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Why NASA Is Betting SpaceX Can Help Reinvent the Shuttle Program (Q&A)

NASA is relying on companies like SpaceX and Boeing to get more Americans back into space.


When former NASA astronaut John Grunsfeld was in elementary school, America was racing Soviet Russia to the moon.

Today, the U.S. is launching astronauts into orbit on Russian rockets, and the U.S. space shuttle program is a thing of the past.

There’s a plan to revive it, albeit in a different form. Americans will launch their own astronauts into space again in 2017, if all goes according to plan, but it’ll require billions of dollars and a lot of help from outside NASA. A little flair from Elon Musk wouldn’t hurt, either.

Grunsfeld, who is now head of science at NASA, oversees the research element of many of the agency’s exploratory programs, like the Curiosity rover on Mars and the Juno mission to Jupiter. He has been to space five times and says that even though the U.S. space shuttle program was closed in 2011, interest in space exploration is higher than ever. And modern technology is a big reason why.

We sat down with Grunsfeld in Austin, Texas, this week at the South By Southwest Interactive festival to discuss SpaceX, sending people to Mars and how technology needs to improve for humans to explore the solar system. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

 Grunsfeld (second from right) poses with the rest of the STS-125 crew before a 2009 servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Grunsfeld (second from right) poses with the rest of the STS-125 crew before a 2009 servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Re/code: I feel like when the shuttle program was pulled in 2011, it created this impression that American interest in space had diminished. Do we still care about sending people to space on American rockets?

John Grunsfeld: I think it’s still a very high priority, we just simply don’t have the capability to launch U.S astronauts from U.S. soil. So we’re using the [Russian] Soyuz rocket, and just had a crew land last week in the Soyuz capsule. And we’ll be getting ready to send another crew up this month.

Overall, NASA’s budget hasn’t changed very much. What has changed is we stopped flying the space shuttle in 2011. And we’re building the next generation of spacecraft along with companies like SpaceX and Boeing.

NASA is paying Boeing and SpaceX a lot of money to build rockets. Why SpaceX specifically? It still seems like such a young company.

SpaceX is now a very large company. It looks very much like a NASA contractor, but it doesn’t have stockholders yet. It has the flexibility to make decisions a lot faster than a big company would. SpaceX can risk the whole company on one decision. With great risk comes great reward. If they’re successful, and we all hope they will be, the promise is that after this very large investment, long term they’ll be able to deliver this lower cost transportation.

You’re fascinated with Mars right now. Why is that?

I’m absolutely compelled for NASA to send international astronauts to Mars to find out if Mars ever harbored life. All indications are that three and a half billion years ago Mars looked like Earth. It had lakes, it had rivers, it had river deltas, it had snow capped peaks and puffy clouds and blue sky. Three and a half billion years ago it was a happening place. The same time on Earth, that’s when life started. So did life start on Mars?

In terms of research, how important is it to send humans to Mars versus robots?

Our robots are really great at drilling little holes in rocks and analyzing the samples. But it’s primitive to what a geologist in graduate school would do on Earth here today. Getting a team of scientists on Mars could be transformative. Just think about the Mars rover. Coming up on three years this August, we will have driven about 10 kilometers. In a space suit, an astronaut could walk 10 kilometers in a day. So the speed of discovery is so much more.

So you think people could actually live on Mars one day?

Here on Earth we’re exposed to asteroids hitting the Earth, eventual changes in the sun, changes in the Earth’s climate, things we’re doing to the Earth’s climate. If we want to survive, we need to become a multi-planet species. That’s further down the road, but the first wave is going to be the explorers.

There’s a plan, Mars One, to colonize Mars beginning in 2024. How realistic is that?

I don’t think that’s realistic. We don’t have the rockets, we don’t have the technology, they don’t have the funding. The scale of getting to Mars is actually quite phenomenal. What we can get to Mars today using the best minds in the world, things like the Curiosity rover, it’s the size of a small SUV. That’s the best we can do. To imagine that nine years from now we’re going to have the capability and the funding to send the best equipment so that people can hopefully live for years is a little beyond science fiction.

It seems like interest in space has diminished from the days of the space race with Russia. Why is that?

I think there’s actually much more interest today. When we look back at Apollo, we think of the high points. We think of the landing on the moon by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. [People] watched the big events, but overall there was probably less public interest in space than there is now. We literally had hundreds of millions of people watching around the world as we arrived at Mars [with the Curiosity rover]. It was because of social networking.

Does social networking play a major role in sustaining this interest? I know some astronauts tweet from space.

While we’re not in a space race, the equivalent of television [back then] is the Internet and social networking. Things travel much more quickly.

What technology needs to improve most drastically for us to keep exploring the solar system?

We need to have much faster transportation. The only answer is nuclear propulsion of some kind. In France, we’re building what we hope will be the first fusion energy source, ITER. Practically every country in the world is participating, and it’s still 20 years down the road. Some day we’ll need to have much faster propulsion that can carry more stuff back and forth. We’re just scratching the service on those kinds of technologies. If you have that [technology], then it’s two weeks to Mars, or a month to Saturn. That’s transformative.

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