NASA Administrator Michael D.
Griffin met last week with reporters and editors at The Post. Here are some of
the questions and answers:
What can humans learn in space
that robots couldn't?
The thing that you can learn with humans in
scientific enterprises are all of the things that you didn't send the robot to
find out. With a human you're doing the opportunistic plan, the uncorrelated
observation. You know, you see this over here and that over there, and you put
When you know what question you want to ask and
what measurement you want to make, it's almost always to your advantage to do
that robotically or, at most, use the human to put the thing in place. There's
no question about it. When you don't know what you don't know, when you don't
know what the questions are, we do very poorly at attempting to figure out what
those questions ought to be by using robots.
But the goal isn't just scientific exploration .
. . it's also about extending the range of human habitat out from Earth into the
solar system as we go forward in time. . . . In the long run a single-planet
species will not survive. We have ample evidence of that . . . [Species have]
been wiped out in mass extinctions on an average of every 30 million years.
But are there examples of
We don't know of any other species anywhere, but
while I cannot say that multiple-planet species will survive, I think I can
prove to you from our own geologic record that single-planet species don't.
Now, you know, in the sense that a chicken is
just an egg's way of laying another egg, one of our purposes is to survive and
thrive and spread humankind. I think that's worth doing. There will be another
mass-extinction event. If we humans want to survive for hundreds of thousands or
millions of years, we must ultimately populate other planets. Now, today the
technology is such that this is barely conceivable. We're in the infancy of it.
So you're actually talking about
a community on Mars that has a large enough population and can sustain itself
for thousands of years anticipating this event?
Not necessarily. I'm talking about that one day,
I don't know when that day is, but there will be more human beings who live off
the Earth than on it. We may well have people living on the moon. We may have
people living on the moons of Jupiter and other planets. We may have people
making habitats on asteroids. We've got places that humans will go, not in our
lifetime, but they will go there.
Is it important that Americans
lead the way?
To me it's important because I like the United
States, and because I know -- I don't know the date -- but I know that humans
will colonize the solar system and one day go beyond. And it is important for me
that humans who carry -- I'll characterize it as Western values -- are there
You know, I think we know the kind of society we
would get if you, for example, carry Soviet values. That means you want a gulag
on Mars. Is that what you're looking for?
Given the laws of physics and the
distances involved, where is the place "beyond the solar system" we could go?
mean, there are other stars in our near neighborhood . . . four light-years away
. . . 12 light-years away.
Is it a concern that you believe
that others will get there first?
I don't know that it's a concern that others get
there first. What does concern me is that where other people go, the United
States must also be. I'm not trying to stomp other people into the ground, but I
would like to be assured that wherever the frontier of human civilization is,
that people from America are there as well. . . . It should be viewed as an
investment in carrying American culture, American values.
Can the United States afford such
The amount we spend on space exploration is
seven-tenths of one percent of the budget, not even. Your tax bill, if you're an
average citizen, is around $8,000 per year. Of that, $55 is spent on space. So
when you say, why don't we concentrate on the problems of today, in terms of how
we actually spend our money, that is precisely what we're doing, to a level
higher than 99 percent.
Americans seem to demand that
space travel be absolutely safe, that no one will die. Is that unrealistic?
so . . . It is a risky activity.
And people in this country don't
seem prepared to accept that?
Correct. Now, part of the country doesn't seem
prepared to accept it because generations of upper-level NASA managers have
tried to characterize the shuttle as routine and safe, and it is not routine,
and other than in the sense that a mountain climber would use the word, it's not
safe. Mountain climbing is an activity that's riskier than flying on the shuttle.
If we elect to go climb Mount Everest, the odds are 10 percent we're going to
die. That's riskier than getting on board the shuttle. Okay? But most other
things are not.
We want to learn how to make it safe.
We believe that one day we can . . . but it is like the early days of airplane
flight. That is what it is.
© 2005 The
Washington Post Company