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Interview: Edward Stone Talks About JPL and Space Exploration

samzenpus posted about 4 months ago | from the listen-up dept.

NASA 57

samzenpus writes We recently had a chance to sit down with Edward Stone, Former Director of JPL, and ask him about his time as a project scientist for the Voyager program and the future of space exploration. In addition to our questions, we asked him a number of yours. Read below to see what professor Stone had to say.Samzenpus: I'm sure you had great hopes for Voyager but did you or others working on the program dream that it would be so successful or travel so far?

Stone: Well, Voyager One is in interstellar space today. The date that we're using as the time when it left the solar bubble was August 25, 2012. Voyager 2 is coming along behind; and we don't know exactly when [it will enter interstellar space] because it's going through a somewhat different location from what Voyager 1 did. So it may be several more years, it really could be sooner, or it could be later. We had hopes, of course that we would reach interstellar space, but none of us knew how big the bubble is or was and none of us knew that the spacecraft could survive for so many decades that it took to get there. But we had hoped and we had planned for this day.



Samzenpus: How would you structure the space program now to support long-term goals of interstellar flights like this? Do you think this is as important as studying things closer to home?

Stone: Well, I think there are clearly a number of important frontiers still to be explored in the solar system. The ones, which are easiest to talk about, are those which involve liquid water because here on Earth wherever there is liquid water, there is microbial life. We know that there's liquid water underneath the icy crust of Europa. We know there is liquid water under the icy crust of Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. We know that the atmosphere of Titan doesn't have liquid water but it has a chemical constituency similar to what was here on Earth before life evolved. So there are really key places in the solar system. Mars, we know, had water at one time. The only question is there still water somewhere on the planet or how deep is it? And is there any evidence of past life? if we could find the liquid water then we would want to know is there any evidence of extant life.



Samzenpus: Speaking of Europa, there's been all sorts of numbers thrown about with the proposed Europa mission. Do you think that mission will actually happen in my lifetime?

Stone: I certainly hope that there will be another mission to Europa which can fly by perhaps a number of times rather than going into orbit, which is flying by and then zipping out to get out of the radiation environment and then dive back in so that one can look at Europa. As you know, the Hubble space telescope has shown evidence that there are actually plumes in the South Polar Region of Europa, which is not really a surprise. It's just that they had never been seen before.



Ceres
by symbolset

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

Stone: Yeah, I don't know that, but I think the mining aspects are probably longer off. What I think it will do is further increase interest and understanding of these bodies, which are out there. And obviously, in the long run, protecting the Earth from them. So I think that there is still a lot that still can be done about asteroids. We're just beginning to explore them.




Samzenpus: Do you think we'll see a Uranus or Neptune orbiter?

Stone: Well, I hope so, but that's certainly not in the next couple of decades because we know there's Mars and then there's Europa. Titan is a very, as I say, a very important opportunity, and Enceladus is something people are talking about. I think they will tend to take priority if one can develop a mission that looks feasible.



Mars
by icer1024

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?

Stone: Well, Mars, I think, is actually is being explored. It's a whole planet. You know, there's as much solid surface area on Mars as there is on Earth. And you can't imagine landing one place on the Earth and claiming to understand Earth as a planet. Once you leave Earth's orbit, it's whole different engineering problem and life is a different problem [out there] than it is in Earth orbit. The moon is in Earth orbit. When you're in Earth orbit, you can get help and you can get home. When you're in the solar orbit, you can't get any help and you can't get home. So, it's a much more challenging activity. And that's the reason it's going to take some time before that's realized. But it's taking the steps to learn how to do it that is important.



Role of human spaceflight
by thor4217

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?

Stone: Well, I think the two programs really drive themselves and of course, they drive each other. I think the robotic program clearly has momentum and partly, that's because in the case of Mars, it's there as a precursor to future human space flight. But, it's obviously not an immediate issue. Human space flight is still some decades off before there is a Mars mission. And exactly what the nature of leaving Earth orbit is, is something which will evolve as we learn more about the challenges of building systems to operate for long durations in space and support life, and also the effects of space on humans. I mean, there are really five frontiers of space. There is the physical frontier that's going somewhere, sending something somewhere where nothing has been before. There's the knowledge frontier that's understanding what's out there. There is the technology frontier that is developing the systems you need to do things in space. There's the applications frontier that is using space to better life here on Earth. And then there's the human frontier, which is effective and efficient functioning of humans in the space environment. And that's another huge frontier, which we are just really still beginning to explore. I think there is more we need to learn. We are learning things and there is more that we need to learn in terms of the engineering aspects, that is the technology frontier. It's challenging to leave Earth orbit.



Samzenpus: In your time at JPL, what would you say was the program you're most proud of?

Stone: I think the thing during the 90's was launching Cassini, another large flagship mission, which is doing a great job of exploring Saturn, Saturn's rings, and Titan. But at the same time, we developed the program, which allowed us to get back to Mars every two years rather than every 20 years. And that really has opened up not only Mars, but it's opened up asteroid missions and other missions, which can be done on a smaller scale and done more often.



Samzenpus: What project turned out to be the most difficult for you?

Stone: From a project point of view?

Samzenpus: Yeah.

Stone: Well, it's clear that Voyager has been the most important project and also in many ways, the most challenging because it was the first automated spacecraft that could fly itself and integrate the whole set of instruments we had. It was a challenge to do that in five years. Fortunately, I was just part of a big team that did it and we've been lucky to have both spacecrafts still operational almost 37 years since launch now.



Samzenpus: What do you see as the most promising tech on the horizon and how do you prioritize which breakthroughs are the most promising?

Stone: These frontiers I mentioned are immense. There's not just one thing in each of those frontiers. There are many things. The challenge we have is deciding which ones to do because we can't do everything. We can't even do a little bit of everything. We can just do some things. And the challenge is designing a set of things to do, which step by step we learn how we expand those frontiers and we learn how to do things in space. There are decadal surveys done by the scientific community, which are informed by the state of technology development or the possibility of technology development. They develop a set of recommendations for what to do in planetary science, what to do in astronomy, what to do in Earth sciences, and what to do in heliospheric sciences. Those are four decadal surveys that the community does every 10 years to try to update for the new technology, update for the new knowledge and lay out a plan for the coming decade. And that's the way it's done in the science area.



Next mission?
by thor4217

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

Stone: Well, there are many missions, which NASA's trying to do but in the Planetary program, I think the next major mission will be a rover on Mars which will start caching, that is collecting samples and securing them for eventual return. Because ultimately, one does want to return samples from Mars to be able to apply the full technology of Earth-based laboratories to analyzing them.



Samzenpus: Lastly, there's been a lot of political issues with the international space station recently. Do you think we should plan to have our own space station eventually or do you think the politics will work themselves out?

Stone: Well, I'm not really that close to it, but I think we already have a space station; it's a major investment that the world has made. The human frontier really is an important frontier as I have mentioned, and the space station can do a lot with helping understand the effects of space on the human system, if there are any sorts of protocols, which can compensate or counteract those effects. Obviously, there are certain fundamental physics things that can be done in space that you can't easily do when you're on the surface of the Earth. There may well be some observations, which can benefit from being on the station having to do with Astronomy for instance, or high-energy particles.

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My question was not answered (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47400251)

I wanted to know why we're wasting money on this type of thing now, when we should be investing in FTL research. Once we perfect that, it will make any money we've spent exploring in the conventional way wasted money. We would be able to go out and retrieve the Voyager probes and bring them back into a museum and say 'job well done, boys, but we don't need you anymore.' Ultimately all these conventional missions will turn out to be a waste of resources, pushing back the time until we can get the FTL drive operational.

Re:My question was not answered (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47400269)

Indians are just a wonderful race of people, aren't they?

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/new... [dailymail.co.uk]

Re:My question was not answered (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47400383)

LOL are you for real? FTL? We don't even have faster than SOUND passenger air travel anymore and you want to "invest" into something physically impossible?

You're insane, and you've let your space fantasies get the better of your common sense.

There is nothing to "research" except maybe more sci-fi stories about impossible materials and fantasy energy sources. Oh, and lots of CGI and artist's impressions.

Re:My question was not answered (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47400397)

If it helps, just think of it as hedging our bets.

If we went all-in with FTL research, like you propose, we could end up looking back and thinking we "wasted" X decades on FTL with nothing to show for it (other than maybe showing that FTL isn't feasible).

It could very well be that we're bound to non-FTL space travel for a long time (or even forever); so halting all progress in that regard would be rather irresponsible.

Re:My question was not answered (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47400441)

Pretty sure you need some other kind of propulsion along with the warp drive on your completely hypothetical ship.

There are a number of actual technologies coming soon that will reduce $/kg. You should be thankful that Harold White is getting a little funding to work on a POTENTIAL Alcubierre drive. Seeing as there is no guarantee FTL will ever be invented.

Re:My question was not answered (2)

Shadowmist (57488) | about 4 months ago | (#47400667)

I wanted to know why we're wasting money on this type of thing now, when we should be investing in FTL research. Once we perfect that, it will make any money we've spent exploring in the conventional way wasted money. We would be able to go out and retrieve the Voyager probes and bring them back into a museum and say 'job well done, boys, but we don't need you anymore.' Ultimately all these conventional missions will turn out to be a waste of resources, pushing back the time until we can get the FTL drive operational.

Because when it comes to FTL, there is no practical science to throw money at. (quantum models which require the bulk of the universes matter converted to energy to test are a bit far from "practical engineering".) And what good is FTL drive when you still need large rockets to get off of 1G gravity wells? Which you'd realize if your scientific knowledge extended something beyond LeVar Burton would be reading off a Star Trek shooting script. We are still in the evolving stage of enabling humans to live in space for long durations without making cripples or cancer patients out of them. We still have a large solar system to explore that we've only started scratching the surface of. Let's not jump the gun of our expectations.

Re:My question was not answered (1)

geekoid (135745) | about 4 months ago | (#47401465)

"And what good is FTL drive when you still need large rockets to get off of 1G gravity wells?"
because once we get into orbit we can go to the stars?
Seriously, that was a stupid question.

No, there are no practical models at this time for 'FTL'(I include warp like techs in that), but do you seriously think that if we did manage it, we wouldn't go to other planets of star becasue we need to lift it into orbit first?

Re:My question was not answered (1)

50000BTU_barbecue (588132) | about 4 months ago | (#47401701)

"posts" would be plural.

Re:My question was not answered (1)

Shadowmist (57488) | about 4 months ago | (#47418313)

"And what good is FTL drive when you still need large rockets to get off of 1G gravity wells?" because once we get into orbit we can go to the stars? Seriously, that was a stupid question.

No, there are no practical models at this time for 'FTL'(I include warp like techs in that), but do you seriously think that if we did manage it, we wouldn't go to other planets of star becasue we need to lift it into orbit first?

So you don't see a problem with the fact that we still need the equivalent of a Saturn 1B rocket to get people off the ground? What good is a starship when you can't land and off the planets you discover?

Re:My question was not answered (1)

jythie (914043) | about 4 months ago | (#47400965)

Ahm, currently there are no good candidates for such research. There would be no where for the 'investment' to go and I suspect if someone did come up with something that had even a good possibly of demonstrating FTL in a lab it would get a great deal of attention and resources.

My question was not answered (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47401875)

I'd imagine the reason is similar to the reason we're still doing R&D on all sorts of mundane energy sources (fusion, fission, wind, solar, etc) instead of throwing everything into perpetual motion. Or why we don't just research time travel so that we can go off to the future and bring back all the other technologies. That kind of stuff (FTL, perpetual motion, time travel) requires fundamental breakthroughs (which may not exist!) in our understanding of physics. We know we don't have an entirely complete picture of physics, but we don't know exactly what part is wrong and what fixing it would make possible. Right now it appears to be impossible, and there are no feasible ideas for research projects. Basic science research is the closest thing, and we're doing that with for example the LHC, LIGO, etc.

It's a giant assumption to suppose that some unknown breakthrough in our understanding of physics will make FTL feasible. Although we know our understanding is incomplete, everything we observe leads us to believe FTL is impossible, and it's entirely likely that any money we spend on it will be wasted (not that we shouldn't do a little gambling with our science funding, just in case). Even assuming that we are eventually able to achieve FTL travel, wouldn't discontinuing funding for conventional travel at this point be akin to discontinuing development of ships in the 1400's in anticipation of the invention of the airplane? Would you call boats a waste of resources even with the hindsight that airplanes are possible?

To go even further, it may be that without a continued investment in boating, we would have advanced more slowly and even today still not have airplanes. The first propellers were used in boats, after all, and it may be that we'd still be frustrated by how hard it is to get airplane wings to flap fast enough. Likewise, making space more accessible through a continued investment in conventional spaceflight may open the way to energy production and manufacturing advances required for FTL.

Re:My question was not answered (1)

khallow (566160) | about 4 months ago | (#47402457)

Because it's not NASA's job to develop a drive for which there is no supporting evidence that it can work. Even if such a propulsion system is possible, you still need to be able to get into space to use it. And you need to know stuff like what NASA actually does in order to do anything useful in space.

At this time, it is more properly CERN's task to invest in FTL research and they're doing an admirable job of it.

Headline: (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47400263)

Edward Stone Leaks NASA data!

Re:Headline: (1)

jones_supa (887896) | about 4 months ago | (#47400643)

C'mon mods, that what pretty good one.

Re:Headline: (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47401839)

I misread the headline at first myself and came to the same conclusion.

Re:Headline: (1)

IwantToKeepAnon (411424) | about 4 months ago | (#47407357)

Wow, tough room. :/ Where's /.'s sense of humor?

Arithmetic: How Badly You Have Been Screwed (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47400465)

All this whining.... from people who should know better

Arithmetic: How Badly You Have Been Screwed
(Borrowed from Market-Ticker.org to make a point on -- News For Nerds | Arithmetic)
You should have 170% of the standard of living you obtained in 1980 from one hour of labor.

Let me ask: Do you?

If you did, what would you be complaining about? The average middle-class person that could afford a house in 1980 could afford a house 70% better (not more expensive, better -- larger, with more appliances, that uses less energy, etc.) You could buy 70% more food with an hour of labor today than you could in 1980.

source: http://market-ticker.org/akcs-www?post=229165
source: http://www.bls.gov/data/#productivity

So now you know what's wrong with the space program.... Banksters and corruption

Re:Arithmetic: How Badly You Have Been Screwed (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47400499)

You forgot to mention the HOSTS file. Better luck next time!

What future? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47400503)

What future in space flight? NASA's discretionary budget is being mostly directed towards that pork plus project known as SLS and unfortunately it will probably continue to be so for at least the next two decades. All to launch maybe one craft with four to six a year at $2-5 Billion a pop.

Mars Direct - Unanswered? (2)

icer1024 (175958) | about 4 months ago | (#47400543)

While I appreciate Slashdot selecting my question (below), as well as Dr. Stone taking the time to respond, I'm disappointed that he ignored the entire Mars Direct (Dr. Zubrin) component of my question, and instead only responded peripherally to the core component of the question. Put different, I asked... "Why is a manned mission to Mars always 20 years away, and why is Mars Direct not ever discussed?". To which he basically said... "Manned Mars missions are too hard."... "You've played KSP... you know how far Mars is away... there's no hope for rescue. It's not like this is still the age of discovery... we're too risk averse to do anything like Christopher Columbus/etc. did.". In fairness, the second part of that is my take on his response. But in all seriousness, he's basically saying it's too hard, and too far away. At the same time, he's choosing to ignore the entire body of work that Dr. Zubrin (and now, Elon Musk is contributing to) which demonstrates that it is not too hard, nor too far away. Dr. Stone also neglected to mention that the Mars Direct mission approach has a built-in free return trajectory should something go wrong. Meaning, they'll get back to Earth if something goes wrong and they can't MOI.

I think Dr. Stone's Mars response is a great example of everything that's wrong with NASA. There's no leadership at NASA, and NASA is adrift (in the same manner Dr. Stone is afraid a manned mission to Mars would become adrift), and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

---
Original question/answer
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?

Stone: Well, Mars, I think, is actually is being explored. It's a whole planet. You know, there's as much solid surface area on Mars as there is on Earth. And you can't imagine landing one place on the Earth and claiming to understand Earth as a planet. Once you leave Earth's orbit, it's whole different engineering problem and life is a different problem [out there] than it is in Earth orbit. The moon is in Earth orbit. When you're in Earth orbit, you can get help and you can get home. When you're in the solar orbit, you can't get any help and you can't get home. So, it's a much more challenging activity. And that's the reason it's going to take some time before that's realized. But it's taking the steps to learn how to do it that is important.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (1)

k6mfw (1182893) | about 4 months ago | (#47400609)

At the same time, he's choosing to ignore the entire body of work that Dr. Zubrin (and now, Elon Musk is contributing to) which demonstrates that it is not too hard, nor too far away.

Yes and no. In meantime while "Space advocates have been divided into warring camps, each fighting for their version of a 1 legged stool." http://hopsblog-hop.blogspot.c... [blogspot.com]

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (1)

icer1024 (175958) | about 4 months ago | (#47402643)

Did you hit submit to early? Interesting link. Lack of content in the post.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (1)

k6mfw (1182893) | about 4 months ago | (#47408067)

I probably could have added more content but re-writing much of its talking points? It also has a lot more material than just different space advocates arguing among themselves. Getting back to Mars Direct, a manned mission to Mars has always been 20 years away and been presented like this for past 50 years (like fusion energy power plants are 10 years away which been presented like this for past 60 years). After a half century, maybe a different approach? Sorry I don't see how Orion or Musk's Dragon can reach Mars (supplies, food, machine shops to repair when things break down, radiation, microgravity, etc.)

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (1)

icer1024 (175958) | about 4 months ago | (#47410171)

Yeah, after 50 years maybe a different approach is needed.

I don't how Orion and Dragon in their current designs would do it, but with multiple launches of Falcon Heavy-sized vehicles following either the Mars Direct, or Mars Semi-Direct mission profiles would establish the ecosystem.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47400827)

Whatever happened to manned exploration of Venus? In the 1950s it was supposed to be this lush tropical paradise!

Oh wait, we "explored" Venus just fine from right here and that delusion died. Why won't the Mars delusion die too?

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47402513)

Because we could actually go there and survive? Any attempt to "land" on Venus would almost certainly end in death. We haven't even been able to land an unmanned probe there for very long without it being crushed, melted, eaten away by acid or otherwise obliterated. Mars on the other hand is slightly more pleasant than the Moon, some atmosphere, some temperature retention and perhaps some interesting things (water, current/former life, etc). We could in theory live on Mars with only a few simple things (ice mining/purification equipment, pressure vessel, liquid nitrogen, atmospheric pumps, some seeds & a few compounds from Earth). The same cannot be said for most planets in the solar system save our own.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (2)

jythie (914043) | about 4 months ago | (#47401017)

"adrift" is not actually a bad thing in this case. NASA was originally hyper-focused on a coherent goal and while that was ok for a while it ends up putting ALL the focus on a single expensive project that serves mostly a status symbol or propaganda/marketing tool. A Mars mission has a lot of marquee value, it is a romantic project, but for the price a lot of real science off in many directions can be done.

NASA's lack of focus is a good thing since it is in all those little projects that we actually learn things.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (1)

icer1024 (175958) | about 4 months ago | (#47402731)

On the contrary, a lack of focus is precisely the problem.

Hyper-focus got us to a real destination. The Moon. Successfully. Repeatedly.

And then we promptly abandoned the Saturn V ecosystem to craft an entirely new Space Transport System that featured an expensive space plane that looked cool, couldn't go anywhere expect LEO. So we built a space station to give it a destination. Yeah... finally, somewhere for STS to go. To the tune of $150 billion. Now we're abandoning the shuttle. Why? To produce the Space Launch System, which looks remarkably similar to the Saturn V, and like the Saturn V can go to destinations that we don't have to build - Mars, Moon, etc.

So after a 30-year deviation, we're going to maybe sometime soon have the launch capability that we had in the early 1970s. How is that progress? Looks more like a waste of 30 years of taxpayer dollars. How much more science could have been accomplished without the Shuttle and ISS?

NASA has great minds, and terrible leadership... two facts that have been true since Apollo ended.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47404261)

The Moon is not a real destination. It's a real symbol. There's nothing to do there, and it would take massive resources to get a few people to basically do some space camping for a few weeks. So what?

It's a dead rock. Let go of the delusions of the past.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (1)

Hollister David (3737171) | about 4 months ago | (#47405019)

The Permanently Shadowed Regions (PSRs) of the the moon's polar craters are colder than Pluto. We have some of the strangest real estate in the solar system right in our own back yard. The PSRs might contain massive volatile deposits [nasa.gov] . If so they could be a source of propellent, radiation shielding as well as life support consumables. There are those who confidently assert we know everything there is to known about the moon. They demonstrate their ignorance.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47405323)

So send more automated cameras on wheels. You demonstrate your ignorance by invoking nonsense like "propellent" [sic], and thinking there's anything we could do about it.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (1)

Hollister David (3737171) | about 4 months ago | (#47407327)

I agree with your first sentence, sending prospecting rovers is a good idea. Actually propellent [thefreedictionary.com] is an acceptable word. Your silly attempt at a gotcha typo flame just blew up in your face. There's plenty we could do with the lunar volatiles. Our ability to do work in remote places is increasing. ROVs, drones, telerobots are growing less expensive and more able. See Who needs humans? [blogspot.com] .

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (2)

WrongMonkey (1027334) | about 4 months ago | (#47401375)

A manned mission to Mars is simply too ambitious for our level of technology. Almost all of the proposed plans, whether a round trip or permanent colonization, require in situ resource utilization, which has never been done in space before. The Mars Direct plan requires a chemical factory to operated autonomously for 10 months without error. There's no precedent for that. Technology development needs to be incremental. We need some missions that extract resources from near-earth asteroids and work out the bugs before putting lives at stake. I think that NASA's proposed asteroid capture missions are a step in the right direction.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (1)

icer1024 (175958) | about 4 months ago | (#47402935)

The Mars Direct plan features in-situ resource development. Right, finally... and thankfully, we don't need to haul everything from the surface of Earth! That "chemical factory" features a simple chemical process that we know works. That's been proven to work on Earth. And was outlined for application to Mars exploration 18 years ago in "The Case for Mars", by Dr. Zubrin. So saying there's no precedent for it, is a bit misleading. And if there's been zero funding set aside to study it yet... why not? Further... if that "chemical factory" doesn't work autonomously for 10-months, which there's no reason to expect it to fail - then we don't send people to Mars until it works. So, we'll know well in advance of sending a human crew if we're going to have propellant to return. But yeah, we should try it out on Mars. And time and time again, that mission model has been nixed from robotic missions. Case in point... we're doing Curiosity 2.0 now, featuring another MSL built from spare parts, and a few extra science packages. Where's the sample return mission? Or failing that, were's the proof of concept for that chemical factory? Nowhere.

All that having been said - what the heck are we doing mining an asteroid? How is that on the path-to-Mars? The short answer? It's not. I makes almost no sense. And the scientific community doesn't see much value.

But I do agree with one thing you said, taken out of context such as it is. A Mars mission is simply too ambitious for a risk averse political organization that has zero leadership. The technology isn't the problem - all of the pieces are there. There's less of a technological leap to get to Mars today, than there was the Moon 40 years ago. It's a rudderless NASA and a failure of leadership that's the problem.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (1)

WrongMonkey (1027334) | about 4 months ago | (#47403655)

How many chemical factories have been launched 230 million km away, landed on another planet and operated autonomously without error for 10 months? That's what I mean by "without precedent". Just because something is easy to do in a terrestrial lab doesn't mean you're ready to do the same task in a completely alien environment. No Mars mission has been without component failure and about 2/3rds have failed completely. That's not the kind of track record that a sane person bets their life on. And the chemical plant is just one of untested components. Rotating spacecraft for artificial gravity: looks good on paper, never been actually done. Landing a 9T payload on Mars

All that having been said - what the heck are we doing mining an asteroid? How is that on the path-to-Mars?

Mining asteroids would develop engineering experience in extracting resources in space, which is one of the components needed for a Mars mission. But not everything is about Mars. Science fiction has created a cultural obsession with Mars, but its not the only thing worth studying in space.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (1)

icer1024 (175958) | about 4 months ago | (#47404619)

Right, and 18 years since The Case for Mars was published, the chemical factory has yet to fly and it's still without precedent. It's without precedent because there's a lack of vision at NASA. But since propellant production is step 1, of a 2-flight mission profile - you could do a dry run of Mars Direct, or NASA's Mars semi-direct with zero human risk. Whatever happened to the sample return mission that was supposed to test in-situ resource development? Still on the shelf. Thank goodness we're doing Curiosity 2.0, right?

Mining asteroids is a skill that at some point, we may need. At the current rate of development though, it's hundreds of years away. Mars can be done with today's technology. And while it may not be the only destination worth studying in space, it's certainly the closest and most achievable without massive technology improvements.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (2)

Katatsumuri (1137173) | about 4 months ago | (#47401661)

Maybe next time Slashdot can invite Elon Musk to elaborate on his Mars colonization program, including in-situ resource utilization and other popular objections.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (2)

WrongMonkey (1027334) | about 4 months ago | (#47401915)

I suspect the Elon Musk's Mars colonization program is mostly PR. SpaceX is a contractor, just like Boeing or Lockheed-Martin. Those other contractors used to publicize big plans, too. I still have some LIFE OF MARS IN THE YEAR 2000 posters that Thiokol printed out. Elon Musk might have supplied seed funding from his own pocket, but Space X operations depends on money from NASA (or other paying customers) to actually do anything. A "cheap" Mars Direct plan is estimated to cost $400-500B. Even Elon Musk can't a cut a check that size himself.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (1)

jythie (914043) | about 4 months ago | (#47401975)

Yeah, but a good number of people have this idea that if the private sector gets involved (as if it somehow has not been involved all these years already) the cost will magically come down to something plucky captains of industry can afford with private funds. Thus they assume that huge price tag is a NASA problem as opposed to rooted in actual expenses.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (1)

Katatsumuri (1137173) | about 4 months ago | (#47402065)

Well, that $500B estimation came from NASA in the 80's, and Musk is working hard to push it down. As far as I understand, he plans to fund it partially from other launches to bootstrap, partially from an IPO (when the transporter is clearly on track), and eventually from ticket sales ($500K a pop, once the full-size "bus" is flying).

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (1)

WrongMonkey (1027334) | about 4 months ago | (#47402321)

The SpaceX website claims that the Falcon Heavy will have 1/3rd the launch cost of its nearest competitor. So let's assume that cost reduction applies across the board. The Mars Direct mission is still $100-$200 billion. That's still a order of magnitude more than any IPO in history, with no plan for making a return on that investment. Ticket Sales? The Mars Directs plans costs were based on a four person mission. Launch costs are proportional to mass, so there's no economy of scale for adding more passengers. You need one person who is actually qualified to fly, Elon is going to want seat, that leaves two passenger seats up for grabs. Even if you sold tickets to Bill Gates and Warren Buffet for their combined net worth, that still would barely cover the cost of the mission. And those two don't seem too interested.

I think its nice that at lease one billionaire is dreaming big, but there's just no way the numbers add up for a privately funded mission to Mars.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (1)

Katatsumuri (1137173) | about 4 months ago | (#47402581)

Ok, we need some links with more concrete figures:

1. Huge Mars Colony Eyed by SpaceX Founder Elon Musk [space.com]

Musk figures the colony program — which he wants to be a collaboration between government and private enterprise — would end up costing about $36 billion. He arrived at that number by estimating that a colony that costs 0.25 percent or 0.5 percent of a nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) would be considered acceptable. The United States' GDP in 2010 was $14.5 trillion; 0.25 percent of $14.5 trillion is $36 billion. If all 80,000 colonists paid $500,000 per seat for their Mars trip, $40 billion would be raised.

I'm not saying that's a reasonable way to draw a budget, just to provide an estimate on what Musk is targeting. Since this article came out (Nov 2012), I think his cost estimations went up, and his funding plans shifted more to preparing a realistic IPO (not covering the whole thing, but some of the early stages). Cannot readily find a quote for that.

There are many more (somewhat obfuscated) details in that article, like this one:

Musk also ruled out SpaceX's Dragon capsule, which the company is developing to ferry astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit, as the spacecraft that would land colonists on the Red Planet. When asked by SPACE.com what vehicle would be used, he said, "I think you just land the entire thing."

Asked if the "entire thing" is the huge new reusable rocket — which is rumored to bear the acronymic name MCT, short for Mass Cargo Transport or Mars Colony Transport — Musk said, "Maybe."

2. Elon Musk Says Ticket to Mars Will Cost $500,000 [wired.com]

“Land on Mars, a round-trip ticket — half a million dollars. It can be done,” he told the BBC.

Musk did hint that one of the keys to low-cost trips to the red planet would be the ability to not only refuel there, but also to reuse the entire spacecraft on the return trip. In the BBC interview Musk said by reusing the spacecraft, you end up with the same sorts of costs airlines face. Musk compared it to flying today where a 747 isn’t simply thrown away after a flight to London. Like the airplane, the cost of the spacecraft could be spread out over numerous flights rather than just a single trip making fuel one of the main expenses rather than the entire ship.

3. Tesla’s (TSLA) Musk On Colonizing the Red Planet [wallstreetpit.com]

Asked about the possibility of a SpaceX IPO, Musk said the company’s plans are too long-term to attract many hedge fund managers, making an IPO unlikely any time soon.

“Maybe [when] we’re close to developing the Mars vehicle, or ideally we’ve flown it a few times, then I think going public would make more sense,” he said.

So, I can't comment on how realistic is each of his cost and time estimations, but he is trying hard to make them internally consistent, and most and first of all, to bring down the launch costs and to improve the reusability. We can already see several successful steps in that direction, and we will see the gradual progress, or lack thereof, very soon. It's not some Kickstarter scheme for Gates & Buffet.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47402729)

I would imagine that $500 Billion number included designing & building a task specific launcher & spacecraft using cost plus defense contractors and hiring army's of engineers, security, psychologists, doctors, purchasing enough support equipment to supply a small nation, etc all to "ensure success" for a national pride type endeavor. A company arranging such a trip isn't going to go nearly that far, they're going to use existing launchers, off the shelf environmental systems, minimal facilities & vetted technologies. They could probably do it for less than $10 Billion (10 Falcon 9 heavy's: 1Billion, Spacecraft ~$2 Billion, 1000 specialists for 10 years: $2 Billion, we'll say $5 Billion for extra costs for a total of $10 Billion). Using existing commercial systems I don't see how the costs could possibly be over $50 Billion. It might not be quite as safe as a government sponsored mission, but it's also not going to cost nearly as much.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (1)

icer1024 (175958) | about 4 months ago | (#47403001)

Yeah, my notes on this topic have Dr. Zubrin quoting a Mars Direct designed without NASA's involvement to be $5 billion on the low-end, and $10 billion on the high-end. Or, if using NASA but following a Mars Direct mission profile... $50 billion.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (1)

icer1024 (175958) | about 4 months ago | (#47402963)

Huge correction here... a "cheap" Mars Direct mission is only $5 billion. Not the $500 billion. Where did you get your numbers?

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (2)

DerekLyons (302214) | about 4 months ago | (#47402945)

I'm disappointed that he ignored the entire Mars Direct (Dr. Zubrin) component of my question, and instead only responded peripherally to the core component of the question.

Just because he didn't say what you wanted to hear doesn't mean he didn't answer your question. He did answer your question - with the cold sober truth. He correctly identified the bits that matter, and the bits that are handwaving window dressing and addressed the former while ignoring the latter.
 
Zubrin's plans are... more than a little optimistic. (In particular he doesn't have a firm grasp on the difference between speculative laboratory proof-of-concept experiments and actual developed technology. His plan relies heavily on treating the former as the latter.) Musk? Musk is irrelevant. Musk is playing to the fanboy crowd, but don't look behind the curtain. There's nothing there but a pile of powerpoints and someday, maybe's.
 

I think Dr. Stone's Mars response is a great example of everything that's wrong with NASA. There's no leadership at NASA, and NASA is adrift (in the same manner Dr. Stone is afraid a manned mission to Mars would become adrift), and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

I think you represent what's wrong with space fandom, geekdom, and advocacy today.
 
In the first place, you completely fail to grasp that it is not NASA's role to provide leadership - they're a part of the Executive Branch, and their job is to carry out the policies of the Administration within the bounds of the budget as set by Congress. No more, no less. If NASA had it's way, we might have landed on the Moon by the Bicentennial. Or maybe not. Their plans were vague at best. Then Kennedy was killed in Dallas, and LBJ pushed the moon program as a monument to Kennedy. Which momentum didn't last all that long... by '66/'67 Congress was swinging the budget axe, and by '69 the program was running mostly on fumes and force of habit. (which is something else fandom, geekdom, and advocacy have failed to grasp for nearly a half century - just how unique the alignment of circumstances was that propelled Apollo and just how short lived support actually was.)
 
Second, in that you name check... but you complete fail to grasp the meaning of Dr Stone's answer - Mars is going to be very hard, and it's not visionaries and buzzwords that will get us there. It's technology, technology we don't have but are (as Dr Stone says) working on figuring out. By the time we can send men there, the probes will have done the advance scout work and identified the places and areas of research where men can make the real difference.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (1)

icer1024 (175958) | about 4 months ago | (#47403271)

Just because he didn't say what you wanted to hear doesn't mean he didn't answer your question. He did answer your question - with the cold sober truth. He correctly identified the bits that matter, and the bits that are handwaving window dressing and addressed the former while ignoring the latter.

He correctly identified that there's risk inherit in space exploration, while completely bypassing the Mars Direct work. There's risk, in space exploration - yes. Understood. Got that. But hand-waving away 20 years of Mars Direct work isn't really an answer, is it?

Zubrin's plans are... more than a little optimistic. (In particular he doesn't have a firm grasp on the difference between speculative laboratory proof-of-concept experiments and actual developed technology. His plan relies heavily on treating the former as the latter.) Musk? Musk is irrelevant. Musk is playing to the fanboy crowd, but don't look behind the curtain. There's nothing there but a pile of powerpoints and someday, maybe's.

20 years of detailed plans from a man who knowns NASA, knows the politics, and has a concrete and viable mission model (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Zubrin). Musk has done more to bring a manned Mars mission closer to reality than anyone else... e.g. Falcon Heavy.

I think you represent what's wrong with space fandom, geekdom, and advocacy today.

Thanks for the meaningful contribution to the discussion. I think you, and the people like you that expect the American taxpayer to foot the bill for decades of investment, without a coherent vision are precisely what's wrong with NASA's leadership today. I'm not sure what "fandom", or "geekdom" are, but I'll leave those to you to ponder further.

In the first place, you completely fail to grasp that it is not NASA's role to provide leadership - they're a part of the Executive Branch, and their job is to carry out the policies of the Administration within the bounds of the budget as set by Congress. No more, no less. If NASA had it's way, we might have landed on the Moon by the Bicentennial. Or maybe not. Their plans were vague at best. Then Kennedy was killed in Dallas, and LBJ pushed the moon program as a monument to Kennedy. Which momentum didn't last all that long... by '66/'67 Congress was swinging the budget axe, and by '69 the program was running mostly on fumes and force of habit. (which is something else fandom, geekdom, and advocacy have failed to grasp for nearly a half century - just how unique the alignment of circumstances was that propelled Apollo and just how short lived support actually was.)

On the contrary, I'm all too familiar with NASA's role, both in the Apollo era and as well as now. Their job is to carry out the - utter lack of - vision set by the Executive Branch. Appalling leadership today, just has it's been since about the Kennedy era. Except for a brief shining moment, the Executive branch really really hasn't been all that interested in space. And NASA's atrocious leadership is a reflection the poor executive leadership. George W. Bush came the closest to doing something meaningful, until the War on Terror took over the budget.

But thanks for the closed-minded comments.

Second, in that you name check... but you complete fail to grasp the meaning of Dr Stone's answer - Mars is going to be very hard, and it's not visionaries and buzzwords that will get us there. It's technology, technology we don't have but are (as Dr Stone says) working on figuring out. By the time we can send men there, the probes will have done the advance scout work and identified the places and areas of research where men can make the real difference.

Oh, I grasp his comments. I just don't think he, nor anyone in any real position of leadership at NASA has the vision, or more importantly the risk tolerance to get us to Mars. Mars is going to be very hard. But a cohesive vision, with support that spans more than narrow 4-year windows of time is going to be critical to accomplishing anything big. Otherwise, we'll waste another 30 years saying a great deal, and spending as much, while accomplishing painfully little. Dr. Zurbrin has, at the very least, outlined the political, economic, and engineering, objectives. No hand-waving. No magic robots. No fundamentally new technology. No orbiting fuel depots. No asteroid rendezvous.

Mars is hard. But Mars, is not impossible.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (1)

WrongMonkey (1027334) | about 4 months ago | (#47404109)

20 years of detailed plans from a man who knowns NASA, knows the politics, and has a concrete and viable mission mode

Zubrin may be a smart guy. But he has never worked for NASA. He has never had a project actually go to launch. He changes his cost estimate based on whatever seems politically expedient at the moment. There's a good reason why he's ignored by real decision makers. I don't know why you hold him and his plan on such a high pedestal. I think it's just because he's telling you want you want to hear.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (1)

icer1024 (175958) | about 4 months ago | (#47404591)

... He changes his cost estimate based on whatever seems politically expedient at the moment. There's a good reason why he's ignored by real decision makers. I don't know why you hold him and his plan on such a high pedestal.

His cost models have been pretty consistent over the past two decades, with updates to them that appear to incorporate improvements in technology, particularly changes in launch economics. His contributions to Senate hearings on the future of space exploration suggests that leadership places some value his perspective, even if they lack the backbone to actually do anything. If you've ever watched any of his presentations, or discussions it's pretty clear that he's an Engineer at heart and lacks, say... Elon Musk's charisma.

I think it's just because he's telling you want you want to hear.

As opposed to a NASA that spent 30 years on a space shuttle that they threw away, and are now replacing it with SLS that resembles Apollo? Or a NASA that's spent $150 billion on a space station with a questionable future? Or the NASA that can't sustain focus and vision to lead it beyond the next election? Yeah, I'd much prefer Zubrin's Mars Direct that's taken all of NASA's real limitations into account.

Re:Mars Direct - Unanswered? (1)

BranMan (29917) | about 4 months ago | (#47415653)

I just thought of an analogy that may be very fitting. Few know this, but the first submarines used in combat were built during the US Civil War (or WoNA, whatever floats your boat). It was possible, but incredibly dangerous, and more than one was lost entirely.

Fast forward to WWI and WWII, where submarines were solid, dependable, and safe (to a large degree - not including combat of course). And on to the modern nuclear subs - downright luxurious in comparison.

So, Space Flight was in the Civil War era with the Apollo missions to the moon - we could do it, just, and it was incredibly dangerous, and we nearly lost one (13). The Shuttles were more of WWI tech level - still really dangerous, but doable on a regular basis.

We need to reach the stage in Space Flight analogous to nuclear subs, I think, before we can reach Mars. We just aren't there yet. And without wars to push the development (like it did subs) it may take a while.

That's why Mars is 20 years away. Still.

Thanks! (1)

Katatsumuri (1137173) | about 4 months ago | (#47400613)

Interesting framework with those interrelated frontiers.

Also, I didn't know about those decadal surveys. I wonder how transparent they are, both on suggestion and on the reporting side.

I wish my question about chaotic gravity assist was answered (it ranked among top 10), but I guess the idea was not deemed practical.

Probably the biggest non-answer interview on /. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47400783)

Can't get off message. Titan! Mars! We got no plans and our projects are run by Congress, a group that couldn't plan its way out of a paper bag if they were facing the exit!

As you ask... (1)

arth1 (260657) | about 4 months ago | (#47401093)

Someone should have vetted the questions. The very first one was painful to read:

Samzenpus: I'm sure you had great hopes for Voyager but did you or others working on the program dream that it would be so successful or travel so far?

Um, "it"? Is Samzenpus unaware that there are more than one?
And of course they expected them to travel so far. They're not like cars which can run out of gas. The risk of something stopping them is astronomical, so they'll of course travel on.

The greatest frontier yet to cross? Propulsion (1)

fustakrakich (1673220) | about 4 months ago | (#47401195)

We still burn kerosene. How primitive is that?

Re:The greatest frontier yet to cross? Propulsion (1)

geekoid (135745) | about 4 months ago | (#47401489)

We don't know, and that's the problem. There may not be another way.

The greatest frontier yet to cross? Propulsion (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47401909)

Its not a bad fuel, at least in atmosphere. Sure there are better propellents but they are also quite a bit more difficult to handle. In atmosphere the biggest advance we're likely to see in the next century is probably hybrid rocket engines like the SABRE engine that allow for more aircraft like operations. In orbit thought we should be using much different propulsion than we are currently. Ion, Plasma, Nuclear thermal, etc should be the primary on orbit propulsion methods, chemical should be almost non-existent once you get into LEO.

moment of confusion (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 4 months ago | (#47403323)

Did anyone else misread the title and start wondering why Snowden was talking about space?

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