Back to the Moon – Turning Science Fiction into Fact at NASA Ames
NASA is quietly going about its business of returning to the moon. Not with human explorers, but with a next-generation robotic mission. Much of the technology for the mission, called the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), comes from NASA’s Ames Research Facility in Silicon Valley (Ames was also our primary point of contact inside NASA in operating Red Planet Capital). See more about the LADEE mission in an article in Space.com here: [Link].
Pete Worden, the Director of NASA Ames, talked with New Scientist about the LADEE mission, and more. He said that the 20th Century was just a warm-up; the 21st Century will be the real “space century.” Also, most of the scientists and engineers that are charting the future at NASA are science fiction fans. That avocation helps them build a future that other cannot imagine.
The interview with Pete Worden in New Scientist is here: [Link]
NASA is turning science fiction into fact
- 02 September 2013 by Stephen McLaren
As a new moon orbiter gets set to launch, Pete Worden, director of NASA Ames, says forget the 20th – this is the real space century
What will NASA’s new lunar orbiter do?
The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) is a $250-million mission to probe the moon’s exosphere and learn how it would be affected by increased human activity. It is also a low-cost modular probe, which will serve as a test bed for future cheap space missions.
What other cool missions are you working on?
We are soon going to be moving objects in the solar system around to protect the planet from being hit by asteroids. There is nothing cooler than that! Carl Sagan once said, “If the dinosaurs had had a space programme, they would not be extinct.”
What kind of work is done at NASA Ames?
We are primarily about research so, in addition to missions, we develop technology. We are building autonomous software into robots destined for the moon, for example. We also have a tradition of spawning new industries. For instance, when a Mars mission planned in the 1990s turned out to be too expensive, one of the lead scientists redeveloped the fuel cells for use on the ground. This led to the founding of Bloom Energy, which now develops these modular power systems.
Do you often collaborate with Silicon Valley?
Yes. We’ve set up a lab called Space Shop so that if someone has a clever idea, they can very quickly build a prototype. The company Made in Space used the lab to build a 3D printer that will be used on board the International Space Station to print out parts for machines. Eventually we think we’ll be able to print out satellites.
How will this extend our reach into space?
Well, genome printing is on the horizon too. So if you have a settlement on Mars and need pharmaceuticals you can just have the code sent from Earth. The same goes for printing biological hardware, like human organs.
There are lots of start-ups doing very cool stuff like that. If you’ve seen handheld “tricorder” scanners on Star Trek, one group is even developing those kinds of things. Everyone who’s read science fiction knows we will need that type of technology when we set up colonies on Mars.
Is science fiction a big source of inspiration?
Here, there’s almost a secret handshake among engineers who have read lots of science fiction. It lets you dream – how can we make that technology real, how can we make a better future?
What are your dreams for exploring space?
A principal tenet of science fiction is that there are planets out there with intelligent life. For most of the history of astrophysics we haven’t been able to see those worlds, but we are starting to see planets like Earth. I dream of going to those worlds. That’s my life’s inspiration.
What excites you most about your work?
This century, even more than the last one, is the space century – especially with the private sector and many more countries getting involved. The stuff we’re doing at Ames is turning science fiction into fact. This is the coolest job I have ever had.
This article appeared in print under the headline “One minute with… Pete Worden”
Pete Worden is the director of NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, which designed the LADEE orbiter set to launch in Virginia on 6 September