mince words on that point. They pointed out that with the technology of our times, space flight is expensive, difficult and dangerous. And it's going to remain that way for a while ... they further pointed out that it was worth doing ...

And then they went on to say (that) if it's going to be done, that the goals ought to be worthy of the cost and the risk and the difficulty of the enterprise. That's rational. And then they added that a human space program, a human space program which dead-ends at the space station is not, does not qualify. That was a rather thoughtful piece in their report ...

So we need to go beyond the space station if we're going to do it at all. Now I personally do not envision any president or any Congress putting an end to the U.S. manned spaceflight program. I hope I do not live to see such a thing ...

The geometry of the solar system is laid out such that the next step beyond the space station is the moon and the one after that is Mars. So when I look at all that and mush it up together what I come out with is a future president or a future Congress may say go a little faster or go a little slower, but I don't see the rational grounds by which anyone is going to say pick another goal. See what I'm getting at? The only other alternative is stop it entirely ...

TIMES: If someone were to ask, why the risk, the expense, why is it worth it?

MG: ...Why do it? I think there are both concrete reasons and more spiritual, more ethereal reasons. ... (He discusses how the Romans rose to prominence by building roads and aqueducts, and how the British did the same by mastering the seas.)

In the 20th century ... I think a reading of history will say that it turns out that mastery of the aeronautical sciences was essential to be a superpower, to be what America became. And the United States first and best mastered the art of projecting power and influence and commerce through the air ...

In the 21st century and beyond it's going to be space. So the question for ourselves as a society is, do we, in the affairs of humans ... do we want to be leaders or do we want to be followers? The frontier will be in space and that's not our choice. That is where it will be ...

TIMES: You've visited the Chinese space program ... do you think this is the same sense of why they're pushing into space?

MG: I absolutely do. The Chinese have not missed the fact that when a nation becomes able to put its own people into space by and large we see that they do it ... It's a technologically challenging and immensely rewarding enterprise and the Chinese have not missed that.