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NASA’s Chief Scientist On The Possibility Of Finding Alien Life: “It’s Going To Be Mind-blowing”

Ellen Stofan explains how the space agency is thinking big as it looks to the future.

NASA’s Chief Scientist On The Possibility Of Finding Alien Life: “It’s Going To Be Mind-blowing”
A giant leap: Ellen Stofan and NASA plan to send humans onto the surface of Mars. How? One small step at a time. [Photo: Melissa Golden]

Sometime around the year 2035, NASA hopes to fly a manned spacecraft to Mars and land astronauts on the planet. How will it achieve this daunting goal? Who will create the necessary technologies? And just as important, how will it teach the American public about the difficulties—and value—of such a distant,expensive, and audacious mission? At the moment, much of the responsibility for all of that rests on Ellen Stofan, NASA’s chief scientist. Here’s what we can learn from someone trying to solve a problem that no one has ever faced before.

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(S)PACE YOURSELF

When it comes to achieving such a (literally) distant goal, the key is to keep the process manageable, according to Stofan. “We have to ask, ‘How can we break a huge challenge like sending humans to Mars into a series of doable, affordable steps? How can we break that problem down into chunks in order to keep making progress?’ ” That means focusing on more modest near-term efforts—like the Mars Curiosity rover and the recently test-launched Orion spacecraft—that move toward the ultimate goal but also yield useful knowledge along the way.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO VEER OFF COURSE

Sending astronauts on a yearlong journey to Mars will involve extraordinary challenges (two major ones: making sure the crew doesn’t absorb too much radiation and figuring out how to safely land a heavy vehicle in the planet’s thin atmosphere). Right now NASA doesn’t have the technology to pull off such a feat, but it needs to stay open to scientific shifts, which can come about suddenly and unexpectedly. “We’re not going to get humans to Mars until at least the mid-2030s, and the world is going to change by then,” Stofan says. “So how do we make sure that the path we’re choosing has enough flexibility, so that as technology develops we can adapt what we’re doing? That way, if someone figures out how to do something much better, you can adapt without starting from square one or making costs go way up.”

NO MORE FLYING SOLO

It’s been a long time since NASA was able to fund and engineer a space expedition completely on its own. These days, budgets are tighter and cooperation is key. That means some functions are being turned over to private-sector businesses such as SpaceX, which is currently handling cargo resupply for the International Space Station (ISS), and Boeing. In 2017, both companies are set to start shuttling astronauts to and from the ISS. “We’ve had to say, ‘NASA should use our resources for what is unique to NASA,’ ” says Stofan. The other part of the equation involves getting international help. The European Space Agency and Russia are offering to collaborate on this ambitious project, but that’s just the start. “With the mission to Mars, the whole world wants to get involved. So we actually have 13 different space agencies from around the world working on the global exploration road map. That helps us because we don’t have unlimited resources. And it’s a benefit to all the other countries that want to participate.”

TAP INTO NATURAL CURIOSITY

Studies have shown that NASA’s investment in science and tech has yielded a national return on investment that amounts to several times its cost. But Stofan doesn’t want to build public support for NASA’s agenda simply by stressing financial ROI. Instead, she hopes to appeal to our natural sense of curiosity and wonder. “Everybody has busy lives, but you can tell people, ‘Go outside and look at the night sky. We’ve been able to demonstrate that every star you see probably has a planet around it.’ The public has an incredible capacity for appreciating the wonder of our planet, our solar system, our universe.”

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STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION

If things proceed according to plan, the astronauts who will actually travel to Mars in 2035 are currently kids, so part of Stofan’s job is to get today’s children excited about exploring the universe. How’s that going? “Every time I give a talk,” Stofan says, “I ask the audience—especially if it’s kids—how many want to go to Mars. At least half raise their hands. I don’t think there’s going to be any shortage of volunteers.”