NASA chief promotes human exploration

Posted by Dick McNally
on Wednesday, July 30, 2008

 NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin answers a girl’s question at the Experimental Aviation Association’s annual convention July 29.  Dick McNally photo

NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin says the United States will establish a base on the Moon in 15 years, and astronauts will land on Mars in 25 years. Speaking of the potential Mars landing, the 58-year-old aerospace engineer said, “I hope to live to see it … it’s within our budget capacity.”

The administrator spoke to a crowd at the Experimental Aviation Association’s AirVenture convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, July 29. He compared the challenges of establishing a Moon base to that of getting a foothold on Antarctica 50 years ago. “That’s how I see us on the Moon in the 2020s,” he said.

Addressing the dangers of solar radiation during the Moon and Mars missions, Griffin said we can initially shield the spacecraft using water that astronauts will need anyway. “Water is a really good shield,” he said.

But in the long run, Griffin added, scientists will try to find better answers through research. “How can cockroaches withstand radiation when we cannot?” he asked rhetorically.

The administrator hinted that there may be therapeutic remedies for the radiation such as pharmaceuticals. As an example of solutions to this kind of problem, he cited the experience with scurvy during long sea voyages in earlier centuries. “Millions of people died from it,” he said. Over time, sailors learned to avoid the illness by eating sauerkraut, limes, and other foods while on voyages. Scientists later discovered that those foods provided vitamins missing from the sailors’ diets during the long trips.

Solving the solar radiation problem is critical because 60 percent of NASA’s budget is allocated toward human space exploration, while 30 percent goes toward scientific/robotic work. Griffin expressed strong support for human exploration. He said robotic missions are about science, but “human exploration is about expanding the range of human action.” Citing a statement by scientist Stephen Hawking, Griffin added that, like Hawking, he believes space exploration contributes to the long-term survival of humans. He mentioned potential defenses against asteroid dangers as an example.

The administrator said he thinks Mars exploration will be a continuing program, as opposed to the Apollo program that stopped after seven lunar landings. “We spent $25 billion for a system capable of taking us to the Moon,” he said, adding that $21 billion was spent building the system and only $4 billion using the system. “Then we threw it away,” he said.

Griffin said he’s disappointed that the United States will not be able to continue flying the space shuttle until NASA’s new Ares rockets become available around 2015. (The last shuttle flight will launch in 2010.) “We have only about 10 shuttle launches left,” he said.

In the interim, between the end of the shuttle program and the arrival of a new system, the United States will rely on Russian Soyuz rockets to service and continue building the International Space Station (ISS). “NASA doesn’t have a big enough budget to fly the shuttle while we’re developing a new system to take us to the Moon,” he said, while expressing regret that we would have to rely solely on another country for transportation to the ISS. “It seems silly to put a $100 billion system (the ISS) at risk because we don’t want to spend, say, $3 billion to keep the shuttle going and have a backup for the Russian system to get to the ISS.”

Griffin also addressed questions about reported vibration and payload problems with NASA’s future Ares I Moon rocket. “Most of that is media-induced, to be very honest with you,” he quipped. “I hope this is the worst problem we have in developing the system.” He added that NASA already has half-a-dozen methods to mitigate those problems.

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