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[WSF19] Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins charts our next course: to the Moon or Mars?

No, they are not the same thing.

NASA just announced you’ll be able to visit the International Space Station (ISS) for the low, low price of $50 million dollars but, as discussed at the 2019 World Science Festival’s panel The Right Stuff: What It Takes To Boldly Go, you may soon get to fly there commercially for much cheaper.

Michael Collins

The panel blasted off with a short, one-on-one conversation between Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins and journalist Miles O’Brien. During the exchange, Collins shared stories about his famous trip to the Moon, as well as the time he lost his camera while performing a spacewalk during the Gemini 10 mission.

The two also discussed the lack of diversity among astronauts in the early days of the space program. Collins believes that was less NASA’s doing than it was the biases of the broader culture at the time and is glad the space program is different today.

“I was shocked by the fact that for the most important space flight ever, they’d only trained together for six months,” said Scott Kelly, former commander of the ISS. Of course, space travel still costs a fortune and requires two years of training today. All that may be about to change, however, according to Ariane Cornell, Director of Astronaut and Orbital Sales at Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin company.

“Our vision at Blue Origin is millions of people, ultimately, to be living and working in space,” said Cornell. “That obviously is not happening tomorrow. And our motto at Blue Origin is Gradatim Ferociter, which in Latin means ‘step by step, ferociously.'”

The first vehicle in Blue Origin’s fleet is the reusable suborbital rocket New Shepard (named for Alan Shepard, the first American in space). Cornell promised that before the end of this year, tourists will get to experience three or four minutes of weightlessness on board the craft.

“With New Shepard, you’re going to be able to fly to space in what we call a ‘shirt and sleeve’ environment,” he said. “So literally, what you guys are wearing right now, you can come and fly on New Shepard.”

By 2021, Blue Origin plans to launch an orbital rocket, the New Glenn (presumably named after astronaut John Glenn), that can take the general public even further.

We’re trying to open up space for as many people as possible. We want the training for it to be even less than six months. It’s just going to be about a day and a half. The intent, in fact, is to make it so that as many people can go as possible.

So it will be like getting on a commercial airline. If you think about getting on an airplane today, you sit there. Maybe you’re on your iPhone. And the training video is maybe two minutes. We train you and make you feel comfortable, but we also want this to be simple.

Scott Kelly agrees suborbital flight is the natural first step for civilian space travel. “I think you can probably fly 99.9 percent of the population on that type of mission,” he said. Kelly sees shuttle flights as being for the more adventurous.  “And then living in space, you know, it’s a challenging place to live, and it is not for everyone. But it’s for potentially a lot of people. But I think in our future we’ll have a lot of different opportunities that all of those, collectively, would be able to potentially include most of the population.”

Leland Melvin and Ariane Cornell

Kelly has seen the operations at Blue Origin and SpaceX, and he believes they’re taking safety seriously. But he’s a little hesitant about flying anything into space, because of the immense risks. Astronaut Leland Melvin, however, thinks the rewards outweigh the risk.  Melvin sees this as an opportunity to get more people excited about exploration and to break down divisions between each other.

Cornell envisions Blue Origin will one day carry civilians to space stations, to the Moon, and even to Mars. “I used to joke that NASA sent me to the wrong place,” Collins said. He’s advocated for going to the Red Planet for years.

My friend Neil Armstrong, who was a lot better engineer than I, thought that there were gaps in our knowledge. When we prepared to go to Mars, it’d be useful maybe to stop off at the Moon and learn a few things, pick up some of the knowledge that we didn’t have, and then go.

However, I disagree with all the experts. I say I believe in the John Kennedy Express, if I can call it that. Mars direct. If we want to go, let’s do it. Let’s put our resources into it. Let’s take care of a way of getting there. Let’s get a schedule. Let’s get the funding. Let’s get the timing. Let’s go to Mars.

Collins wasn’t alone in invoking the spirit of John F. Kennedy. “I think going to Mars is, I mean, what President Kennedy said back in the day, it’s because we do the things that are hard,” Melvin says. “And we’ve been to the Moon. We’ve demonstrated that. Do we need to have a lunar base as a launchpad to get us to Mars? I don’t think so. But, if we decide to do this as a civilization, as a people, let’s put some money in it and do it, and go do it just like Kennedy did.”

“I think I would sign up for Michael’s JFK Express to Mars,” Kelly said. He is, however, reluctant to sign up for a one-way mission to Mars.

Few can speak with as much authority on long-term space exposure than Kelly, having lived on the ISS for about a year. In addition to his work, he and his twin brother, former astronaut Mark Kelly, were valuable subjects for a twin study to better understand the effects of living in space.

Because there was only a sample size of one, Scott himself, he admits the findings of this study only served as anecdotal information that, at most, gave scientists ideas on what to investigate in the future. One fascinating observation was that Scott’s telomeres (the endcaps of chromosomes that shorten as we age) lengthened significantly in space while Mark’s shortened gradually with age, as is normal.

Kelly views space travel as a “technology accelerator” that improves our lives here on Earth. “I also agree that we are explorers,” he says, “and as soon as we stop exploring and we look inward, we’re probably not going to exist for very much longer. I think that is part of our DNA, to always want to see what is over the horizon, whether that is the horizon of the ocean or of the Moon or eventually Mars.”

But Kelly says, even if he’s wrong and the only thing to come out of space flight is that it motivated the next generation to become scientists and engineers, “I think every penny is well worth the expense.” Cornell sees environmental concerns as a big part of Blue Origin’s mission, establishing infrastructure in space to help us here on Earth. “There should not be a Plan B,” she said. “We’ve been to every single one of the planets, and this one by far is the best.”

Kelly had a message for the teenagers in the audience. “You guys have never been on the Earth with all the people. Your whole lives, there’s always been people in space. And I think one of the things we should make a commitment to is never changing that.”

“Get the Communists and the Capitalists side-by-side, looking out a window,” Collins said. “Hell, they can’t even find their own country much less say that one is better than that country. I think it would, in some ways, really change the way political leaders think about their own turf and other peoples’.”

Melvin recalled sitting down to a meal on the ISS with Peggy Whitson, the first female commander of the station, along with Russians, Germans, and astronauts of numerous other nationalities. From their vantage point, he could spot Virginia, his home state, followed shortly by places on the other side of the world.

Michael Collins, Scott Kelly, and Leland Melvin

“In this very short period of time, we are celebrating all of humanity as we go around the planet,” he said. “And that perspective shift that I got was my ‘ah-ha’ moment. And so if millions of people can get a chance to go to space and get this perspective shift that I got, and get this connection back to the planet, I think it will advance our civilization.”

This cognitive shift in awareness while viewing the Earth from outer space has a name, the overview effect. “When you look at the Earth, you don’t see any political borders,” Kelly said. Echoing Collins’ words, he says one of the Russian astronauts he lived with over a year in space suggested their two countries could solve their differences by putting both their presidents into space together for a year.

“I hark back to post-Apollo 11. Around the world trip. Everyone saying, ‘we did it,'” Collins said. “Who is this ‘we’? It was we, humankind that got all together, believe it or not, and actually agreed on something. We did it! I think that’s a wonderful moment to remember and to treasure. And we can have that world in my window, transfer that to you.”

Cornell believes there will be a lot more people in space 50 years from now. Melvin thinks we’ll make it to Mars. Kelly just hopes we’re not stuck doing the same thing and we’ll have progressed. Collins looks on the future with hope.

“I think that young people today are smarter — because you guys, men and women, black, white, whatever — you’re smarter than I am,” Collins said. “You’ll figure it out.”

AiPT! Science is co-presented by AiPT! Comics and the New York City Skeptics.

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