For 50 years after the first man-made satellite Sputnik-I was launched, it was an era of intense rivalry for dominance of space between the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union. A brief lull ensued after the collapse of the USSR, but with countries such as China and India improving their capabilities in space, it has spurred a revival of interest in space exploration among nations. This time around, though, the stress is more on cooperation rather than rivalry among space faring nations and leading this charge is the US space agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
A day after announcing that NASA intends to send a man to Mars by 2037, NASA administrator Michael Griffin, sat down for a chat with Mint and said he foresees cooperation with India in achieving US’ plans of putting a man on the moon again by 2020. Edited Excerpts:
Where do you think we’ll see launch vehicle, satellite technology and planetary exploration heading in the new Space Age?
Michael Griffin, NASA Administrator
We are going to take people back to the moon and I hope it will be done as part of an international effort. I think we will establish research base or outpost on the moon much as we have it in Antarctica today. By 2057 we should be looking back at the 20 years anniversary of landing a person on Mars.
What is the next stage of launch vehicle technology development, as you embark on plans to land a man on Moon (again) and then Mars?
The Orion space crew exploration vehicle is being developed. The Ares rocket being built will provide access to space for human beings, and replace the space shuttle currently being used. Even as we do this we will need to construct the Ares 5 rocket, a human moon lander that is bigger than that the one we had during the Apollo years.
You are phasing out your current generation space shuttles in 2010 and Orion will be ready only by 2015. What do you plan to do in the interim?
During that period of time, we will be building our new systems. We in the United States will not have a manned spacecraft system.
India’s space programme is seen being largely driven by our social sector needs while some critics have accused NASA of wasting money on unproductive missions?
When you begin to spend as much money on socially relevant applications as we are already spending, maybe then I will accept the criticism. Our space programme is larger than the next three or four biggest space programmes or put together. We are spending over a $1.5 billion on earth science programmes; we are spending $ 5.5 billion on space science of all forms. So, I think we are doing well.
What is the extent of cooperation with India on this?
I don’t know, I think that remains to be seen. Over 60% of our scientific satellite missions are done in co-operation with other nations. Our entire manned space programme is an international joint venture with 15 other nations as is the International Space Station. We hope when we return to the Moon it will be done with the space station partners and others, (and) maybe (even) India. We are open to joint ventures whether it is in earth science applications or astrophysics.
Were there any discussions on cooperation with the Indian space agency chief during the current summit?
We don’t have any specific plans for cooperation on specific missions with India at this point beyond the Chandrayaan-1 and exchange of scientific data. We are really open to discussions on Chandrayaan-2, or other missions. We will be very open to the idea to cooperate with India in the human space flight or our efforts beyond the space station, which could be again taking people back to the moon and establishing a research station. Now the Indian government has not made specific proposals on those lines. I hope that happens.
A number of countries, including India, have expressed concern over China’s test of an anti-satellite missile? Were there concerns the debris would harm the space station?
NASA is a civil space organisation and beyond that I don’t have comment on the tests by the Chinese. The tests did not cause any problem to the space station. We watched it carefully to make sure that it did not cause any problem, if there was, we would have moved the space station.
Is there need for a binding international protocol to ensure the security of space-based assets?
I don’t have any comments on this.
What is the progress so far on the Global Exploration Strategy and the plan to build a permanently occupied base on the moon?
I think the space station programme with maybe broader participation is an excellent model. Different countries can furnish different modules or different equipment according to agreements that are developed and a whole can be greater than sum of the parts. I think, next couple of decades, when we look forward to the Moon and then to Mars, it is reasonable to expect that model will hold again.
Do you see India playing a role in the International Space Station?
The space station programme is almost in its final development phase. So I don’t think there are lot of partnership opportunities in this programme. I am using that as a model for the lunar habitat programme or the Mars programme later. I think that is a good model.
Do you see private space tourism affecting programmes of agencies such as NASA or ISRO?
It is clear that there is a small but a lucrative market for space tourism. I think that some companies will step forward to try to address market. It is not a government effort, but I wish them well. I think the development of aviation around the world benefited from the combination of private activity and government activity that spurred the growth of aviation. We haven’t had that in space. Space has been mostly, not entirely, a government preserve. And I would never be one to say that we need less spending on space, but I would like to see more private activity in space tourism.