Is human space travel possible?

Is human space travel possible?
Highlights

Former Apollo astronauts at a space symposium doubted whether commercial companies will be able to accomplish human space travel, while representatives of those companies talked about redefining what it means to succeed—or fail—in such grand endeavors.

Former Apollo astronauts at a space symposium doubted whether commercial companies will be able to accomplish human space travel, while representatives of those companies talked about redefining what it means to succeed—or fail—in such grand endeavors.

Current and former NASA administrators and an expert on space law were among the panelists on the Ohio State University campus for the Armstrong Space Symposium. The event preceded the formal installation of aerospace innovator John M. Horack as the university’s first Neil Armstrong Chair in Aerospace Policy.

Lively discussion centered on whether humans should venture next to the moon or Mars, how to get there, and who will get there first. “I think there may be a confluence of events in the world today that will predicate another landing on the moon, but it won’t be [by the United States],” Apollo 15astronaut Al Worden said. “I think it might be China.” Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt disagreed with that prediction, but he did agree that China has big ambitions in space.

“They understand what we taught them with Apollo,” he said. “Dominating space is a critical step toward dominating the geopolitical culture of the Earth.” As to whether billionaire-funded companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin will carry humans to space before any world governments do, former NASA administrator Michael Griffin asserted that commercial ventures “are not substitutes for national will…for a belief by our nation that we should be preeminent in space.” Worden said that he favors Mars as the next target for exploration, and got a laugh from the audience when he suggested that being an 85-year-old retiree gives him the ideal mix of patience and fortitude for the tedious months-long journey.

“I can sit all day and watch TV and not get bored,” he said. “Send an old man!” While today’s commercial space ventures such as SpaceX don’t have the imprimatur of the U.S. government, they’re certainly more agile, Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins said. Still, he added, “I don’t think [Elon] Musk understands the enormity of a Martian mission. It makes Apollo look like child’s play.”

There wasn’t a representative of SpaceX on hand, but Will Pomerantz, vice president for special projects at Virgin Galactic, responded by saying he’s had many discussions with NASA engineers who are daunted by the enormity of their own task. “All this stuff is harder than anyone thought,” he said.

Ken Davidian, director for research at the Federal Aviation Administration Office of Commercial Space Transportation, called Collins’ reaction a normal response to the uncertainty that accompanies the launch of a new industry. The idea of commercial space travel may seem irrational now, he said, but in the future, who knows? “We’re lucky that we have [people] as ‘irrational’ as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk that they’re willing to pursue these goals.”

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