To do that we are going to have to learn how to live off the land - we can not carry all the supplies that we are going to need on these missions, they are very far away from the Earth and so they have to be as autonomous as possible, because the communication lag could be 20-40 minutes or longer. 

I think this is a new era of exploration because we are looking at what it will take to actually live for long periods of time off our planet.

Charlie Camarda. Courtesy of NASA

 

The  Kuiper Belt object, known as “Ultima Thule”, is the farthest in our solar system. NASA New Horizon’s flyby of that object, that took place on January 1, 2019,  is a kind of mission that is accomplished using unmanned spacecraft. What do you think about the future of human spaceflight? 

I think the future of human space flight is going to be a combination of all of the above. We are constantly conducting unmanned, uncrewed vehicles to go deeper and deeper out into space and I think it is going to be humans plus robotic missions in order to accomplish this. 

For instance, in order for humans to survive on Mars, we are talking about the possibility of sending initial, robotic missions to help prepare the facilities that  astronauts are going to use. These ideas are not any different than human exploration on the surface of the Earth. For instance, when we explore extreme environments like the North Pole or the South Pole, we might have way stations with supplies for pioneers, the explorers, to survive as they go further and further in their exploration. We are using those same techniques as we explore deep space. Only now, we have robots and are able to use them to maybe create fuel that we will use in order to supply fuel for the return trip back, habitats and initial landing pads for astronauts to use.

Looking back at the first space missions, a lot has changed since. What, in your opinion, are the most significant developments? What is the most significant change when comparing current space missions to the ones 50 years ago?

Unfortunately, I do not see much of a difference. I do not see radical improvements to the way we do things in space. There are a lot of incremental improvements in propulsion systems and material systems. We are still using chemical rockets.  To go deeper and deeper into space, we really have to make radical advances in technology, especially propulsion technology. Unfortunately, the United States has not been investing enough resources in the far-out research that we need to do. We are not doing enough research in critical areas like advanced propulsion systems. 

The other thing we are really not doing is improving the safety of these missions. I have not seen a radical improvement to the safety of how we fly people to space until we do that, I really do not believe commercial spaceflight is going to take off. Imagine there was one-in-fifty chance that an aeroplane would crash. Would you fly on that aeroplane?