The Matrix: MEME 3.04

MEME 3.04

In this issue of MEME:

"I think that what you are seeing is the transformation of the space program, form a program that worked on the sprint to one that is going on the marathon."

--Dan Goldin, in MEME 3.04

An exclusive interview with Dan Goldin, NASA Director

A few weeks ago, I spoke with Dan Goldin, NASA's Director. Under Mr. Goldin's term, NASA has seen an extraordinary turn in its fortunes, from a bloated, strangely antiquated organization, to a nimble, provocative institution, an institution which, as Mr. Goldin is known for saying, now follows a "faster, better, cheaper" mantra. We may not realize this, but space travel is poised to enter a new period-- one of long duration space missions, where voyages are measured in months and years, rather than days and weeks. In this new climate, of permanently inhabited space stations and possible missions to Mars, the way NASA works as an agency is bound to change-- from a place where people are trained to go on "camping trips" in space, to a place where people "live" in space. What does that mean, to "live" in space? And how can human beings be prepared for the isolation, stress, and confinement of living away from Earth for long periods of time? These used to be academic questions, but Mr. Goldin's recent successes with steering NASA towards a series of cheap probes to Mars has opened the door to the next question: can NASA do it with people? Can they get us to the Red Planet "faster, better, cheaper"? That's the subject of this interview. Without further delay, let's begin.

David Bennahum: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today Mr. Goldin. I've been hearing a lot more, lately, about how NASA might send people to Mars, sometime in the early part of the next century. The trip is supposed to take three years-- six months going out, 400 days on the Martian surface, and six months coming home. That's going to put the crew under enormous psychological stress. They will be isolated and on their own, in a hostile environment, with no hope of a quick return to Earth if something goes wrong. So I am interested in the human aspects of going to Mars-- how the ship you would design and the crew you would select might be very different from the traditional kinds of missions we've flown until now. I also want to know how serious NASA is, or isn't, about going to Mars, and trying to put that in perspective in terms of the research that you're doing now. Is this going to Mars something that's really part of a plan? Is there a plan to go to Mars? Or is this research on long-term space flight just something that is happening, and it may or may not lead to someone going to Mars eventually?

Dan Goldin: I got it. A lot of the questions you are asking are going to get answered on the International Space Station. And Mir. Just to digress for a moment, we have learned a tremendous amount from Mir, and one of the things that is very clear is that we better do a better job on the psychological health of the astronauts. So the stresses that build up on Tsybleyev-- you know when he got those heart palpitations-- and soon thereafter one of the things we have done is we have said 'we better do a much more comprehensive job in this area.' So some of the questions you are asking I think are fabulous questions-- maybe a little premature to be able to answer them, but we are looking at those things, and the only place you are really going to find these out is in real research. I don't know whether you saw those chamber tests we have down there at Johnson [Space Center], where we are putting young people in these chambers for ever increasing time periods?

DB: That seems to fit into a logical, workable schedule for sending people to Mars. So my initial question is how does it fit into getting us to Mars?

DG: What you are seeing is a group of technology projects. There is no commitment to sending astronauts to Mars on any schedule.

DB: Okay.

DG: And also getting a snapshot in time. Find a little perspective here-- There just was a budget agreement, and in the process of doing the budget, I don't know how the future budgets are going to come out. I work for the President of the United States. And NASA answers to the President and the Congress. So folks have a job in Houston to develop the appropriate technologies leading up to a mission. That has to be taken in context. I don't know what the funding is going to be in fiscal 1999, which is what I think people down there were talking to you about. And that will not be decided until the President announces his budget in January of next year.

DB: Well?

DG: I don't know!

DB: Well tell me a little bit about going to Mars then. How serious is the agency about that possibility?

DB: Let me also say that NASA does not make a decision like that. That is a decision that gets made by the President of the United States. And the Congress. You know, President Kennedy proposed a mission to the moon. It is a multi-billion dollar program, and NASA does not go out unilaterally and do it. This ends up being a decision by the American people. So it is not a NASA program. Sometimes I look at NASA, and you know, NASA goes off and does things. The process is very different and I think very healthy. I think this is the strength of our country. So that's the context that I'd like to state it.

So what responsibility does NASA have in helping the President and the American people and the Congress make such a decision? There are four critical factors. Let me just-- just a title of each one and then give you a little background. The first and most important factor is we have to demonstrate that the astronauts could live and work safely and efficiently in space, to perform all the tasks, and assure the highest probability they'll come back alive and unharmed. Now you notice, I did not say guarantee. I said, "with a reasonable probability." That's why we have the shuttle-Mir missions and the International Space Station.

DB: Right.

DG: Now, the second point. We have to understand the scientific exploration and economic context for undertaking the mission, and that requires us to have a very thorough reconnaissance of the planet Mars. And that's why we have set up a program of ten robotic spacecraft going to Mars over the next ten years. One landed. One is going to arrive next week. Eight more are going to be launched. It is an unbelievably comprehensive study of Mars that will look at the geochemistry, geophysics, biology, searching for resources to live off the land, searching for water, seeing how we can convert the Martian atmosphere into breathing gases. And experimenting with all the technologies necessary when we get there we know the technologies are going to work on Mars. So that's the second element of what I will call my Ph.D. qualifier for my scientists in Houston.

The third is: it has to be affordable. You know the American people in the elections of '92, '94, and '96 very clearly stated they want the Federal government to play a key role in the future of this country, but they want it to do it for less money. And if you go back to the glory days of Apollo, we spent close to 5% of the Federal budget to go to the moon. We brute force did it, in a specific amount of time, because it was in the national interest to do that. By way of reference, the NASA budget is now eight- tenths of one percent of the Federal budget, and dropping percentage-wise. NASA cannot unilaterally re-program moneys to go do things like that, so what we have too is rely upon the genius of NASA scientists and engineers and what I have tasked them to do is to figure out how to do it differently. How to do it for a lot less money. And this gets to the "faster, better, cheaper" strategy: we have proven that we can do it with robots. Now we have to prove that we can do it with people. In the broadest sense, the people in Houston have a broad charter to figure out how to do it, and I am not going to get involved in this project or that project. Those are the things that have to be done, and those are some of the technologies you saw when you were down there.

And there is a fourth criteria. Democracy is breaking out all over our planet for the first time in God-knows how long. And we are getting away from a lot of the confrontation and competition, and going into a phase of what I will call operation. And economic competition. But not social or political competition. So if this mission to Mars is to be successful, and the American people will not bear the full cost of this, we need to share the full cost of this mission with other countries. And learn how to work on complex, large international projects with other countries. That's another reason for the International Space Station. So if you will, those are the four areas. Those are the four conditions that one must meet before proposing this to the American people. Clearly we are going to be expending moneys in all these areas, but to say we are ready to go plant the American on Mars-- NASA will plant the flag from now-- eight years from now, seven years from now, fifteen years from now-- we're not ready to say this. Unless there are some other dynamics we have to look at. Our people are just working away, and they are going to hack away at each of these areas, and I am very optimistic that in the not-too distant future we will have answered those four questions.

DB: Right. So when I see things down in Houston, like on the desks I'll see these charts-- these charts that culminate with a mission to Mars in 2012 or 2018-- that's just-- they're just having fun with those charts? It doesn't really mean anything in terms of, like, reality?

DG: No. No. Let me say this, I do not think they are having fun. I think this is very heavy duty serious stuff. Let me tell you another challenge I have given them.

DB: Uh-huh.

DG: The challenge I have given them is that I wanted them to see if it was possible from the day we got the go ahead to be able to launch a mission to Mars in no more than eight years. That is tough.

DB: And why is it so important to do it that quickly?

DG: Because any project that takes too long a period of time becomes what I call a living organism. It takes on a life of itself, and the end objective isn't as important to the people employed on the project. You lose sight of it. Secondly, the American people when they make an investment need to see the feedback. They need to see the results. If you have a program that is multi-decade, it is very hard to be accountable to the American people. And I would like if we propose a program to the President that we be accountable to the American people.

And then there is another goal. And I do not know if we're going to be able to do it. I said, "You have eight years? You ought to be looking at a program that costs a few billion a year, not tens-of-billions a year." And that's "faster, better, cheaper." I think we are going to do it! I think we are going to be able to prove it. But this is tough lifting. And I think we have the people to make it happen. What you are seeing is a spectrum of ideas. And what I would like to see right now is a competition on an intellectual level-- a competition of ideas-- to see how we resolve these approaches. No one may come up with a terrific idea-- they have good ideas already-- but I think there are some even better ideas out there.

DB: So the folks at NASA Ames might be doing something, the folks at the Johnson Space Center might be doing something, and the point is to create survival of the fittest?

DG: I love it! Isn't that nice?

DB: I think it is too. Sure.

DG: But this is what has made America such a great country. It is the pursuit of the intellectual challenge, and competition of ideas, and the open peer-review of ideas. And I think this going to be terrific.

DB: So--

DG: --And by the way, Pathfinder is a perfect example of how one could do things differently. In three years, from the day we started it, until the day we launched it-- that's unbelievable. It used to take ten to fifteen years to do something like that, and we did it for hundreds-of-millions and not billions. And it was unbelievable in terms of scientific return, and bold in ideas. Who would have thought of taking an airbag and bouncing fifty feet in the air. And they did it to not only be less expensive, but to land in a very hostile place on Mars. You know, if we landed in the equivalent of the Sahara desert where it is nice and flat, that's challenging-- and there is no science. So that's the kind of approach I want to see, looking at Mars.

DB: Can you give me a sense of how the interest in these unmanned missions to Mars have influenced the urgency, or the interest, in a manned mission to Mars?

DG: Can I respectfully push on you a little bit, and say "we have robotic missions and we have piloted missions." We do not have "manned missions" at NASA. We have thirty female astronauts.

DB: Okay.

DG: I don't want to be pushy about this, but when I took this job, I told my daughters, "You will no longer use the name 'the manned spacecraft program.'" Okay. In any case, I think that it was a watershed event, the Pathfinder mission.

DB: What?

DG: It was a watershed event. It was one of those things that we will look back on historically as saying it made a huge difference. We went to a very geologically complex landing site and we have validated that there were huge water flows on Mars, which strengthens our resolve and our sense that the conditions to sustain live existed there, and that there might have been some lower form of life on Mars. All of which say, "there is a more compelling reason for going." And the only thing it was saying was that you can do it differently, and you can do it fast-- coming back to my four points-- and we need to move at an accelerated pace. A human space flight arena, faster, better, cheaper. Those are the two lessons I have learned from Pathfinder.

DB: Can we talk about some of the human factors that would be involved in sending people to Mars? You mentioned earlier that the Mir had highlighted the need to understand human factors in space. I am curious about NASA's "knowledge gap" in understanding what happenens to people on long space missions. What's you're sense of whether NASA has a knowledge gap, and how the agency might go about closing it?

DG: There is a very significant knowledge gap. Let me give you a few of them. The things that one just might take for granted. Let's say someone comes down with a bacterial infection in space. There's all sorts of protocols for how you deal with a bacterial infection on the ground. You know you take an antibiotic; we know how it distributed in the body under a 1-g condition. When you go up in space, that anti-biotic does not necessarily dissolve and distribute the way it does on the ground. Maybe it will and maybe it won't work. If you take more complex things-- let's say someone gets appendicitis. I want to-- anesthetic-- to take the patient below the consciousness level so I can operate. We don't know the impact of anesthetics in space. In fact, we have learned a lot from the Bion mission where we had a monkey die unexpectedly because we gave it an anesthetic the day after it came came back from space. In the past they had given it seven days after they'd returned from space. So we are seeing from very subtle effects involving key things in medicine. So now we are taking new precautions. And this is why it is so crucial to do the research we are going to do on the International Space Station and on Shuttle-Mir. We are going up this knowledge curve at an unbelievable rate.

You know the Russians have experience in space, but they do not have some of the very sophisticated instrumentation we have. I think we make a great team-- they have strengths, and we have strengths, and together we are really going to understand a lot. Those are the kind of things we want to worry about. I'll give you another issue. Red blood cells are good for 120 days. If I am going to Mars for three years, what if I have an accident doing construction on Mars? How do I replace those red blood cells? So, I do not know what is going to work, but we are looking at things like the bio-reactor. We're trying to build human tissue in three-dimensions outside the human body, and maybe we could be successful in building bone marrow, and we could artificially build blood. The technologies that are crucial for a space mission might even help on the ground. People think of NASA and they think, "All they need is a rocket." What I am saying to you is, "We really need to understand bio-medicine and bio-technology and psychology." I think these are going to be the critical paths. That's why Mars is so different from the Moon.

The moon is three days. You can brute force it. You can take all your food and all your breathing gas. You don't have to worry about some of these long term debilitating effects. And in fact, the American Medical Association is so interested in the differences between 1-g and 0-g that they're working with us on medical protocols. We're involving a broad community of people in these studies, because not only are they going to help us get to Mars, but understanding differences in medicine gives you insight into human physiology.

DB: So how much of the International Space Station will serve as a test bed for long term piloted missions? Is that going to be one of its primary purposes?

DG: Well yes! Once you have the laboratory, you are doing all this research, the wonderful thing is-- it is dual use. You know this bio-reactor has turned out to be a wonderful tool-- we've transferred technology to the National Institutes of Health to do cancer research. So, we're doing really long term basic research, and a primary purpose of that research is to help people live safely in space for long periods of time. But the insights we are getting are very helpful to medical technology. Let me give you another example. During Apollo, we developed intensive-cam monitoring-- you know, these little battery-powered packs you strap to your chest, smaller than a toaster and bigger than a small radio-- we are now trying to take that technology and micro-miniaturize it. We might even implant a sensor in somebody's ear, with a little radio transmitter, and constantly monitor their vital signs. Developing telepresence and telemedicine, we're developing implanted sensors. These are the kind of things that are crucial for such a mission, but again it has tremendous benefit on Earth. Especially telemedicine in very rural areas. So again I say, "Don't think of us as just having to build a Mars rocket." We have incredibly tough bio-medical problems.

DB: One thing I discovered down at NASA, speaking to some of the psychologists down there, is that they talked about how NASA had been resistant to studying human factors. I talked to the Chief Psychologist at NASA, Al Holland, and some of the folks who work with him, and they walked me through the fact that if we are going to send people to Mars, it is going to require a major shift at NASA-- a cultural shift inside the astronaut corps, and a training shift. Apparently a lot of the astronaut trainers are former astronauts, and their whole body of knowledge is geared towards short missions. Part of what they're saying is that there is a potential for institutional inertia, where it's going to be hard, as Al Holland put it, to shift from training sprinters to training marathoners, especially when all the coaches used to be sprinters too.

DG: You have hit a very important point. And in fact, I view one of the major changes that is going to occur at NASA is that we are going to be transitioning our staff. We are mostly engineers and physical scientists. We are now looking for biologists, physicians and psychologists. And in fact, it is open knowledge that I am having a search for the NASA Chief Scientist-- I want that Chief Scientist to be a life scientist. We have never had a life scientist in that role. We are making very very close ties with the AMA [American Medical Association] and the National Institutes of Health. And we are working with micro-biology organizations because not only do we have to look at human physiology; if we are searching for life, we have to understand the fundamentals of evolutionary biology and astro-biology.

You are seeing what I think is going to be the biggest revolution at NASA in the next five years as we transition into the life sciences. The life science revolution is going to change the future of this country, and NASA is going to be on the lead, but we have to restructure to do it. And to do that we have taken two immediate steps. First we've built a bio-medical institute in Houston, Texas. I don't know if you had a chance to talk to them.

DB: I did not.

DG: That is the first step. And second, in Sunnyvale [California] we are forming and astro-biology institute. One will deal with the search for life, the other will deal with the protection of life. And thirdly I have talked to the leadership of the Human Exploration area and told them I want to beef up our psychological capabilities, and change things. Now let me give you a little more context for why I say this.

I think you got a very good sense about this. For someone who has been out there for once or twice, you have hit on a lot of very important points. But if you think about the American space program, it has been a sprint. It was a sprint to the Moon-- three days to the Moon. And then the Space Shuttle is like an airplane. With an airplane the protocol says, "Take the plane off, and the first minute you have a problem come back and land, and solve the problem on the ground." And that's how the Space Shuttle has operated. So the psyche of the astronauts, the psyche of the American public is, "Oh my God, when there is a problem in space bring them home. Don't launch it until you solve it." The Russians on the other hand have knowledge that we do not have. They have ships in space.

I make it the equivalent of early exploration ships that would go out and just couldn't come back to home port, or submarines which go under the polar ice cap. When you have a submarine and you are underneath the Polar ice cap, you figure out how to put that fire out, and you carry enough spare parts so you can replace the things that were broken. You train your people not to be tethered to mission control, but to have a set of skills and understandings so they can take things apart and rebuild them. So what you are seeing is an essential need to transform our human space flight program from, as you call it, "the sprint to the marathon." Another thing is: you will not recognize the astronaut corps and how they operate, nor the medical support or psychological support people. Everything is going to be restructured.

DB: Can you give me a sense of how the astronauts will change. What kind of new person will you get, and how will they be trained differently?

DG: Right now, because you go into space for a one to two week period, every second counts. There is an incredible amount of detailed planning that starts a year or two before the mission. There's tremendous detail in how to do things, not what to do. A lot of decisions get made on the ground, and they don't get made by the crew, and there's a lot of direction and a lot of knowledge on the ground. What we want to do is migrate the skills and the knowledge into space. That's the big transition. We want to skill train people, instead of task train people, because you have time. You know, if I am going to be in space for a year or two, it is okay if I miss a specific task. But if I only have a week to do fifty experiments, I got to be time driven. That's the major shift you are going to see. So the training is going to be more skill oriented than task oriented. We are going to get away from a lot of these detailed procedures and the ground tether, and we're going to have to be on the cutting edge of technology in getting information systems on board spacecraft. Now keep in mind if-- not if we go to Mars-- when we go to Mars there are time delays in information. It could be twenty to forty minutes. Now if I'm accustomed to having a ground-control tether and there is an emergency, it is hopeless. You can't have the ground control there. So we have to learn to break that tether.

That is why there is a discomfort on Shuttle-Mir. People are accustomed to the Shuttle, and they don't understand that on the Mir space station they have spare parts and they have skills training. That's the exciting part-- the American astronauts are working with the Russians on this subject, and that's where you are going to see the changes. I think that we are going to be looking for people that have mechanical, electrical skills, and understand information systems. And I also think that there may be another leg to the astronaut corps-- and I am speculating now-- right now we have pilots and scientists. We are going to have, probably, astro-doctors, because again in medical situations, if you do not have a ground tether, you probably need a doc on board. So we will probably have astro-docs.

DB: When will we begin to see that shift in terms of hiring a new breed of astronauts? Is that starting now?

DG: We are selecting a class right now, and I am not sure we can adapt that fast. But the class after this one is certainly going to have new selection criteria. I am going to have to leave in a few minutes We only have time for one more question.

DB: Well, why don't I leave it open to you. Is there something I have not addressed that you want to mention to me?

DG: I think that what you are seeing is the transformation of the space program, form a program that worked on the sprint to one that is going on the marathon. It is going to cause a fundamental change in everything we do-- for the better. I think it is going to create tremendous opportunity. I believe we are going to prove, in a very short period of time, the four challenges.

DB: One final thing: Are we going to Mars?

DG: Absolutely. Absolutely. It is only a question of when. I think NASA is going to do its job to answer its questions, and then it has to be the national will. I'll give you a personal note. I came to NASA in 1962 to work on a Mars mission. I left in '67 because I saw the beginning of the end. I said it was clear after Apollo we were not going to go on to Mars. I came back in 1992 in the hope that I would be able to provide the data to our President that would allow us to start such a mission because I think it will change who we are, and what we are. What a way to start the Twenty-first Century, as a statement from America. Think about how America felt when we landed on July 4th on Mars with the Sojourner.

You know, at a time when we do not have international enemies there is more to life-- and don't get me wrong I like sports and I like entertainment-- but there' s got to be something that stirs our souls. Because we Americans have exploration written into our genetic code. This is the type of thing that defines the Americans. So it is when, not if.

DB: Well terrific.

DG: I gotta go!

DB: Thank you.

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