Named as director of NASA’s Ames Research Center near San Francisco last April, Simon “Pete” Worden retired from the Air Force in 2004. His 29 years in the service included a stint as director of development and transformation at Space Command, Los Angeles Air Force Base. In addition, Worden, who has a doctorate in astronomy, was an astronomy researcher at the University of Arizona and has authored or co-authored more than 150 scientific papers on civil and military space. He spoke with Air & Space Executive Editor Paul Hoversten on July 24, 2006.
A&S:What’s the most significant contribution Ames is making now to returning astronauts to the moon?
Worden: We’re the lead for the thermal protection system. That’s pretty critical. You don’t get back home without it. In addition, we’re going to be assuming a lead role in the information technology area. That’s still being defined, but the collaborative design and development tools and computer support efforts are really critical. We’re putting a lot of that together. We’re also playing a key role in the robotic program. We’re beginning to develop concepts for small lunar spacecraft, both landers and orbiters, and we’re doing that in concert with [NASA’s] Goddard Space Flight Center.
A&S: With four nations—the U.S., China, India, and Japan—planning moon missions in the next few years, how likely is it that protocols and standards can be set for lunar activities?
Worden: I think very likely. There are already a number of meetings under way. NASA has now consolidated all communications and navigation efforts into a single office that reports to the space operations mission directorate, and they’ve been very active in looking at how to establish these protocols. They’re already engaged in a number of discussions with these various countries. So I’m optimistic it’s going to be done. Indeed, it really is the heart of a successful international cooperation and collaboration.
A&S: You have said you believe that the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 may allow the private sector to own a piece of the moon, and that this could spur private funding of lunar activities. Legal battles aside, what’s to stop a McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, or Microsoft from buying the whole thing?
Worden: I have to confess those statements were made before I was a government official, when I was a university professor [laughs]. There clearly are lots of legal and policy issues on who owns what. I think those issues need to be resolved and will get resolved. Arguably, the private sector is able to go own a piece of the rock, if you will. My admonition before I was a government employee was that this needed to be solved. Now that I am a government employee, I still maintain it needs to be solved, although it’s probably not my job to solve it. Ames is playing kind of a major role for the agency in terms of being a portal for the private sector. What assurances do we have that if somebody invests their own money and develops some capability, like an energy production facility or something, on the moon, that they will have beneficial use of that in what amounts to legal title? That’s one of the things that clearly we’re going to work [on]. Nobody has come to me yet and said, “Well, we’re going to send a mission to the moon and we’d like you to help us get defined whether we own it or not.” Now, I’d love to have somebody do that.
A&S: Well, the day may not be far off.
Worden: I don’t think it is. Without getting into details, we have talked to some very-well-heeled potential partners here and some of them are very interested in—especially if we get the price down to tens of millions—joint missions.
A&S: Can you tell us who they are?
Worden: No, not yet. These are all preliminary discussions. You know, it’s interesting. You always get a lot of enthusiasm until you get down to “OK, sign here. Send the check here.” But there are enough of them that have discussed this that I’m convinced that within maybe a year or so, that we’ll have some actual concrete deep-space exploration partnerships paid for by the private sector. I might add that we just had a major success with the private sector in terms of Bob Bigelow’s inflatable space station Genesis. It had on it an Ames payload. Now, it wasn’t going to the moon, but that is an experiment that could lead to a space station. So we’re beginning to have those kinds of discussions.
A&S: You’ve also suggested the moon might be an ideal laboratory to test too-dangerous-for-Earth technologies such as advanced genetic engineering, true artificial intelligence, or self-replicating robots. If those experiments run amok, aren’t we looking at a potential “war of the worlds”?
Worden: Again, I have to reiterate that things I said before I was a NASA employee, I can’t be held accountable for [laughs]. But the point is, I believe there are a lot of technologies that have incredible promise for mankind. Particularly ones that involve bio- and nano-technologies. Right now, they’re very difficult if not impossible to do on the Earth. I believe that the farther away one is from the Earth, the easier it might be to do them. That doesn’t mean they’re done without controls. But if you have a biological experiment on a lifeless world like the moon, it’s much less likely to have the kind of “war of the worlds” scenario where things come back and cause trouble…. Those are the kinds of risks and benefits that I suspect are going to begin to crop up, maybe a lot sooner than we think.
A&S: What’s the most important thing any country has accomplished in space since the launch of Sputnik, 50 years ago?
Worden: I think probably it is looking back on the Earth and getting the perspective that we’re all living on this one little piece of rock and we’re part of a great big universe. It’s both a frightening and a promising look, the perspective that space offers an incredible future. Seeing the Earth from space is pretty significant.
A&S: What’s more fun, being an astronomer or a center director?
Worden: Well, they both have their benefits. But I’ve got to say, this is probably the most fun job I’ve ever had. The Vision for Space Exploration that we have now is what everybody’s been waiting for since Apollo. And the opportunity to be part of it and help coordinate the efforts of a few thousand people that are assisting in that is about the coolest thing I’ve done.
A&S: Are you a pilot?
Worden: Actually, I am. They had some airshows here and they offered to give me a ride in a Stearman, which was a World War II trainer, the kind my dad flew. I told him about it and he said, “You know, you were in one of those before.” And I said, “No, I didn’t know that.” And he said, “Well, you probably wouldn’t remember. You were six weeks old.” He actually dug up a picture that had me sitting in his lap as he’s holding me at the edge of the airplane. He said, “So this was your second ride in a Stearman.”
A&S: When did you get your pilot’s license?
Worden: When I was 17. My dad was a corporate pilot and an Air Guard pilot and we had a little light airplane that he trained me in. Most people say they’re really scared when they fly solo. Well, my dad used World War II training techniques, which meant the moment I got in the airplane his mouth opened, and it didn’t close until the engine cut off. You know, non-stop yelling and colorful language. I was so glad when he was out of the airplane. In fact, I even did one or two things wrong [during my solo], and he was on the ground shaking his fist at me.
A&S: Where will we be in space exploration 25 years from now?
Worden: I certainly hope that we’re on the moon and Mars, and I might add that near-Earth asteroids are a very exciting additional set of targets. I would think that in 25 years the most important thing we would have is people that are permanently living off the planet. Living and thriving and settling.
A&S: The first space age saw a breakthrough in computer technology. What breakthroughs do you foresee for the next era in space exploration?
Worden: I think it’s probably the ability to live off the land. In some sense, a human settlement is a self-replicating entity. And I think that the technology to do that is a combination of manufacturing, biological, energy, and other things. So it’s sort of a synthesis of dozens of different technologies that actually enable you to not only live but expand. You might call it the development of an Earth seed, a planet on another planet that can survive by itself and produce more. The first space age was getting there. The next space age is living there.