S ending humans back to the Moon and to Mars will require inspiring new generations of space program supporters and participants, the forum speakers agreed. “The people who are going to land on Mars, the people who are going to be the final say-so of ‘yes, we’re going,’ they’re not sitting in this auditorium,” said Bolden. “We have to get kids excited.”
As a guide to inspiring future generations, Bell asked what inspired each of the six speakers at the forum.
Stafford said that flying to the Moon was his inspiration. Only 24 humans have done that, he observed. “I thank God that I was there and had the opportunity to be there from nearly the first to the last.”
Crippen said that he was inspired by the original astronauts, including Stafford. “I joined the program while Apollo was in progress,” he said. “It was the people in it who inspired me.”
Magnus recalled that watching men step on the Moon “inspired the whole planet,” including the young people who were watching the event on television. She thought “if we can do that, then maybe there is something I can do in space.”
Ferguson, too, remembered watching the landing on a black-and-white television as a child and making sketches of the lunar module, which his mother saved for him. Much more recently, he has been inspired by a book, Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight, which described on a technical level how humans got to the moon. “We invented guidance systems that didn’t exist. We invented docking
systems that nobody knew would work…. There are amazing discussions in there about how we really did it.”
Koenigsmann said that he was six, nearsighted, and “in the wrong country” to watch the Moon landing. Nevertheless, the Apollo program has been “an incredible inspiration for everybody working at SpaceX,” he said. “To have the boldness of building a device and filling it with dangerous propellants and then putting fire under it and going to the Moon—that is an incredible thought.”
Bolden admitted that he initially had little interest in going into space when, in his last few months of flight training in Mississippi, he watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the Moon. He thought, “They would never pick me.” Then a family friend reminded him of something his mother and father said when he was growing up in South Carolina: “You can do anything you want to do if you are willing to work and put your mind to it.” That reminder was a challenge, he said, and he rose to the challenge.
Bell asked the panelists about the most important obstacles that still need to be overcome.
Several speakers cited the need to continue lowering the costs of spaceflight. “Costs must come down dramatically in the next 25 years to make this work,” said Koenigsmann. “Otherwise, it might be too expensive.” Perhaps an innovative technology such as a space elevator might someday be developed, in which payloads travel into space along a cable tethered to the Earth. But such technologies do not appear to be imminent.
An issue closely related to cost is the need for additional users for spaceflight. “We have capabilities that are going to be coming online, but we haven’t figured out yet how to develop the markets or how to develop the use cases for the broader private enterprise,” said Magnus. Once flights to space are routine, people will need to figure out ways to use that capability.
Bolden added that the problem needs to be solved soon. The International Space Station is nearing the end of its time in space. “We don’t have a way to get enough pieces and parts there to refurbish it
and make it new.” Once the ISS is deorbited, “we need to have smaller commercially operated places…where you can do your research, whether it’s biomedical engineering or pharmaceuticals development or materials processing or whatever it happens to be,” Bolden said. “Somebody has to come up with a business case that helps people understand that there is value in going into low Earth orbit and having a pharmaceutical laboratory [or] a materials processing laboratory.” One of the station’s missions was to demonstrate to the private sector that money can be made in space, Bolden continued, but companies need to be willing to take the risk that access to space enables. “You don’t make money if you are not willing to take a risk.”
Ferguson pointed out that Boeing, SpaceX, and other companies are developing the capability to get back and forth to low Earth orbit, but at the moment these companies have just a single customer—the International Space Station. “We need other markets to evolve,” he said.
Koenigsmann appealed to the engineers in the audience to “pitch in here and help us.” He also cited the need to develop new facilities in space that can develop the capabilities to return to the Moon and go to Mars. Without commercial markets and such facilities, the drive to send humans into space could fade.
Stafford, too, remarked on the need for customers, adding that the space program can be turned off quickly. When new presidents take office, they can reverse the direction of a program within a few weeks. “I can’t forecast who is going to be the chief executive over the next two or three cycles, but it can go on or it can go off,” he said. “That is a big risk.”
Health risks to astronauts are another challenge, several of the speakers noted. Some of the drawbacks to spending extended periods in space are being overcome, for example by providing astronauts with exercise equipment to keep their bodies from deteriorating, but others remain daunting. Exposure to radiation is a particular concern for astronauts who spend long periods outside Earth’s protective atmosphere and the magnetic shield provided by the Van Allen radiation belt. “We have a lot of questions there, and we need to understand the answers to those questions and manage that problem,” said Magnus.
Bolden said that he favored the idea of protecting astronauts on Mars
by having them live underground and using the soil as a radiation shield. Ferguson cited advances in polymers or the idea of creating magnetic fields to shield astronauts—“a Van Allen belt around a spacecraft”—though such fields would be very energy intensive. “Ultimately, we are going to have to beat the problem,” he said.
Radiation emitted by the sun is a concern on Earth as well, Bolden noted. “We are very fortunate in that we have not had a major space weather occurrence that has knocked out satellite communications and the like, but that is a possibility. Long before we need to worry about what is the risk to a crew member flying in space, we have to have an ongoing, improving, technologically developing space weather capability to protect us here.”
At the end of the forum, Bell asked each of the speakers for one sentence of advice.
Stafford said, “Work hard.
Crippen said, “Don’t screw up.”
Magnus said, “Be a good role model for those around you.
Ferguson said, “The next 12 months will be pivotal for human spaceflight.”
Koenigsmann, from earlier in the forum, said, “Space needs users.”
Bolden said, “Do all you can with what you have in the time that you have in the place that you are.”
Bell closed by recounting a dinner she had with Eugene Cernan, the last person to walk on the Moon. During their dinner, Cernan observed that the program’s success was the product of American ingenuity.
“It is not just the people in space—it is the scientists, the engineers, everyone, the entire community,” Bell recalled. “The space program has inspired our nation. It has inspired our world. It is competitive. It is collaborative. It has inspired adults. It has inspired kids. I can’t wait to see what the current generation and the next generation of scientists and engineers and astronauts will do in space over the next 50 years.”