News Clip: That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
Jordan: If you are younger than say 45 or so, you may have found yourself staring up at the moon over the past week and wondering if you will ever see a moment like that in your lifetime. A half century ago today as you have no doubt heard over and over again, the first humans to set foot on the moon returned safely to earth, and we went back a few times after that you might also have heard, even though nobody talks about those missions with the same reverence. Last time was in 1972 but since then the furthest actual human beings have been from our little blue rock, is out to the space station and back. Is that about to change?
News Clip: Legions of welders and metal workers, scientists and engineers stand ready to build a powerful new rocket and gleaming new spaceships and that goes with all of the other things that were building in our country. Amusk is one of the visionaries of private space expeditions, and while some see colonizing other planets as a pipe dream, the CEO has a very different outlook on why space exploration is so important.
Jordan: The anniversary of the moon landing has rekindled some of our collective wonder. But will that wonder translate into action? And if it does, what should that action be? What’s the goal? The moon? Mars? Beyond? What’s next, and why has it taken so long? I mean, I made the notes for this episode on a pocket computer, that absolutely dwarfs the power of the machines that took astronauts to the moon and back, so what should we be doing with that technology?
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings and this is The Big Story. Michael Wall is a senior writer at space.com, he is also the author of Out There A Scientific Guide to Alien Life, Antimatter and Human Space travel. Hi Michael.
Michael: Hi, how are you doing?
Jordan: I’m great, thank you and 50 years ago today, humanity returned safely from the moon. So 50 years later, is putting a human being on the moon still the most important achievement humanity has made in space? Because I’m trying to figure out why everybody was so crazy for moon content this week.
Michael: Yeah, I mean, it’s a tough question, and there are a lot of different ways that you can answer it, and there are a lot of different ways you can like try to say what’s important and um….. I mean, I think it probably is the most important achievement that we’ve done in space, and that’s primarily because you have to look at it through the Cold War context, in how this happened. This sort of moon rush was no lark, it was not just done to kind of flex muscles emptily and just be like this is a cool achievement and we’re going to kind of show off. It was done to kind of show technological superiority in the Cold War space race, and it was viewed as a really important kind of show of that strength, because we were worried about some of these unaligned nations that had just become independent after World War 2 and were looking to kind of hook up with, like, one of the two superpowers, you know, who should we be in line with? Where do we think; I mean who do we think is going to ultimately win the Cold War? And a lot of these countries were thinking, well, we’ll probably go with the nation that own science and technology because that’s where the future lies. So it was very important in that sense and that it did show, I mean, all of the world, basically, that the United States had the technological might and it may have helped sway like the ultimate outcome of the Cold War. So in terms of that aspect of it had really kind of geopolitical ramifications, and then there’s another aspect of it, too, in that it was just so inspiring for so many people around the world, and I mean you talk to a lot of space scientists today, and most of them say if they’re of a certain age obviously, they say they were inspired to go into this field in the first place because of Apollo, because they saw what they could do in this field, what it could lead to if they became like a scientist or an engineer in this field, they could do stuff like that, actually putting people on the surface of another world and that’s had incalculable benefits just in like, getting all of these smart people to go into science and technology. So from those two angles I would think ya, I mean, it probably is like the most important spaceflight achievement.
Jordan: It’s really interesting because when we think about it now, and I’m speaking for people on our team and reports I’ve seen in the media, we talk about it as an inspiring thing, uh, to the second point that you made. I don’t think that we think about space as a geopolitical achievement anymore.
Michael: Yeah it’s just it’s very different and, um, if you didn’t live through the Cold War space race, and I did not, I was not around back then during Apollo then you probably can’t really appreciate it. And we just don’t have the same sort of space race mad kind of rush to show strength that we did back then. I mean, there’s competition in space, there’s always gonna be competition in space and people throw around the term, that space race term pretty freely these days. Now, I mean, you hear rhetoric coming out of the White House about we’re in a new space race with China, and Russia gets mentioned there too. But it’s just not the same, what it really is is a competition between all these powerful nations trying to be the dominant space power because there comes a lot of military power with space supremacy, you know, I mean, like, the United States has kind of owned the sort of battlefields around the world for a long time, in large part because our spy satellites are so good and we have all this communication capability with these satellites. So it’s a really big deal, but yeah I mean we don’t mention it in the same geopolitical context anymore, because those conditions just aren’t around anymore. There’s no kind of all out, zero sum battle for global domination like there was during the Cold War between one superpower with one set of ideologies, and one economic system that’s pitted against like one other superpower that’s very different in both of those respects. So yeah, it’s just a very, very different environment.
Jordan: Has more peace on Earth actually been bad for our space exploration? I know that’s a simplistic way of putting it, but that’s kind of the picture I get.
Michael: Yeah it’s an interesting question. I would say no, because ultimately I mean, I think personally that I mean, it’s great, we were just talking about how inspiring like these Apollo landings were and how important they actually were. But if you look to sort of like the long term of space exploration and what we want to do in space, and all the things that we want to learn, I mean I don’t think that we want to be pushed by like, a kind of power struggle to accomplish those aims and there’s another thing too, it’s just I mean, human space flight is extremely expensive and if we’re going to do it, if we’re gonna put people in space, you know we should do it in a sustainable, long term way where we can like actually have a goal that builds on itself until we get somewhere like where we have, like, a lunar settlement or, um, a Mars settlement and that’s not what Apollo was about. It was about trying to win a race, trying to show show strength as we were talking about, but it was not geared toward helping humanity get off of Earth, and form a moon colony or something like that, which I mean human spaceflight that’s what we’re ultimately after. I mean, if you look in the very long term, what we really want to do is go to Mars and set up a Mars settlement to do lots of things there. First of all, you know, like make sure that we have some insurance in case something terrible happens to us here on earth, like an asteroid strike or if we destroy the planet as we are currently doing through climate change. But also to do things like actually look for signs of life on Mars. Mars was a very good place for life, a long time ago it had oceans, rivers, lakes, and it still has subsurface water and these briny aqua firs that are all over that the planet. And so if; There could have been life about three and a half billion years ago and there could still be life underground, it’s going to be hard to find, you might need to send people to find it if it’s still there. So that’s another reason why we want to kind of set up a crew, like a research outpost on the Red Planet and have it be sustainable and have us be able to do things. And, yeah, I just don’t know that a mad Russian space stick to try to compete with another country is the right way to accomplish those goals. So, yeah, I mean, it’s certainly produced something like very dramatic during the Cold War with the Apollo landings but, I mean, as we could talk about you know we haven’t been back to the moon since 1972, so it didn’t really lead to us jumping out and going to Mars and doing great things in space.
Jordan: Well, that was gonna be ,y next question is we haven’t actually put people back on the moon since 1972, we haven’t put them anywhere further than that, either. What do we need to actually start inspiring us to build towards a lunar colony or a Mars colony, and take that next step that people will remember 50 years from now as the most inspiring thing we’ve done out there?
Michael: Yeah, that’s tough because that’s a question we haven’t been able to answer since the end of the Apollo days, and what’s really hard is that these big really expensive space projects that are publicly funded, they need long term support. I mean, obviously, if a new president comes in with different priorities or like, a new Congress comes in with different priorities, and often they do because nowadays, especially, both parties are becoming more and more different, and they just will see each other’s policies as something to immediately just, I mean, not fund or, like, not support out of principle it’s become so partisan. But it’s really easy for NASA’s goals and targets to get shifted around, and we have seen that in the last few decades. As NASA gets set one push, go to the moon and then you get a new president coming in to say no, actually, we’re going to do that, we’re gonna go to a near earth asteroid and another president comes in and says, no, actually, we’re gonna go back to the moon. So that’s what’s been happening and that’s sort of what’s responsible for this dearth of big human spaceflight achievements. Although we are, I mean, we do have the international space station which some people would cite as a huge achievement and it certainly is an engineering marvel. Um, but yeah, there’s just; It’s hard to maintain that support for something so expensive that requires so much long term commitment, and I mean, how do we get to that commitment? Well we saw during the Cold War that it took like a national security emergency, as it was viewed at the time, to maintain that in over a decade or more and I don’t know what it will take in these days if we’re not gonna have that environment around us anymore. I don’t know. Maybe we need somebody like Elon Musk to just say…. I’m going to go to Mars and I’m gonna use my own money, and it doesn’t; I mean I don’t need public support, I don’t need congressional; Any kind of funding from Congress I’m just gonna do it. Maybe we need people like that to just do it, and that’s actually happening here right now. Elon Musk is trying to go to Mars, and we will, like, see how that goes.
Jordan: So America’s current plan is now to head back to the moon under Donald Trump, right?
Jordan: Why do we want to do that? What is up there for us now?
Michael: There are a couple of reasons. Um, first of all… we do want to go to Mars, that’s the ultimate goal, and there’s one train of thought that says we’re not ready to do that yet. It’s too far away, it’s too dangerous, it takes too long to get there so it would be irresponsible to send astronauts there without, like, training better to kind of learn how to live and work off planet for somewhere closer. So in that sense, like we’re going back to the moon using as like a stepping stone, as like a training ground. So we go up to the moon which we can get to in a spaceship in only three days or so and we learn how to build a colony there, you know, using local materials, we learn how to mine water ice, which there’s plenty of at the Lunar South pole and we can use that for life support for astronauts, we can turn it into rocket fuel. So that’s the plan, is to do that, go to the Lunar South Pole by 2024, put people down, and then kind of build up long term presence there, and build up a research outpost and just learn how to do all this stuff that we’re gonna need on Mars, and then when we feel comfortable and we think we know how to do this stuff, then make that big jump to Mars sometime in like the 2030’s, that’s NASA’s plan, they want to do it before the 2030’s are done. That’s not like a universally agreed upon path though, there are a lot of people who think that the moon is a bit of a detour and that we should take the Apollo mindset and just say, ok, this is risky, but we’re gonna do it anyway, and because these potential rewards are so great, you know, going to Mars, looking for signs of life, just doing a big, grand, amazing thing like it would be to have astronauts walking around on Mars would just be amazing, and that we should just do it and we should accept risk, and if something happens, then it was worth it in the long run because this is something worth doing. So that’s something; I mean, there are people within NASA, and there are a lot of other people in the space flight community who think that we should just go straight to Mars and not take this kind of detour to the moon.
Jordan: Yeah, and I mean, when we talked around our office about whether or not the moon 50 years ago was still the most impressive achievement we’ve made in space, a lot of things came up that we’ve done with probes, and we’ve done with Rovers that have brought back you know, this incredible wealth of information, these amazing pictures, you know, signs of life to your point, but why doesn’t it feel like that counts as much as putting boots on the ground?
Michael: Yeah, I mean, it’s probably just because we identify more with things that involve us, and…. like you know, it’s just more; it packs more of an emotional punch when you look on TV and you see people hopping around on the moon than when you see pictures from Mars of a rover rolling around, it’s just there’s not as big of an emotional connection there, it’s just, it’s ingrained in us I would think that we care more about exploration that involves us and involves people because we can put ourselves in their shoes. It’s just a stronger connection in our; I mean, I personally think that as we were talking earlier, you know human space flight is so expensive and for all of the crude space flight missions, you know, to the international space station, to the moon we could do so many robotic missions with that money, and we could have probes all over the solar system, and we could have life hunting missions on Mars, and in some of the moons of the outer solar system that have oceans meet their icy shells. My own personal opinion, not that it counts for all that much in the great scheme of things, but I would rather we do just a bunch of robotic probe missions to go hunt for life all over the solar system with that money, like as opposed to spending so much on human spaceflight, and that’s a debate that is also going on, there are a lot of people who feel that same way. It’s like I mean, bang for the buck, like you go with robotic probes, you know you can launch; NASA is gonna launch a life hunting rover to Mars next summer, and you can do that for a couple billion dollars. There’s still a lot of money, but putting people on Mars is gonna cost like, I don’t know, hundreds of billions of dollars probably. Yeah, so I mean, I would agree with people who say, you know, bang for buck, we should just do probes everywhere, but yeah, I mean, it’s tricky because if we just do probes everywhere, how much taxpayer support would NASA get if people don’t see astronauts beaming home videos from the space station, and they don’t; There’s just not that connection there, maybe they aren’t going to support all that much funding for the space program anymore, it’s just really hard.
Jordan: And I mean, that’s the philosophical question that we’ve kind of been wondering about for the last few days, is how much of putting boots on the moon, and boots on Mars and everywhere else is simply PR, is simply things we need to do to burnish the image of space exploration at a time when technology has advanced so far that maybe we should just forget about that until we’ve got, you know, a whole city built by robots up there waiting for us. That’s an exaggeration but you know what I mean?
Michael: Yea, and that’s a viable question, that’s a good question to ask and to think about because if we’re going to commit on hundreds of billions of dollars to a manned Mars exploration, Crude Mars exploration, yeah, like you better have thought that out pretty well and said, is this the best way to spend limited money that our space program is receiving? And, yeah, there’s politics involved in all of this obviously, you know, this, I mean we’re gonna put people on the moon by 2024. You know, I don’t think that the Trump administration just picked that date out of a hat, you know, I’m pretty sure Donald Trump wants that to happen during his administration if he gets reelected. So all this stuff since it’s publicly funded, since you have to get get money from Congress, you have to have like the White House’s, the kind of sign off on these big budgets and these big goals. Yeah, there’s a lot of politics involved.
Jordan: So let me ask you, um and I mean, Lord knows neither of us are crazy expert scientists, but in your opinion if we were really serious about exploring the galaxy, and not, you know, making an inspirational memory or, you know, completing something in a timeline for a presidential term, what would NASA be doing?
Michael: Well, I think and yeah, this is a question, like you would get different answers I mean, from various different people, you know, there are some people who think that the most interesting thing in all of cosmology, all of astronomy, is trying to figure out what happened just before and right out the Big Bang. So how is the universe created? Are there multiple universes? Are there parallel universes? So they would say we should spend all of our money to keep building these bigger and bigger space telescopes more and more capable ground based telescopes, but then, like you ask other people who think the most important thing we need to find out is are we alone in the universe here on Earth? And so we should be spending all of our money to do astrobiology, launching a bunch of sort of life hunting probes to various places in the solar system and, like developing technology to go interstellar and try to check out some of these I mean relatively near biased planets that are in other solar systems but not too far away from us, things that we could conceivably reach with a technological jump or two in propulsion technology. And so we should be funding that more, you know, how do we get little probes, little life hunting probes to other solar systems that are close by? So it’s just really hard, you know, there are so many, there are different priorities. Me personally, I would go with the life hunting route just because I think that’s the thing that is the most interesting to me, and I also think based on what we’ve learned in the last 10 or 15 years about how many habitable planets are out there, there are a bunch of different habitable worlds in our own solar system. I think we’re…. It’s almost certainly that we’re not alone in the universe and so I think if we pour a lot of money into looking for life in a bunch of different places, I mean, I think we’ll probably find it somewhere, so I would be biased toward that goal is just sending, like a bunch of life hunting probes out into our own solar system and trying to develop technology to send small life hunting probes to sort of nearby solar systems.
Jordan: We mentioned the power of seeing humans up there doing things in space. Would finding signs of life out there do the same thing in terms of big picture inspirational wonder that we just talked about?
Michael: Yeah that’s a really good question. I think it depends, like if we send a rover to Mars, say this like 2020 rover NASA launching next summer, say it does find signs of fossilized microbes in like a Mars sedimentary rock or something, I think that would be huge news for a couple days, and it would be huge news for space nerds and people who care about science for a long time. But I don’t know if that would move the sort of needle in the public’s eye, just because we have so many distractions and it’s a dead microbe and who cares all that much, it doesn’t matter in the great scheme of things, and people have so many other things to pay attention to and so many things vying for attention. I think if we find currently living life like, say, we send like a probe to one of those outer solar system moons, and we find swimming microbes in the oceans on Jupiter’s moon Europa, for example, that would be a bigger deal because then we could study that theoretically, if we could bring it back to Earth, we could study it and try to figure out what these things are if they’re related to us, if we’re all part of the same family tree, or if it’s a second Genesis and that would be more interesting and that would be more newsworthy, and then if you get like, intelligent life, if you get a sign of intelligent life, you know, say like the study search gets a ping from some distant star or another galaxy that would be huge because then we know we’re not the only intelligent life in the universe, and that would force a real reckoning about our place in the universe and what it means to be human and….. yes, so I mean, it’s probably a different answer for the type of life we end up finding. Like what kind of stir it’s gonna make, and yeah it’s probably all over the map.
Jordan: Some of those things sound like science fiction, which I guess is what putting a man on the moon must have sounded like 50 plus years ago. So my final question is you said you weren’t alive for the moon landing, I wasn’t either, I’m in my mid thirties now, so if I’m lucky I got 50 years left. What are the chances I see something like that on my TV screen in my lifetime?
Michael: I think they’re pretty good, like, I think that Mars, I mean, I think people are going to be walking on Mars in in our lifetimes, in the lifetimes of people who are like middle aged now, I don’t know, forties, fifties, just because you have, I mean, you’ve just got all this private sector money, you’ve got billionaires who are serious about this stuff. We talked about Elon Musk but there’s also blue origin, which is run by the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos and he wants to do something similar to Space X. He said all along, Bezos has said that he wants to help get millions of people living and working in space, and so these people have very deep pockets, and they’re very serious about this. And I mean, Elon Musk wants to launch people to Mars within the next decade or so and I mean, I don’t know if he’ll hit that timeline, it’s pretty optimistic, but he’s gonna, like, keep trying to do it, and I think he eventually probably will, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Jeff Bezos does as well. So I mean, these things are hard and they take longer than people think they’re gonna take. I mean, obviously, or else we would be there are already. People were talking about a Mars mission, I mean once we did Apollo, you know, it was like, well, we made it to the moon Mars is obviously next, we’ll probably be there within a generation, and that didn’t happen. But back in those days it was just government stuff, you know, I mean, and if NASA couldn’t get the White House on board, and Congress on board with the Mars mission then it was gonna happen, but now you don’t need governments to do everything, you’ve got private money and they’re not sort of ensnared by the same bureaucratic red tape, they don’t have to wait around for things to get better, yhey could just go and so I think that we’re going to see some of that. I don’t know if it’s gonna be 10 years, but I think in the next I don’t know 20-30 years I think we’re going to see people walking on Mars.
Jordan: So I will get a moon landing in my lifetime, it’ll just be brought to me by Amazon Prime.
Michael: That’s very possible.
Jordan: Thanks, Michael.
Michael: Thank you.
Jordan: Michael Wall, senior writer for space.com and the author of Out There. That was the Big Story. If you want more we’ve even done a couple of space episodes, if you’re a geek you can find him at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can also talk to us on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn, and of course we are wherever you get podcasts on Apple, on Google, on Stitcher, or on Spotify. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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