Alan Stern: Space Tourism Can Open Space for All
Planetary scientist S. Alan Stern, former Assistant Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. He resigned in 2008, but is still the Principal investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto. Photo
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

Forty years after the first moon landing on July 20, 1969, asked Apollo astronauts and leaders of the space community to ponder the past, present and future. Planetary scientist Alan Stern, a former NASA associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, forecasts that humans will make it back to the moon in the coming decades and that space travel will be something that everyone (even himself) will do: What do you remember of the Apollo 11 moon landing?

Stern: Well, I remember it very vividly. At the time of Apollo 11, I was a grade-schooler, and I remember every time an Apollo mission would take place that, like a lot of little boys, I'd gather in front of the TV for hours and hours and hours with my little brother. And I just remember thinking that this was larger than life; that it was unbelievable that something of this scale of magnitude was taking place. Because even then, it was clear even to a little boy that this was really historic and that, because I was interested in science, that the potential for science was so great.

S: How do you try to explain what this time was like to younger generations? Is there any analogue for them?

Stern: I don't think there is an analogue. I haven't seen something equivalent in its depth and historic importance and the way that it could excite school kids.

I think if you were between maybe 6 and 16 there was nothing like Apollo, and I wonder if there can be something like that again. We'll just have to see.

S: I was going to ask if you thought there could be another Apollo.

Stern: I think that the oncoming revolution in human spaceflight, commercial human spaceflight, beginning with suborbital tourism that will begin a year after next, will really open up spaceflight in a whole new way. It's going to be much more accessible to individuals.

It's been disappointing that despite all of the nominal accomplishments of what NASA and ESA and others have done, that we are still so limited in our capabilities relative to what might have happened following Apollo. Remember, following Apollo, the discussion was to send humans to Mars by 1983, to have bases on the moon, to have a space station with not six people, after it's been expanded, but more like 60 or 100; for space shuttles to fly nearly every week, as opposed to every other month, this being a jam-packed year.

So the view from the '60s and early '70s of this time now, 40 years later, was so expansive, relative to where we landed. It's just amazing. I think that the next 50 years are likely to be much more exciting than the past 40, because I think there're so many different human spaceflight systems being developed now.

S: Why did things slow down - why didn't we follow through on those original goals?

Stern: It was a very unique time; there was a very unpopular and bloody war going on in Vietnam, there was a lot of strife on campuses, a lot of social change taking place, a lot of recognition of social needs that the country had at the time: war on poverty, war on cancer, the birth of the environmental movement, the beginnings of programs like Medicare. And so across the board there were social concerns, and there was a strong backlash against military expenditures, and NASA sort of got wrapped up in that, in a government that, at the time, was trying to balance its books and having to make tough choices.

That's really what became of it, and NASA has never, in fact, space exploration, has never really recovered. It hasn't found an equivalent motivation. I'm hopeful that commercial space exploration will takeoff. To really fuel the spaceflight revolution will require an investment of hundreds of billions of dollars a year, and I think that's only going to happen in the commercial sector - if there are large profits to be made.

S: Do you think it should be more of a private venture now, in the sense that it has more potential to motivate people?

Stern: Well, I actually think that it's the government's job to break down the barriers to entry for private enterprise and that a fine mission for a national space agency, in terms of human exploration, would be to develop the technologies to the pathfinding exploration. But for private industry to come behind the things that government's already proven are possible and reduce them to practice. We're now seeing that in sub-orbital spaceflight and the beginnings of orbital, low-Earth orbit systems.

S: What will make people excited about human spaceflight in the future?

Stern: Well I think the killer application for human spaceflight begins with the suborbital industry. I think that when anyone can fly in space, rather than just those that governments choose to send in to space, it's going to really revolutionize, not only how we look at it, but it's going to be an accelerant to the desires to have even more of that.

The prices start off pretty high - it's tens of millions of dollars to fly in space, but those prices will come down, and fly sub-orbitally, ticket prices are in the range of a couple hundred thousand dollars, but those are going to come down a lot to I think over time. I expect that 10 years from now, they'll be a fraction of that.

And I think in 2019, 10 years from now, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, sub-orbital spaceflight should be ubiquitous.

S: Where do you think spaceflight should be 40 years from now? And where do you think it actually will be?

Stern: I think by 2050, there will be research outposts on the moon, there will have been human missions to near-Earth asteroids and to Mars; that commercial space travel will be commonplace in Earth orbit and the beginnings of commercial lunar tourism, for example, are likely.

Where we could be, by contrast, could be much further. There's no reason that we couldn't be sending human missions, from a technical standpoint, much farther afield than just to Mars. Because once you develop the infrastructure to go to Mars, it's not very different infrastructure required to explore the asteroids, for example, in the asteroid belt, or even to send a human mission as far afield as Saturn - while it's a stretch, it's not the same kind of quantum leap we need today to go from shuttle to Mars.

S: If sub-orbital space tourism becomes cheaper and more common in the next decade, would you go?

Stern: Oh absolutely. I expect to fly sub-orbitally a lot. As a researcher, I look forward to being able to do space science in a space environment. After all, that's what the shuttle originally promised, and that's something we expected for space researchers by the 1980s. Ditto for orbital travel.

I really don't think of it in the context of 'Will I fly?', I think of it as 'Will I fly 50 times, or will I fly 100 times?'

Forty years after astronauts first set foot on the moon, examines what we?ve done since and whether America has the right stuff to get back to the moon by 2020 and reach beyond. For exclusive interviews and analysis, visit daily through July 20, the anniversary of the historic landing.