KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL — “A great path” lies ahead for “science and launching humans to Mars,” says astronaut and NASA science chief John Grunsfeld, during Part Two of a wide-ranging conversation with AmericaSpace at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in the midst of the maiden launch of NASA’s new Orion deep space capsule. Be sure to read Part One here.
The “Space Race” in the 1950s and 1960s spurred not only NASA’s Apollo Moon landing program to set down astronauts on the surface of another celestial body for the first time in human history, but also to dispatch the first unmanned robotic voyagers to far flung destinations throughout our Solar System and also study our Home Planet like never before possible.
“President Kennedy’s goal of going to the Moon and back started something that’s been truly great for our country, that has transformed the country. That’s NASA!” Grunsfeld explained to AmericaSpace.
“I think we are on a great path … with enormous scientific potential,” Grunsfeld told AmericaSpace.
“It’s an exciting time in space science.”
“That knowledge will allow us to do the work … including on the ISS … that will allow us to move forward so we can launch people to Mars in the next couple of decades.”
And it is often said those first photos from outer space showing Earth’s full globe as a fragile blue water world set against the blackness of space—taken by the Apollo moon walking astronauts and unmanned emissaries—also awakened and ignited the environmental movement in the 1960s to protect our planet and catalog and use its resources wisely.
As a scientist, astronomer, and top NASA manager, Grunsfeld has the experience, position, and authority to act on the goals outlined by Kennedy and deliver on those promises in all those fields of human exploration of the Cosmos and the Earth for the advancement of human knowledge and our species.
Although he is best known for servicing and upgrading the Hubble Space Telescope during eight crucial spacewalks on a trio of shuttle flights, Grunsfeld now serves as NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Therefore, Grunsfeld is a key decision maker with respect to both NASA’s robotic and human science and exploration initiatives.
He outlined some specific examples of the great prospects that lie ahead on all fronts.
Let’s start with what’s upcoming regarding unmanned science missions.
“What are your plans and goals for NASA’s robotic science and discovery programs going forward?” this writer asked.
“I think we are on a great path.”
“Then ORIRIS-REx bringing samples back from an asteroid. We have agreements with Japan on Hayabusa that just launched successfully to exchange samples from another asteroid.”
The Europa Clipper orbiter mission received over $100 million in funding for concept development in the Fiscal Year 2015 NASA appropriation bill approved by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Obama just before Christmas.
The JUNO Jupiter orbiter will arrive at our Solar System’s largest planet in 2016. Read the details and interview with the PI here.
New Horizons will fly past Pluto and its moons in July for the first expedition to the last planet in our Solar System. The swing by will be used as a gravity assist to aim the probe to another object in the Kuiper Belt several years later, based on observations conducted using Hubble in 2014.
The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is now well under construction by Lockheed Martin in Denver, Colo., and targeted to launch to Asteroid Bennu in 2016. It will retrieve samples for return to Earth in the 2020s.
And, of course, there are other missions moving along as well, such as the Dawn Asteroid orbiter spacecraft arriving at Dwarf planet Ceres in March. The InSight Mars lander is under construction for 2016 launch.
How about Earth science?
“There is enormous scientific potential including from a whole series of Earth science missions.”
“They are going to help us really understand the Earth’s system. So that we understand how to survive long enough so that we can have an economy on Mars,” said Grunsfeld.
NASA is launching a record-breaking five Earth science missions over the past year that began with the Global Precipitation Measurement Mission (GPM) in February 2014.
Next up was the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) that launched in July 2014.
ISS-RapidScat launched on the SpaceX CRS-4 flight in September 2014.
CATS and DSCOVR are launching this month.
Meanwhile, Hubble’s legacy grows by leaps and bounds every day.
Thanks to the brave and tireless work of Grunsfeld and the entire team of scientists, engineers, and astronauts at NASA, ESA, as well as in industry and academia, the world famous telescope will celebrate its 25th anniversary in April.
Grunsfeld was the lead spacewalker as a member of the crew of the STS-125 mission which launched on Space Shuttle Atlantis for the final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope on May 11, 2009, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The five spacewalks were completely successful in fully repairing and vastly upgrading the telescope and its instruments to their most scientifically productive capability.
Hubble is expected to continue operating for several more years. And hopefully overlap with the successor James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) now under construction at NASA Goddard for launch in 2018—detailed here and here.
Hubble remains healthy and NASA is planning big celebrations. So stay tuned for details.
“It’s really a very exciting time in space science.”
“And I think it’s that drive and that knowledge that will continue to allow us to do the work, including what we are doing on the ISS that will allow us to move forward so that we can launch people to Mars in the next couple of decades.”
What are your hopes and dreams for the Orion deep space capsule going forward?
“I hope Orion is successful.”
“I wouldn’t pin our hopes and dreams just on this specific mission [EFT-1] or the first SLS mission,” Grunsfeld replied.
The Space Launch System (SLS) is NASA’s mammoth new booster that will become the most powerful rocket in human history. It is designed to launch Orion and send humans to deep space destinations farther out from Earth than ever before.
The initial version will have a liftoff thrust of about 8.4 million pounds, more powerful than the Saturn V that sent our astronauts hurtling to the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s.
The first SLS mission is now slated for launch sometime in 2018, having slid from 2017.
In light of the catastrophic Orbital Sciences Antares rocket explosion on Oct. 28, 2014, just seconds after blastoff from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia and in the context of the Orion EFT-1 and SpaceX cargo launches, this writer asked Grunsfeld his opinion of what happened and its impact?
“This is why we as astronauts are so involved in the details,” Grunsfeld told AmericaSpace. “You really have to be well informed about what the risks are.”
“I think it’s really unfortunate what happened. But we are learning,” he said in Part One.
And he favors the development of capsules.
“I’m actually a big capsule advocate for our current situation. The capsule is really the simplest thing that you can build to get off the surface of the Earth.”
In Part Two, we discussed the launch abort system (LAS), critical to saving astronauts lives in a split second in case of a rocket failure.
Do you have an opinion about the launch abort systems—pusher versus puller—for Orion and the commercial capsules?
“The puller is conventional and we know it works.”
“In fact for the current design of the Orion exterior shape I actually went and looked at the Polaris system and thought about using the escape tower as an aero spike. And having an aerodynamic heat shield on the outside to try and release drag.”
“And that is what they ultimately incorporated [for Orion].”
“So there are advantages that you can leverage by using the escape tower as an aero spike.”
“People talk about pushers for a long time. That’s why Scott Horowitz originally had a pusher design on the Orion. And I think they flew some scale model tests off that. So we’ll see.”
Where did Grunsfeld think his astronaut career would take him?
“I always dreamt about going to the Moon and to Mars.”
“That’s what I thought I’d be doing in my spaceflight career. So that’s what I want to enable in future astronauts and cosmonauts and taikonauts and whatever else we have,” Grunsfeld explained.
How should we as a species go to Mars?
“Our U.S. Mars effort is international. We are tight partners with the European Space Agency. The Canadian Space Agency has a role. We all want to do this.”
“For many years and while I was an astronaut I saw the complexities of working and building the International Space Station with our partners. And I thought that for an International Space Station that was orbiting the Earth this was a great idea.”
“But to go to Mars it would be cheaper and simpler just to go and do it as just a US led effort. And not involve a lot of international partners. And that is probably true.”
“But about four years ago I was working with a team of Hubble astronomers that was an international group, and I suddenly thought that I’ve been wrong all these years about the international cooperation to Mars.”
“Yes, it might be faster. Yes it might be cheaper. But it would miss the whole point of going to Mars.”
“When we go to another planet, specifically like Mars that’s the only planet in our solar system that we could actually live on, then we shouldn’t go only as one country or another country or in a race.”
“We should go to Mars as ‘Humans,’ leaving planet Earth, to another planet that we are going to live on.”
“So I am a huge fan now that it should be as international as possible and as inclusive as possible.”
Stay tuned here for continuing updates.
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