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Interviews: Ask Former Director of JPL Edward Stone About Space Exploration

samzenpus posted about 9 months ago | from the go-ahead-and-ask dept.


Edward Stone is a professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology who has served as project scientist for the Voyager program from 1972 to the present. Since the launch of the two Voyager spacecraft in 1977, Stone has coordinated the efforts of 11 teams of scientists in their investigations of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. He served as director of Jet Propulsion Laboratory from 1991 to 2001. Highlights of his career include: Galileo's five-year orbital mission to Jupiter, the launch of Cassini to Saturn, the launch of Mars Global Surveyor and a new generation of Earth science satellites such as TOPEX/Poseidon and SeaWinds, and the successful Mars Pathfinder landing in 1997. Dr. Stone has agreed to sit down with us and answer any questions you may have about his time at JPL and space exploration. As usual, ask as many as you'd like, but please, one question per post.

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Light reading (4, Interesting)

brokenin2 (103006) | about 9 months ago | (#46999879)

Do you read XKCD, and if so, what do you think about the accuracy Randall Munroe's typical analysis?

interstellar exploration (1)

bigpat (158134) | about 9 months ago | (#47000011)

How would you structure the space program now to support the long term goal of sending probes to other solar systems that are anywhere from 5 to 25 light years away?

Re:interstellar exploration (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#47000031)

How would you structure a life extension program so you're around when we get the results?

Re:interstellar exploration (1)

Sarten-X (1102295) | about 9 months ago | (#47000643)

Related: Would you structure the space program now to eventually support an interstellar program?

Re:interstellar exploration (1)

bigpat (158134) | about 9 months ago | (#47000829)

The guideline was to only ask one question, but the point would be to look forward to the goal of interstellar exploration and envision the types of building block programs that could be started now that could lay the groundwork towards interstellar exploration by robotic probes.

Uranus/Neptune orbiter (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#47000019)

Hi, I'm 25 years old. Are there any possibility for an Uranus/Neptune orbiter in my lifetime?

Re: Uranus/Neptune orbiter (1)

bzipitidoo (647217) | about 9 months ago | (#47000493)

This is what I'd like to see next, an orbiter for each planet. Perhaps orbiters for planets that have not yet had one should be the top space exploration priority. And, launch one for Neptune first because that's the longer trip. After our own solar system is thoroughly explored, what's next? Giant telescope arrays orbiting the sun as far out or further than the gas giants? An interstellar probe? A close look at Proxima and Alpha Centauri would be fantastic, but getting a working probe there is beyond our current technology. We can't accelerate a probe to 1% of light speed and make it last the approximate 700 years needed for that trip, or any other combination of time and speed. Or, colonize Mars? That one is appealing, but I think too hard for now. Just getting a man to Mars is I think further away than most people realize. Months in space, have to handle radiation, lots of supplies or get better at recycling, and for what? Nothing that a robot can't do for far less risk and money.

Europa shenanigans (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#47000091)

What do you think about the events surrounding the possible Europa mission?

Re:Europa shenanigans (1)

Squidlips (1206004) | about 9 months ago | (#47000693)

By "shenanigans" I think the poster wants to get you take on the endless delays and defunding of this mission by NASA HQ in Houston so the that money could be used for manned mission pork projects like the Rocket to Nowhere (SLS).

ceres (1)

symbolset (646467) | about 9 months ago | (#47000107)

If Dawn finds Ceres as water rich as we expect, do you think that will kick off an asteroid mining gold rush?

Interstellar exploration (1)

jorge_salazar (3562633) | about 9 months ago | (#47000115)

In 2016 the Voyager could become the first interstellar spacecraft. What does this mean to you, and are you hopeful that humans will see for themselves what's out there beyond our solar system space bubble?

We come in peace (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#47000145)

Does it bother you that, in order to be funded, the US space exploration programs (like similar programs worldwide) depend on their dual use potential for military applications?

Role of human spaceflight (1)

thor4217 (1834296) | about 9 months ago | (#47000181)

As a national leader in robotic exploration of the solar system, what do you think is the role of human spaceflight in the future? Should NASA be developing a human mission to the Moon, Mars, Europa, and beyond? How should the NASA balance the needs of good science and cost/safety issues versus the romance of human exploration?

Can you explain the JPL/NASA/CalTech relationship? (4, Interesting)

oneiros27 (46144) | about 9 months ago | (#47000187)

You often see JPL listed as being a 'NASA Center', but if you look at the JPL website [nasa.gov] , it says 'Jet Propulsion Laboratory' followed by 'California Instutite of Technology' (but next to the NASA meatball logo, and in the nasa.gov domain).

I've heard some people joke that if an orbital insertion is successful, then it's "CalTech's JPL" and when something goes wrong, it's "NASA's JPL". Can you explain exactly what the relationship is between the three entities?

Re: Can you explain the JPL/NASA/CalTech relations (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#47005249)

JPL is managed by Caltech for NASA. The contract is renewed every five years, I believe.

Next mission? (5, Interesting)

thor4217 (1834296) | about 9 months ago | (#47000207)

If you could choose one robotic exploration mission that is not currently in the works, what would it be and why?

Mars (1)

icer1024 (175958) | about 9 months ago | (#47000267)

During each era of space exploration, going back to the mid-1970's, a manned mission to Mars has been "just 20 years away". At many points over the past 40 years, a variety of factors have converged ensure that a manned Mars mission remained just over the horizon. Even this past month, in NASA Chief Bolden's recent statements, Mars continues to be "just 20 years away", citing a need to stop at an Asteroid on the path to Mars", and budget constraints as reasons that a manned Mars mission remains an unrealized dream. Given Dr. Robert Zubrin's Mars Direct reference mission, and his more recent "transorbital railroad" concept combined with private industry, a manned Mars mission appears to be technically & economically viable - at least more so than at any point in the past 40 years. What's your assessment of Dr. Zubrin's Mars "ecosystem", as it pertains to a manned Mars mission during this 20-year time horizon?

Re:Mars (1)

NotDrWho (3543773) | about 9 months ago | (#47001177)

Yeah, but with any luck, we're just 20 years away from finally being just "Nineteen years away from putting a man on Mars."

Radiation Shielding (1)

sycodon (149926) | about 9 months ago | (#47000387)

Many groups are talking about manned trip to Mars. Once obstacle is exposure to radiation of all types outside earth's magnetic field.

Setting aside the political/activists issues, how practical would it be to put a reactor on a ship that could generate a magnetic field strong enough to protect the occupants from the forms of radiation expected to be encountered?

If that reactor could be placed on the surface of Mars, would it then be able to offer the same protection to the habitats?

water is a decent shield (1)

peter303 (12292) | about 9 months ago | (#47000853)

You'd store the ships water in a clyndrical wall whihc would become the "safe room" during a storm.

Oblig.. (3, Funny)

Capt James McCarthy (860294) | about 9 months ago | (#47000473)

Did you ever wonder why scientists are always so fascinated with Uranus?

Re:Oblig.. (1)

qwijibo (101731) | about 9 months ago | (#47002687)

If that's what aliens came light years to probe, there's gotta be something if immense scientific interest there.

hardest problem in interplanetary exploration (3, Funny)

bigSpark (3494117) | about 9 months ago | (#47000513)

thank you for your time, What in your view is the hardest problem in interplanetary exploration and what does JPL do to solve it.

First man on Mars (1)

AmiMoJo (196126) | about 9 months ago | (#47000543)

What nationality will the first man on Mars be? Should the US try to be first?

Re:First man on Mars (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#47004861)

What nationality will the first Chinese man on Mars be?

There, corrected for you

Question for Dr. Stone (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#47000551)

Were you close to Carl Sagan, and if so, what was the best part of knowing him?

I question you committment to Satanism (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#47001079)

Given the tradition of the founding of JPL, I'm disappointed that you haven't blown yourself up in your garage. Are you sure you're a real Satanist?

What is the most promising technology? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#47000569)

What is the most promising technology for lowering the cost / increasing the capabilities of spaceflight?

Elon Musk's reusable rockets? Escape Dynamics' ground-based microwave beam system? The Skylon "single stage to orbit"? The "fusion driven rocket" from NASA/University of Washington? The Alcubierre/"warp" drive concept? Something not listed here?

Cooperating with the Chinese (1)

AmiMoJo (196126) | about 9 months ago | (#47000615)

Did you ever want to cooperate more with the Chinese, and if so what stopped you? It's well known that the US blocked Chinese involvement with the ISS, but were there other areas you could have worked with them on?

No more flagship missions? (1)

Squidlips (1206004) | about 9 months ago | (#47000661)

So what do you think about the announcement from the Bolden that there will be no more Flagship Missions from JPL? Why is NASA HQ always trying to poach funds from Planetary Science?

Space Toilet more important than Europa? (2)

Squidlips (1206004) | about 9 months ago | (#47000751)

Why is it that $17 million was spent on a space toilet for the ISS while a Europa mission only gets $15 million (in 2015 and less before that)? Seems to me that NASA's priorities are badly skewed toward manned missions, eh?

Re:Space Toilet more important than Europa? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#47000915)

The $15 million was for a feasability study to cover their asses when they say there's no way they can pull off a $2.5 billion mission for less than half that.

Re:Space Toilet more important than Europa? (1)

Squidlips (1206004) | about 9 months ago | (#47001045)

Sort of. It was a token amount to try to keep the critics in Congress happy while they keep the gravy train going for the SLS and Orion and ISS and other manned pork. It was like, "See we are actually serious about Planetary Science, we just funded a Europa mission." Of course, they are not serious. Unfortunately there are two version of NASA. The real science in the Science Directorate (i.e. JPL) and the manned pork. NASA should be split or management should be shook up so that there is equal representation from JPL; right now it is all ex-astronauts and pilots.

one example of each good/bad (1)

turkeydance (1266624) | about 9 months ago | (#47000759)

what project in which you were involved: 1. was not completed, but should have. 2. was completed, but should'nt have.

Three-body chaotic gravity assist (2)

Katatsumuri (1137173) | about 9 months ago | (#47000767)

Do you think NASA could consider/design a Voyager-like mission with a much higher speed, using three-body chaotic gravity assist method, like this article (pdf) [prescientmodels.com] suggests?

Basically, it involves capturing an asteroid in a mutual rotation with the probe, then entering solar gravity assist trajectory with this binary object, then making small adjustments at the right times, so that the probe gets an even bigger kinetic energy boost at the cost of the asteroid losing its energy and falling into the Sun. Maybe there are asteroids or comets with close-to-required orbit where we could take a ride.

To a layman like me, this, while hard, sounds like the most realistic method for reaching speeds relevant for interstellar travel with our current technology. Rosetta spacecraft did perform a successful rendezvous with a comet recently, which looks like a solid stepping stone for a mission like this.

Early Education (1)

jmichaelg (148257) | about 9 months ago | (#47000913)

In the early days of the space and aerospace programs it seems a lot of team leaders were engineers who had no college or stopped at a bachelors. Kelly Johnson at the Skunk Works is an example of the later.

When you started out, did you work for any men who didn't have a lot of formal education but were very competent?

Man on Mars (2)

NotDrWho (3543773) | about 9 months ago | (#47001149)

We've been thirty years away from putting a man on Mars now for the last forty years. Do you think that by 2035, we'll have finally moved to being just 30 years away from finally putting a man on Mars?

Re:Man on Mars (1)

Katatsumuri (1137173) | about 9 months ago | (#47006925)

I think your sarcasm is not entirely fair. Several governments and private companies now estimate this at 15-20 years away. It is still not tomorrow, but it is less than 30 years. For instance, SpaceX work on reusable rockets, powered landing and Mars Colonial Transporter looks promising.

Habits and Professionalism (4, Interesting)

Etherwalk (681268) | about 9 months ago | (#47001245)

What professional habits did you develop that helped you be successful enough to hold a high position in one of the world's important scientific institutions?

Viability of a Moonbase? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#47001543)

I know you're probably not an anime fan, but there's a rather popular show called "Space Brothers' (Uchu Kyoudai), about two brothers that go from boring civilian jobs to being astronauts. In the show, which takes place in 2026, NASA and several other space agencies have built a base on the moon that uses regolith as a protective coating, with oxygen provided by simple robotic vehicles that comb the surface gathering ice from the regolith to convert to oxygen.

My question is this: How viable would a moon base be for NASA (with or without cooperation from JAXA, the Russians, etc)? Is the vision Space Brothers has of a moonbase realistic?

Engineering (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#47001815)

How has the engineering of large, complex systems evolved, particularly at JPL, since your first experiences there? Has the management of engineering changed the practice much, or is it the advancements in technology that have changed it (or perhaps both)?

gravity simulation question (1)

Victor Tramp (5336) | about 9 months ago | (#47002425)

If gravity is such a necessary force on our physiology, why haven't we (or maybe, what's the problem with the feasability of) simulated it with centrifugal force? You know, like having structures rotating at a sufficient velocity in space to test out if the illusion of the gravity is sufficient?

Since generating artificial gravity is science fiction, simulated gravity with centrifugal force seems testable. Wouldn't knowing this help solve a big part of the problem with long-term space habitation and construction?


Re:gravity simulation question (1)

david_thornley (598059) | about 9 months ago | (#47003885)

Because centrifugal force isn't trivial. You need a big radius to revolve in to avoid tide-like problems, it's stress on components, and it can be hard to observe things from a rotating platform. There may be other problems, but these are the ones that come to mind.

How does it feel (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#47002529)

Keeping a Nazi organization propped up for so many years and having the public completely clueless about the real secret space program?

Manned Trip to Mars (3, Interesting)

painandgreed (692585) | about 9 months ago | (#47002745)

Every time I hear about people wanting to have a manned trip to Mars, I have to roll my eyes. It seems that we are just nowhere near what is needed to actually perform one, namely a long term space habitat probably needing spin gravity, minimal leakage, and propulsion, especially assuming that such things would need to be tested and the actual Mars shot would be far down the mission scale (comparable how Apollo 11 was the one that made it to the surface of the moon). Talk of a one way trip sound even sillier to me as I figure once we have the ability to actually confidently get to Mars, getting back would be fairly trivial. My question is that if we, the USA or the world, how far do you think we are away from being able to send a manned mission to Mars in terms of time, money, and technology? Second, would that manned mission be cheaper than doing the same work with robotic missions?

Edit: Manned Trip to Mars (1)

painandgreed (692585) | about 9 months ago | (#47002789)

My question is that if we, the USA or the world, had the political will to do so, how far do you think we are away from being able to send a manned mission to Mars in terms of time, money, and technology? Second, would that manned mission be cheaper than doing the same work with robotic missions?

Re:Manned Trip to Mars (1)

painandgreed (692585) | about 8 months ago | (#47011307)

To expand on this for general conversation. Looking at orbital physics, it seems that a Mars mission will take about two years. 7-9 months to get to Mars, a stay of several months then another 7-9 months back at the optimal times in the Earth-Mars orbits. Leaving at other times or attempting quicker transit speeds greatly increases the distances or fuel needed as to be prohibitive. Therefore, we'll need a long term space habitat for the astronauts. How many we'll need is a questions but I would guess that three might not have all the needed skills for such a long mission. Adding more will increase the weight needed in terms of space ship, food, fuel, atmosphere, water, etc.

So, we'll need a long term space habitat for a questionable number of people. It will need to be shielded from cosmic rays and other radiation. It will be able to maintain an atmosphere for the astronauts for the entire time. As I've been told by many naval friends, all ships leak. Space ships are no different and there are loses of gas to space. The ISS has to be sent shipments of atmosphere regularly like food from what I've read. health concerns as well as other reasons, it'll probably need spin gravity. Those other reasons might include the need for things like a machine shop so they can fix anything that breaks or goes wrong. It's either that or learn how to make zero G machining equipment. They'll probably already need to know how to weld in zero G, some of which has been learned on the ISS and previous missions, but I be there is still more to learn to improve the equipment and techniques. Solar power better be able to power the mission at Mars because I doubt we have enough plutonium for such a large mission for the usual nuclear power plant, and probably not the tested tech for another type using uranium.

Anyway, once we know what tech we need, it will need to be developed and tested. I could see several tests that would take a long time. First, more testing at the ISS or other space stations to develop the needed tech to build a prototype of a long term space habitiat. Then building such a space habitat in orbit around earth farther out with people living there for long periods to see how it works and to test the tech. Another version for movement that could be tested by revisiting the moon on a long trip around it with landing mission. Studying the moon for months. Finally, something going to Mars which would be resupply mission, equipment, emergency return plans, ect. to test actually getting to Mars and the conditions there. Followed by the actual mission to Mars with a crew. Failure to learn all we think we need to learn could result in even more missions and testing.

Re: Manned Trip to Mars (1)

icer1024 (175958) | about 8 months ago | (#47014215)

Check out Dr. Robert Zubrin's Mars Direct reference mission for a low cost, sustainable manned Mars program that doesn't require any technological breakthroughs.

Warp/Supraluminal starship detection (1)

alnlobo (820301) | about 9 months ago | (#47002811)

Considering the possible existence of other civilizations, could we equip our interstellar starship with "radar" able to track objects wrapping spacextime or generating supraluminal signatures, as a source of intelligent life out there?!?!? was not found on this server.

Public interest in Manned Spaceflight (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#47002949)

Do you think that public interest in manned spaceflight is higher or lower than it was when you started working on the Voyager mission?

Programming languages (1)

toxygen01 (901511) | about 9 months ago | (#47005577)

As a member of management you must have come across many programming languages used in different missions. Which language was the most easily maneagable within larger groups of programmers?

One more Voyager experiment... (2)

toxygen01 (901511) | about 9 months ago | (#47005631)

If you could add one more scientific experiment hardware to Voyager, in retrospective, what would it be?

The most stressful experience (1)

toxygen01 (901511) | about 9 months ago | (#47005639)

What was the most nerve-wrecking experience during your whole career at NASA?

New generation (1)

toxygen01 (901511) | about 9 months ago | (#47005661)

In few words, could you sum up what is the biggest difference between space engineering in 1970s and now?

the dearest (1)

toxygen01 (901511) | about 9 months ago | (#47005677)

From all the hardware that was sent to space, on which you participated, which one is personally the most valuable to you?

success factors (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 months ago | (#47006829)

Over the past 40 years, which factor (personal, educational, organizational,...) was most influential in the success of JPL's programs and what factors do you think this will be in the next 40 years?

Next Planetary Grand Tour, a visionary perspective (1)

advid.net (595837) | about 9 months ago | (#47007191)

The Planetary Grand Tour [wikipedia.org] was reduced from 4 to 2 probes but those Voyagers are great space exploration success.

Such planetary configuration will occur again in quite a long time, about 130 years, however we must be able by then to launch a new set of probes to take advantage of the gravitational slingshots [wikipedia.org] . I'm afraid humanity might not be able to achieve this in case of new economic crisis at that time or because of some world conflicts, society collapse, whatever may distract us (or impede us) from working on the challenge.

How do you feel about this next window?
Shall we start to think about it and show to short-sighted politicians that great scientific challenges are at stake?

At least there's a chance that this event would be considered indisputable by everybody, unlike some other scientific phenomenons which will have great (negative) impact on us.

What was you biggest game-changer moment? (1)

uslurper (459546) | about 9 months ago | (#47009815)

Being involved in these amazing projects must have provided many moments of exitement when discoveries are made.

What was your biggest "this changes everything" moment and how did it make you feel?

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