- Radio hour
- About us
ADMINISTRATOR of NASA
Interviewers: Michael Keegan
Michael Keegan: Welcome to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Michael Keegan your host and managing editor of The Business of Government Magazine. We stand at a pivotal moment in space exploration but there are plans to further extend our reach into the solar system and NASA is leading the way and orbiting outpost, the international space station, is home to a crew of astronauts from across the world, conducting research and learning how to live and work in space.
There are robotic explorers probing vast regions of the solar system including the depths of interstellar space. NASA is also preparing for a challenging mission to capture and redirect an asteroid for human exploration, a stepping stone to future human exploration of Mars. While NASA and its international partners strive to achieve these exploration goals, we are also witnessing a birth of a new commercial space industry. What are NASA's key strategic goals? How is NASA expanding the boundaries of science, technology and the imagination? What is NASA doing to cultivate a risk tolerant environment? We'll explore these questions and so much more with our very special guest Charlie Bolden, Administrator of NASA. Welcome to the show Charlie.
Charlie Bolden: Very good to be here. Thanks very much.
Michael Keegan: Also joining our conversation from IBM is Paul Kayatta. Paul, welcome.
Paul Kayatta: Well Michael, thank you. Charlie, good to see you.
Michael Keegan: Charlie, many of our listeners are quite familiar with NASA but before we delve into specific initiatives, perhaps you can provide us with a brief overview of the history and continuing evolution of this agency. How has NASA evolved since its inception?
Charlie Bolden: We're the child of the original national Advisory Committee on aeronautics, NACA. I want to say NACA is about to be 100 if it were still around it would be 100 years old and NACA originally was put in place to advise the President and others on aeronautics, on how do we okay we have this thing called an airplane so how do we effectively use it and bring it up.
And then all of a sudden in 1957 when President Eisenhower was president, people woke up one morning to hear this funny sound like a beep-beep-beep going overhead and it was Sputnik. And that woke everyone up to the fact that as important as airplanes were, there was something else coming and it was space craft of some type.
And President Eisenhower decided that he should establish an organization that would focus in addition to aeronautics on space and so NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was born with the 1958 National Space Act, and that was our birth. But to continue the legacy of NACA, and that's the aeronautics mission directorate that is still one of our four mission directorates, so that was our birth.
Heavily focused on competition. Heavily focused on trying to catch up with the Soviets because not only had they orbited an artificial satellite first but with Yuri Gagarin's flight they had become the first to put a human in space so we were charging from behind immediately and we started from there.
We have changed significantly over time. I don't view us and I don't think anybody in NASA views us as being in competition with anyone to be quite honest. The competition today in space is among corporations and companies, so it’s a commercial competition. We have tried to at least over the last five years since I've been the NASA Administrator, we've tried to stoke that competition because we feel what we want to do is get the cost for launches down and enable more people to get themselves and things into space.
The hardest hurdle for space flight is launch cost and it is what drove the market away from the United States, so we've kind of brought part of the market back with the advent of our commercial cargo program. We now have two American companies, SpaceX and Orbital that send cargo to the international space station for us. Space station has now launched a purely commercial communication satellite to geosynchronous orbit, so that's something that was always the duty of a nation to do before and so now private industry or commercial industry has engaged in it. So that's probably the biggest change.
Michael Keegan: And so it’s such a complex or interesting mission. Could you give us a sense of the scale of operation now, the NASA of today? What's the size of NASA?
Charlie Bolden: We're a people organization of approximately 17 to 18,000 civil servants spread across the country at 10 NASA field centers and then our little subordinate facilities.
Michoud is one of the biggest down in New Orleans. It belongs to the Marshall Space Flight Center. It’s like a huge production facility. It used to be where we produced the external tank for the space shuttle program. Today, if you go to Michoud you will find what used to be a huge empty building today is beaming, is teaming with business. We're building the core stage for our new heavy lift launch vehicle, building fuel tanks for it.
Sierra Nevada which is one of our competitive commercial companies, one of our commercial partners out of Colorado has actually moved a lot of the production of their dream chaser space craft, which is in competition to become one of the next vehicles to launch humans into space. They have subcontracted with Lockheed Martin and so you have the Lockheed Martin Sierra Nevada team there at Michoud. A lot of things going on there.
Just outside, about three hours from where we sit in Washington, DC is the Wallops Flight facility that belongs to Goddard. It is now a launch facility. We have always launched balloons and sounding rockets. We now launch big rockets.
Orbital science is one of our industry partners in carrying cargo to the international space station, launches their Antares rocket with the Cygnus spacecraft carrying cargo out of there. So that's kind of the way we are today, and we're really supported. The other part of the family is the today 40,000 or so contractors that supplement. They fill in where we have holes in our technical capabilities. So if I need a certain kind of people and I don't have them in the NASA civil service workforce, then we'll go out and hire contractors to do that kind of work.
Michael Keegan: How is your budget?
Charlie Bolden: Our budget is about 17.4 -- this year, the fiscal year 14 budget is 17.6 billion dollars. The President submission for 2014, which is what I'm supporting defending now is for 17.5 so a slight reduction but people have to remember we get criticized by Congress because the President asked for less than they appropriated last year. We are still under sequester so we have two year relief from sequester and the President has to abide by the Budget Control Act, so he actually had less money to distribute across the federal agencies and everybody took a fair share cut.
Mine was about 185 million dollars, which took me from 17.6 down to 17.5 but we effectively used that amount. That's a lot of money. It’s not as much as I would like to have. There is no head of any agency that wouldn't tell you they could use more and I'm not going to be any different, but I think we have plans to use it strategically such that we will be an agency that continues to lead the world in exploration and make the American citizens proud.
Paul Kayatta: Charlie, could you tell us about your role as the Administrator of NASA? Roles, responsibilities and maybe give us a little day in the life of a NASA Administrator.
Charlie Bolden: No two days are alike. I've been the NASA Administrator now since July 2009 and I have a lot of my employees who shadow me, the mid and low level potential future leaders of the agency so we have a process that we try to get senior leadership to take someone on for a day and they just go with you as if they're your shadow.
And I always tell them, okay you're going to get to see a unique day because I can't remember in more than five years now that I've ever had two days that were alike. They're almost always very busy. I think what you consider to be your duties, the duties of the NASA Administrator are relatively duly spelled out in our governing directives and everything but I consider myself to be the President's chief advisor on civil space. That is my job. His chief advisor on military space is the Secretary of Defense and that's delegated down to the Secretary of the Air Force as the executive agent for space. And then the intelligence community generally headed up by the head of the National Reconnaissance Office.
So the three of us as a matter of fact in order to make it a complete coordinated package we usually meet quarterly in what we call a summit and we talk about space and how we interact with each other, how we affect each other so that none of us does something that will dramatically impact the way that the other is able to carry out their particular duties.
So primarily the primary science or space advisor to the President and Congress, because we advise them. I am the people's conduit into the Administration and the Congress for their inputs on where they think the nation should be going in terms of space. We do lots of things. We do townhall meetings. We do forums. We do seminars. We'll talk a little bit later about the Asteroid Redirect Initiative. That has been heavily influenced by public input. We've put forward the basic concept and then went to the public around the world actual and got their input so we're the conduit for those ideas to the administration and the Congress.
Michael Keegan: So Charlie, in the spirit of no two days being the same for you, no actually I was just wondering and maybe this could connect to that but what are some of the challenges you face in your current role and how have you sought to address them?
Charlie Bolden: Because I think we are a people organization, I started out by saying that so my number one challenge is to take care of my people. To make sure that every NASA employee to the greatest extent I can feels valued, feels that they're making a contribution and as I try to emphasize to them whenever I talk to them so that every single day they go home feeling that life is better for somebody on this planet because they worked that day. It’s a big deal to me. It’s really important for me to make sure that all of our people feel like they're contributing to make the world a better place.
Our vision for example is in essence it says we reach for new heights to reveal the unknown so the things we do and learn make life better for humanity, and I think we do that. I think we do it every single day whether it’s in aeronautics or in human exploration, or in science, or in space technology. I just want our folk to feel that.
The next challenge is believe it or not is trying to be a mediator. I'm a part of the Administration but somebody has to step in the middle of the Administration and the Congress and say, “Okay, we need to come together on some of these things,” which I find that to be among the most difficult parts of what I have adopted as my job is to try to mediate between the Congress and the administration, understand what both are saying. It is a position I've adopted. It's not one that everyone in the administration will agree with. They will tell you that I'm misplaced or I'm misguided in my duties but if we want to have a robust and effective space program that remains the best in the world, if I can't bring harmony between the Administration and the Congress then we have no space program, so I adopted that as a personal challenge of mine.
Michael Keegan: So Charlie, given your experience as a pilot, as a General, now as an Administrator, I'd be interested to understand from your perspective what makes an effective leader?
Charlie Bolden: I have my own leadership philosophy and my number one assessment, my number one metric for success is if I walk away, if I go away for some extended period of time will anyone know I'm gone, and if nobody knows I'm gone I think I've done a pretty good job of leadership because I've built a team that knows what's expected. They know what to do. They're very confident in their ability to do it and if they can't find me, they don't worry about it because they know okay if he were here, this is what he would do. I'm very happy.
You're never satisfied but I'm very happy that if I walked away for, I don't know how much, for an extended period of time, NASA would not miss a step because I inherited a pretty good leadership team and I've tried my best to kind of mold and shape them in a fashion that I could work with. I think we've done a pretty good job of doing that so that's sort of my number one criteria for a leader is can you work yourself out of a job such that people are confident and knowledgeable and go forward doing the things that you would direct if you were there.
The other thing is do people feel valued. We have a lot of managers in an organization like NASA. People who are extremely technically qualified and technically competent. They're among the best engineers in the world but they may not be able to lead at all. There's a big difference between management and leadership.
Management is based on the bottom line. What are the results that are coming from my efforts? I actually changed our performance appraisal system in NASA such that the focus for senior executive service for the senior leadership level in NASA was no longer something called results driven. Yes, they do have to get the job done, but there are two things that I said are more important and they're both people things. Leading people and influencing change. If you can't do those in my book, then you're not a very good leader because everybody needs somebody they will get behind and follow even if it means into dangerous places and even the threat of death. That's the extreme in the military.
So you have to know how to follow. So if you don't know how to follow, you can't lead anyone because you won't know what is expected of you. How do I convince somebody that they should follow me? So I guess leading people and influencing change are two of the critical things for me as a leader.
Michael Keegan: What are NASA's key strategic goals? We will ask its Administrator, Charlie Bolden when our conversation continues on The Business of Government Hour.
Michael Keegan: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Michael Keegan, your host, and our guest today is NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. Also joining us from IBM is Paul Kayatta.
So Charlie, NASA just released its strategic plan I believe that covers 2014 to 17 on the new cycle according to GPRA Modernization Act. I'd like, if you could, to describe your strategic vision and in particular the strategic goals that frame this vision.
Charlie Bolden: We actually went through the discussion, I mean in-depth, sometimes heated discussion for months on end with our leadership team and that's all the center directors, all the associate administrators of the four big directorates and all of the officers in charge at NASA headquarters, which is a group of about 30 people. We asked ourselves first of all, “Okay who are we doing this thing for? Who is the strategic plan intended for?” There are several groups. One is Congress. One is the administration and OMB and they spell out like I said the form and format. The American people and probably most importantly our own workforce. So we said, “How do we make this plan meaningful to the workforce? How can they see themselves in it?”
So our 2014 strategic plan, we selected three goals. Those three goals have to do with space, how do we foster the further exploration and development of deep space and on using that to make earth better? How do we focus on this earth? How do we emphasize our stewardship responsibility to this earth on which we live?
And then the third goal was related to people. How do we get more effective utilization out of our people? How do we take care of them more? So those were the three broad areas in which we did it. Our vision essentially says we reach for new heights to reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn makes life better for humanity. It’s pretty simple.
I try to make sure that I use my core values, the core values that NASA has. It’s easy to remember because it’s SITE. Its safety is always paramount. Safety is number one. Integrity again going back to the Marines. I didn't think of these. This predated me. Teamwork, how do we get everybody together, pulling together in the same direction as a team. And excellence, how do we establish ourselves as the best in the world in what we do and how do we maintain that? So SITE; safety, integrity, teamwork and excellence.
And so the strategic plan needs to support the vision, make it real. It needs to support the three goals that we chose in execution of NASA's mission, and that's how we came up with it. We sent it out. It just came out recently as you mentioned. It's posted on the NASA website so anybody anywhere in the world can go and read NASA's strategic plan. It’s not that long and hopefully it’s clear when people read it. And we talk in specifics about how those three goals go down into subordinate objectives and on down.
When we write performance appraisals on our people, every one of what we call critical elements of a person's performance appraisal we try to tie back into at least one of the goals and objectives of the strategic plan. So when you say I can't relate to the strategic plan, we try to tie their performance appraisal critical elements right back into the strategic plan so they see where okay that does apply to me. It may not be everything but pieces of it do.
Paul Kayatta: Well, the international space station provides a unique environment for research on human health, space operations necessary for future long-term missions. What's being done to extend the life of the international space station and what challenges do you face?
Charles Bolden: International space station doesn't belong to the United States. The international space station is a multi-national business.
The principle partners are the United States with NASA being the effective agent for the United States, Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency being the managing agent for the Russian government, the Japanese Space Agency JAXA, the Canadian Space Agency and then the European Space Agency is the fifth and largest partner. The European Space Agency consists of well there are actually 22 now European nations that are members of ESA. About 15-19 of them actual put money into the operation of the international space station.
So any decision on station has to be a consensus among those five partners. It came about interestingly, painfully how it came about, it started out as a concept of an American space station during the shuttle era. I always tell people, “We're going back to the future.” If you go all the way back to the late 60s, early 70s just as we were winding down the Apollo program, or in fact it was the reason we wound down the Apollo program, the next big thing that the United States was going to do and NASA was going to execute it was the space transportation system, which was a three pronged system that would be a vehicle for transportation from earth surface to lower earth orbit, routine transportation for cargo and crew. That ended up being the shuttle.
The second critical component would be an on orbit station where we could actually sort of like an assembly plant where you could put large space structures together, things that were too big to launch out of the gravity well of earth going to the moon, going to Mars, going even further into the solar system. That could be put together on a station.
And then the third component was going to be what we called an orbital transfer vehicle or an orbital maneuvering vehicle so that again you didn't have to come back down to the surface of the earth to go places. You took the crew to the station. The crew got into an orbital maneuvering or orbital transferring vehicle, very little power required to go from point A to point B, back to the lunar surface, out to Mars and all of that.
Eventually after the Challenger accident it just became the shuttle transportation system and all that other stuff was forgotten.
After the Bush administration when the Soviet Union fell, the wall fell, geopolitical perspective came into play and we said, “Okay, how do we keep all these now Russian scientists and engineers from straying into really bad places?” And we began to help the Russian government to shore up their space program and we began to work. We were already working with our partners on an international space station and we brought the Russians in. They are our principle partner right now but they were among the last to come into the international space station out of necessity more than anything else.
It today has been on orbit for 15 years. It's been permanently occupied by humans for almost 14 years and it is a model of international cooperation and collaboration.
We're now using the space station to do testing on the human system to make sure we understand the challenges to long-term space flight for humans, trying to solve a lot of the problems on station. Technology development. Things like much more robust environmental control and life support systems. When you're on the way to Mars, it’s an eight month trip one way. You have no supply ship that will catch up with you and bring spare parts so you should have a system that's robust enough that it won't break and you won't need spare parts, and we're doing all that on the international space station today.
Paul Kayatta: You mentioned going to Mars. Clearly human exploration remains that priority for NASA. To that end, would you tell us a little bit about the continued development of new systems that are supporting the crew admissions concept? The space launch system for example.
Charles Bolden: The space launch system is a heavy lift launch vehicle. And its primary purpose is to be the lift vehicle for things that we want to send to deep space, beyond the moon and that are now people and science. We originally thought it was just for people. It has a crew module called Orion that's paired with it and that's Orion with a service module and a habitation module when we're ready to go to Mars will be the house in which the crews will travel.
But we now find that there are a lot of very ambitious science missions we'd like to fly to the outer planets. We're working on a mission right now to Europa, to one of the icy moons of Jupiter that many scientists feel that is probably a likely place to find life.
So now scientists are looking at the potential to use the heavy lift launch vehicle for a direct shot to an outer planet, whereas with the current spacecraft that we have, launch vehicles, at best you launch from here. You go out, swing around Venus to get some energy. Venus throws you out. You get drawn into Venus' gravitational system and then spit out the other side. That's the way we kind of wind our way out to deep space today.
With the heavy lift launch vehicle and an upper stage or booster, we think there's a direct route so you just launch and you go. Theoretically, you could launch a Europa mission on the way to Jupiter's moon, Europa today. Three years from now launch that same mission with the SLS and it would catch up with it and pass it before it got to Jupiter and Europa because of the fact that it just goes direct. It doesn't have to loop all out around other planets.
The technologies that we need to do all of that, we stood up a new mission director called the Space Technology Mission Directorate. I look at it as we try to make it a fertile ground, a garden, in which we grow the seed corn for the future technologies that we'll need. Things like robust life support systems. Solar electric propulsion large enough that it can take us all the way out to the outer planets in a little bit less time than it does today but it can take big payloads.
How do we land on Mars? We did it one way with curiosity when it fought its way through the very thin Martian atmosphere and then lowered curiosity to the surface on the sky crane, but there are better ways to do it we think than that. So we're developing the seed corn and the space technology mission directorate, low technology readiness level missions formative, some of them we call game changing, some of them we call just new types of programs. Once it’s gotten to a certain stage, we can hand it off to the mission directorates where they can refine it and do the kinds of operational tests and development that's needed at that level. So that's kind of how we're trying to do that today.
Michael Keegan: Charlie, I want to actually explore the Administration's goal in sending humans to Mars by 2030. What are the benefits of exploring Mars? More particularly, how realistic is it for us to expect it to happen? And what are the technical, physiological and scientific challenges of meeting this sort of big audacious goal?
Charles Bolden: First, the President really put the pressure on us so we're 16 years away from the opening of the window to put humans on Mars and it obviously will be initially either orbiting one of Mars' moons and doing space to ground communications with robotic vehicles down there initially. So the first few missions won't be landing someone on Mars but eventually as the president told us in his lifetime we want to land humans on Mars.
There are a number of purposes for going. One is to understand our own planet better. Second is to see if in fact Mars as many of us suspect sustains life today and if not, can it sustain life and if so did it ever sustain life? Those are three separate questions but interrelated to each other. If we find all three are true; it once had life, it can sustain life, and it has it right now then that says that is an alternative habitat for humanity.
So Bill Gerstenmaier who heads up my human exploration mission directorate today, he and I, we're kind of moving away from explore and exploration missions and we're calling missions to Mars pioneering missions.
When we now talk about going to Mars and going to deep space, we're no longer talking about exploring. We're talking about pioneering where we go, we set up habitats where humans can live for long periods of time.
Everything we're doing on the international space station going from a routine mission being six months, next year we're going to send Scott Kelly and his Russian counterpart. They're going to live a year and after that we'll see if we need to expand it longer and longer until we're ready to go to Mars. My vision the first habitats on Mars may not even be on the surface. It depends on just how harsh the radiation environment is and how much we can find to protect crews on Mars. We may send robotic precursors up and they will build subterranean habitats.
People generally think of little things that look like Quonset huts on the surface of the moon and Mars. That's okay if all you're going to do is go camp out for a little while and then come back. If you're going to live there, you need to find out what the habitat is like and then adapt yourself to the surroundings. It may be that we burrow in like animals do frequently and we live underground for most of the time to provide protection from the radiation environment. But those things have all got to happen beginning in the next 16 years and that's the critical reason that we really have a full court press on SLS, the heavy lift launch vehicle Orion.
The most important thing to us right now is an American capability to get our crews to space. We don't have an organic capability. We're dependent on our partners, the Russians, and they are reliable in spite of all that you hear, all that you see going on. There's a big difference between relationships between the United States government and the Russian government and NASA and Roscosmos as the agents for civil space of our two nations. We work incredibly well together. We've been operating for 15 years, coordinating the development and now operation of the international space station.
When we lost Columbia in 2003, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board said, “Okay, it’s time to move away from shuttle.” Probably by 2010, the nation should have phased out of shuttle, brought on utilization of commercially available operations to get cargo and humans into lower earth orbit so that NASA can then focus on deep space exploration. That was the guidance of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Not a lot was done with that until President Obama came in. The Bush administration actually started commercial cargo. They put down a limited amount of money and then NASA took that money, worked with industry and we now have two companies, Orbital and SpaceX that carry cargo to the international space station. So we are not dependent on any partner for cargo transportation.
Three years from now if Congress agrees to fund the commercial crew program at the level that the president has requested for this coming year, about 858 million dollars, we think that when we announce winners this coming August, we'll be able to have more than one competitor. So we will maintain competition, which I think is critical for crew safety and also for again to keep the cost down. If we lose competition, if we go down to a single provider, I can still say I'm not going to fly on a vehicle that's not safe but some of the leverage that I have to guarantee we're going to have a safe vehicle without additional cost to the government is lost if I don't have competition.
The second thing that we will be able to guarantee the American public that come 2017, we're going to be flying American astronauts to space from American soil and that's really critically important. When I came in the goal was to be able to fly American astronauts on American spacecraft in 2015. The first year the president submitted a budget that had commercial crew in it, he asked for a billion dollars and got zero. You're not going anywhere with that kind of response from the Congress.
And now it’s time for me to do a better job, for you to do a better job of writing the checks and we can get back to where we belong where we're launching our astronauts into space on our own vehicles by 2017.
So that's why we need full agreement between the Congress and the President on his request for commercial crew.
Paul Kayatta: Earlier you mentioned the Curiosity Rover. What are you doing to build on that brilliant success that project experienced?
Getting Curiosity on the surface of Mars proved that the types of deceleration that we used to slow it down, the types of devices that we used for precision landing, those work so if we wanted to go back to that we could. We don't think we want to use everything in putting humans there but we have another follow-on mission in 2020 that we call Mars 2020. It’s going to be a Curiosity like vehicle about the same size.
The science definition team of us and our international partners plus academia and the general public is now working to determine what are the scientific objectives of that mission going to be? We know the number one will be to put cash soil samples for later return to earth because that is a primary objective of the planetary decadal science surveys for the last two ten-year periods. So, we have to do that or we'll lose the support of the science community and so that will be one objective.
It has discovered things. It’s verified the presence of water in abundance that we always thought in the subterranean Martian surface in the form of ice. Just its images and its analysis of soil samples and rock samples and everything, while it tells us that everything needed to support life and create life is there, it hasn't found the types of organics that everyone is hoping for. We haven't seen an organic species yet but everything needed to create life is there on Mars so that's been verified through Curiosity.
So piece by piece, bit by bit every day it’s making another discovery. As it climbs Mt. Sharp, it’s going to start to drill into the various core levels or strata of Mars. Here I can talk about it because we're in the United States. A lot of people are familiar with the Grand Canyon. People explore the Grand Canyon and walk up, they backpack up the wall of the Grand Canyon because they want to look at the various ages of earth, this period, that period.
Curiosity will do the same thing with Mars. It’s in a deep, deep canyon if you will in a crater and Mt. Sharp is taller than any mountain here on earth, and it has millions of years of Martian geological history in it so it's going to climb not all the way up but it’s going to climb a lot of that and take samples. One of those layers we may find a fossil or something else. That's our hope, so it's doing different things every day.
Michael Keegan: Now Charlie, I'm fascinated by this push to deep space exploration, in particular your plans. I want you to tell us a little bit about this of lassoing an asteroid and pulling it closer to earth so we can examine it. What's the benefit and what's the probability?
Charles Bolden: Yeah, everybody uses the term lasso. The way we're going to get the asteroid has not been definitively determined yet, but sort of lassoing, catching it in a capture device is one method. An alternative method is to go to a big asteroid, one that we don't want to change its trajectory passing by earth but we would like to take a giant bolder off of it and take that and put it into a retrograde stable orbit of the moon.
When we started this, when the President challenged us to put humans on an asteroid in 2025, I have to say NASA like everybody thought, “What does he mean?” And we all thought, “Right away, okay we need to fly humans to the asteroid belt which is between Mars and Saturn or Mars and Jupiter. We need to fly astronauts all the way out there and put them on an asteroid.” That's one way to do it. Highly unlikely, highly impractical because that would mean we're bypassing Mars, which is already difficult enough to get to, to do an even more difficult mission, so why would you do that first and then come back to Mars.
So we were also challenged to identify as many as possible of the earth's threatening asteroids. We've identified about 98% of those that statistically we think could threaten earth in the next 100, 200 years. We are very short of identifying a significant number of those in the smaller category, like 140 meters and below. Those will still do a lot of damage to earth. They can destroy communities. Some of them are city killers, not civilization killers like the big ones.
And the question now comes to me more and more often in public forum is can we protect the planet? Well today, we can't. Today, we have identified and characterized a lot of the asteroids but we need to develop the technology that will enable us to deter an asteroid from striking earth. So this mission will fulfill a number of objectives.
If we chose to go and try to capture the asteroid and over time, when I say over time I don't mean like a day or two or a week or two, over a year, year and a half, because it’s going to take us about a year to year and a half to reach this incoming asteroid. We want one purposely that is on its way toward earth. Either the analysis says will impact earth or will come close enough that it will get our attention. We want to try to rendezvous with that type of asteroid, put ourselves one in the same with it whether we encapsulate it or get a bolder off of it, and then over the next year, year and a half as it continues to fly toward earth just gentle nudge it using solar electric propulsion. Just thrust against it.
We want to thrust against an asteroid for about a year, year and a half, and if can change its course by a fraction of a degree and get it to move more toward the moon than earth, at some point the moon's gravity will exceed that of the sun because asteroids are kept in orbit by the gravity of the sun, not anything else. They orbit the sun either in big elliptical orbits, the ones that come in and worry us, or in big circular orbits, the ones that we don't even worry about because they're in the main asteroid belt and they'll never get anywhere close to us because they're never coming inside Mars.
So we want one that's in a big elliptical orbit, coming toward earth that we can get with, push on for about a year, year and a half, cause its orbit to be perturbed just enough that the moon's gravity as it gets closer says okay, come here, overrides the sun and draws it into lunar orbit. There are stable lunar orbits where it'll stay for 100 years. That gives us the opportunity to use our heavy lift launch vehicle and the Orion, send a crew there where we know how to go. Not easy. None of this stuff is easy but we can much easier get a crew to the moon to lunar orbit than we can out to the main asteroid belt.
They would then practice some of the procedures that we would need when we get to Mars because out there we aren't under the influence of earth's gravity. We know how to operate in lower orbit because the dominant gravity is earth. We know about orbital mechanics. We know about all this stuff that a lot of great aeronautical minds have taught us through the centuries. We don't know how to operate when you get out around a moon of Mars for example. We don't really know how does the gravity of that moon versus Mars' gravity, versus the sun's gravity, versus earth's gravity because there you're starting to talk about multi-planet impacts on you. So we have to learn how do we operate in this strange environment?
How do we do proximity opps? How do we rendezvous with something out there? And then how do we put astronauts outside to do a spacewalk? We know how to do it from the space station because there's microgravity, essentially no gravity so we've learned how to operate. Tether yourself, just don't let it go and you'll float around and you can do stuff. What about on the moon? The moon has gravity, not as much as earth but still the moon's gravity is going to keep you there. Mars has gravity, less than earths also so we think we know how we want to operate there.
An asteroid is almost no gravity but it is a very, very minor gravity so if we can get used to having crews operate around an asteroid where they're either developing techniques to mine or to take samples, which we intend to do and bring them back to earth, we're learning a lot about going on to Mars. So we call it a proving ground. We have earth centric things that we're doing today in lower earth orbit. We want to move out to Mars centered but in the middle we have to have a proving ground. Eight months away is too far. Two days away, like it is to the moon and lunar orbit, that's okay. Something bad happens, at worst we'll do like we did on Apollo 13. The moon's gravity will bring it in, throw it back out toward earth and the crew can come back.
Eight months to Mars, something happens on the way, you're still going eight more months and that's just half way. That just gets you to Mars, so we have to have as I said again earlier much more robust systems and that's what we develop in the proving ground.
Michael Keegan: What is NASA doing to cultivate a risk tolerant environment? We will ask NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden when our conversation continues on The Business of Government Hour.
Michael Keegan: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Michael Keegan, your host, and our guest today is NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. Also joining us from IBM is Paul Kayatta.
So Charlie, I'd like to explore and you've touched on it a little bit, the space technology program. I had the pleasure of having Dr. Bobby Braun on a couple years ago. It was a wonderful conversation. Could you tell us about the key priorities in this area and what are the benefits derived?
Charles Bolden: Yeah as Bobby probably told you when he came because he was my first space chief technologist. We are really trying to capture a way to close the technological gap between where we are and where we want to be. The ultimate goal of NASA for this nation is to put humans on Mars and human exploration. We aren't ready to get there yet. We don't have everything we need to get there. There are significant technological challenges, protection, technological and medical protecting the crew from radiation, but that is a technological challenge to defeat a medical malady, if you will.
Solar electric propulsion. How do we get large enough power packages that can transport cargo for long distances to deep space? Eventually we will want to cut down the amount of transit time. That's a little expensive for now so you're talking about nuclear types of propulsion, nuclear thermal, nuclear other, nuclear electric. We know that's where we eventually want to get.
So that's the primary function of the space technology mission directorate and our space technology program. Inadequately funded by the Congress, again and no knock on the Congress but it’s just that I take the blame on not adequately explaining that there is a priority in which you do all this stuff. We need everything. We need heavy lift. We need commercial crew and cargo. We need space technology.
Those are gaps we have to fill before you can utilize all these other things so I'll need 130 metric ton spacecraft at some point. I can get there much better if I develop some of the technologies like composite materials for tankage that will make it much lighter, much more resilient. Different systems for guidance and navigation. Optical communication, laser com mainly for deep space communications. Our data limits today due to normal communications is very limited.
Optical com allows you to pack just magnitudes more data into a data stream if it’s in a light beam. And so we need to be able to do that. We've experimented with optical com, laser com from the moon. We have a mission called LADEE that will impact the moon later this month and we'll end that mission but we actually have sent both voice data and imagery from LADEE back to earth using laser com and it’s superb. Its internet quality, internet speed and the like.
If you look at other things whether its atomic clocks for timing and navigation, things that are really, really critical not just to us but to DOD, to the intelligence community, I'll classify all this stuff as societal needs. Our society in order to stay on the cutting edge of leadership in exploration and just living here on earth, we need to be developing new technologies. Water resources. How do we better manage our water resources? How do we get fresh drinking water to millions of people on the planet today, not all of them outside the United States?
So those are all kinds of things we're trying to do right now.
Michael Keegan: So Charlie, most of what NASA does is inherently risk oriented. I'm interested, given the reality of what you do and the missions you've outlined for us to deep space, how are you cultivating a risk tolerant environment at NASA?
Charles Bolden: I try to be the leader and I talk about risks all the time. I don't go out to the centers without talking to our workforce about the fact that I want them to be risk takers but that I want them to be smart risk takers. For every risk that we are willing to incur, then we must put into place some risk mitigation factor. Sometimes it can be we change the system. We modify it and we build it such that we take that risk away. It doesn't happen very often but every once in a while you can do that.
The other way is to put a procedure in place that says okay we are not going to keep this failure from happening but we can keep it from killing the crew if we just put this procedure in place where they switch to an alternate system, or go to a backup or do something like that.
And then every once in a while you come up against a risk that is so challenging that with today's technology there is no way around it. And as a general rule what we will do then is do a risk tradeoff and say okay is what we're about to do, is what we want to do worth exposing the crew or exposing others to that risk. If you're not doing something that just has to be done then you don't take that risk. You don't assume it. That's what we call trying to do smart risk taking and we try to balance the need for the risk versus the gain if you accept it.
A risk matrix generally tells us, well we use things like probabilistic risk assessment. They are tools that tell you where to put your money to buy down that risk. They never tell you don't do that. They just say okay that's more risky than this, than that. And so we do risk based decision making. We see what is the highest risk and then how do we put money against it or how do we put procedures against it or how do we buy down that risk until we get to a level that's acceptable to us? So that's kind of the way we make decisions.
Michael Keegan: Every mission you have is a different risk calculus.
Charles Bolden: Everything has a different risk calculus. It makes no difference how complicated it is or how simple it is. Life is full of risks. Coming on this show was a risk.
Michael Keegan: As painless as possible.
Charles Bolden: No, it was great. It was great.
Paul Kayatta: So, I think this fascinating discussion answers this question to some degree but in the recent partnership for public service best places to work, NASA scored very high among its employees as the best place to work. Could you tell us a little bit about where that success you think comes from and what are you going to do to keep it going?
Charles Bolden: It is real easy to identify where the source of the success is. The source of the success is in the mid-level managers in the agency. It’s not the leadership, not the senior leadership. My job is to facilitate the success of the mid-level leader. As I said again, I consider myself to be incredibly successful if I walk away and they don't even know I'm gone, and I challenge everybody in the agency all the time. I say look, work from anywhere is a thing we use for creature comfort and convenience.
We try to give them the tools necessary. We try to tell them how important they are every day that I have the opportunity I try to tell my folk how important they are. We really sometimes undervalue our administrative professionals but I tell them all the time I say, “I have the number one representative for NASA is my executive assistant Kathy Manuel.”
The way that they're greeted and the way that they're treated forms a lasting impression on them about NASA. It is unbelievable the number of times I go on a trip and I get there and somebody says, “Man, you are the luckiest guy in the world. You have an outstanding executive assistant. She made me feel important. She left no stone unturned. That's the reason the agency is successful and that's the reason the people in the agency feel we are the best place to work.”
Michael Keegan: Well, I can underscore Kathy's importance because the reason why you're here today is because Kathy called me and said you could do it. You had an open invite. I'm glad you are able to join us.
So Charlie, I'd like to focus on the future a little bit and get your vision of the future. How do you think our space program will change over the next 5-10 years and why should Americans desire an increased role for NASA in the future?
Charles Bolden: I think there are a number of changes that are already taking place and will just be expanded. The introduction of commercial entities in performing a critical role in space exploration. I tell people now, it's important for us to have a space launch system, a heavy lift launch vehicle and a crew module and the international space station. We have to have a way to get crews and cargo to lower earth orbit because like I tried to say very early on, in the future we can't afford to come back into the gravity well of earth when we want to go into deep space every time.
The further out we can put ourselves as a base from which we operate, the easier and less expensive it is to go to deep space. So, if we can go from lower earth orbit, that's still in the gravity well for all intents and purposes but it’s a lot better than starting out from here on the surface of earth. But if we can expand our infrastructure out further and further until you get maybe geosynchronous orbit is the right place to be 30,000 kilometers above earth. It may be that we start putting modules in that area. Now you're getting appreciably away from earth's gravitational attraction that it makes it not completely easy but even easier to get away. So we have to have the infrastructure and that's where commercial entities are going to play a key role.
Suborbital space flight. Doing experiments that only need seconds to minutes of zero gravity so that you don't have to pay the expensive price of flying something all the way to orbit to spend time on the international space station. We hope that Virgin Galactic will fly this coming summer. We hope that will be the prototype for suborbital flight and suborbital experimentation.
The other thing that I don't discount is giving human beings an opportunity to see this planet from the vantage point that I've had. Emotional you cannot help to be changed, to have your total perspective about this planet change when you see it from the perspective of being away from it, outside our atmosphere looking back and seeing how beautiful it is first of all, but when you see the atmosphere, that thin blue line that just disappears if you stick your thumb up in front of one eye, you realize how fragile humanity is if we do something bad to that atmosphere. So that's important also.
So I see the future being increase industry or commercial participation. Increased international collaboration. We don't do anything anymore unless it’s international. Our partners in the heavy lift launch vehicle, the service module for Orion will be contributed by the European Space Agency. We're looking for ways to put our other partners in on the heavy lift launch vehicle, whether they can contribute key components or what. Almost every science mission we fly is a collaboration between NASA and an international partner, if not among NASA and multiple international partners. Almost everything on Mars today is a multi-national, granted it’s our vehicle. We built it. We put it there, but it has multiple nations that are partners with us being there.
Michael Keegan: Well so Charlie, what advice would you give someone who is thinking about a career in public service?
Charles Bolden: I'd say do it! Just take a deep breath and go do it. I mentioned the less than 1% who serve the nation in the military. Everybody can't do that. Everybody is not cut out to do that. I did it for 34 years and I loved it. I loved every single second of it and I would go do it again if given the opportunity. And now I've chosen a different realm of public service, but the military, volunteer service, Teach for America, a lot of different programs they can do.
For a young person, a person who is coming out of high school and just needs to get their head on straight, military service or some volunteer program that allows them to do public service where they learn that they are not the most important person in the world but they can make a difference for other people and there is something in being a servant leader.
Catching a college student who graduates from college, just doesn't want to go into the regular workforce, doesn't want to be pressed with trying to figure out how do I get the maximum salary right now? I just want to go out and serve. I would say those are all golden opportunities and what I always hope is that as they do that foray into public service they'll find that they really like it and they'll find a way to survive and subsist on it and they'll stay around.
Michael Keegan: Well, this has been a wonderful conversation. I want to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule. More importantly, Paul and I would like to thank you for your dedicated service to the country.
Charles Bolden: Well thank you. Thanks very much.
Michael Keegan: This has been The Business of Government Hour, featuring a conversation with Charlie Bolden, Administrator of NASA. My cohost from IBM has been Paul Kayatta. Be sure to join us next week for another informative, insightful and in-depth conversation on improving government effectiveness.
For The Business of Government Hour, I'm Michael Keegan and thanks for joining us.