Absolutely the United States should lead in space, for the survival of the United States. It’s inspiring for the next generation. If we lose leadership, then we’ll be using Chinese capability to inspire Americans.
You were critical of President Bush and NASA’s proposal to return to the moon, but the moon does play a role in your conception of a mission to Mars. Can you explain?
To send humans back to the moon would not be advancing. It would be more than 50 years after the first moon landing when we got there, and we’d probably be welcomed by the Chinese. But we should return to the moon without astronauts and build, with robots, an international lunar base, so that we know how to build a base on Mars robotically.
What would the moon base look like?
I think it should be an early version of a habitation module for a U.S. interplanetary spacecraft. We would put it there for testing temperature control, the temperature changes with 14 days of sunlight and 14 days of darkness on the moon, radiation protection—that’s absolutely necessary for venturing beyond the earth’s magnetic field.
After we build the moon base, you believe we should use what we learned and send humans to Mars’ moon, Phobos, to build a base on Mars.
That would be my preference. We’ve learned, with the robots Spirit and Opportunity on the surface of Mars, that you can’t control them adequately from the Earth. What we’ve done in five years on Mars could be done in one week—that’s a significant advance—if we had human intelligence in orbit around Mars. It’s much, much easier to send people there for a year and a half and then bring them back, before sending them back later to permanently land on Mars.
So to return to Earth, it’s easier to launch off Phobos than Mars, because Phobos is a smaller body with less gravity?
Yes. We need to build the base on Mars from orbit before sending people to the surface. And they will be permanent settlers and not return to earth, like the Pilgrims on the Mayflower left Europe.
You think we can actually get humans to live out their lives on Mars?