NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Thursday the 16th of May, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.
MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. First up on The World and Everything in It: space travel.
Later this summer, NASA will mark the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 mission. It was the first spacecraft to land astronauts on the moon. Back in the 1960s, space travel was so complex and challenging that only teams with government backing and support could attempt it.
EICHER: But today’s space race looks a lot different.
The latest big space announcement came last week from what might seem like an unexpected source: Jeff Bezos.
He’s best known for founding online retailer Amazon, but now he’s also in the space business. On Friday, Bezos unveiled a new robotic spaceship the size of a small house. His space company, Blue Origin, plans to land it on the moon by 2023.
A few years after that, the company hopes to launch a capsule capable of carrying astronauts to the lunar surface.
BASHAM: Joining us now to talk about the latest developments in space exploration is Byron Lichtenberg. He’s a mechanical engineering professor at LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas. He’s also chairman of a NASA committee that provides independent assessments of the Commercial Crew Program.
Professor Lichtenberg, thanks for joining us today!
BYRON LICHTENBERG, GUEST: Sure.
BASHAM: So let’s start with that Jeff Bezos announcement. His company, Blue Origin, described NASA as a potential customer. What is NASA doing itself these days and what is it relying on private companies for?
LICHTENBERG: Well, so NASA is looking at their next big activity and they have focused in on the moon for now. So they’ve been developing a large rocket booster called the space launch system and a capsule for fairly long duration human flight, maybe 20-30 days, called the Orion. And what they’re looking for the commercial people to do is to help them build the infrastructure around the moon or maybe even on the moon and take advantage of the transportation infrastructure that NASA has. The program is called Gateway and it consists of basically a lunar orbiting space station that would be able to hold the crew up there for some periods of time, and just provide some orbital infrastructure around the moon and then let the crews go down to the moon’s surface and do the work basically looking for materials, minerals, water is the big one.
BASHAM: So the next big space frontier is Mars. Can we talk a little bit about that and why it’s so appealing?
LICHTENBERG: Well, the big thing there, really, is trying to look for remnants of life at some point. It could be anything from microorganisms. Clearly there aren’t cities or big civilizations, but the goal is to kind of look at Mars as maybe where the Earth could go someday, so we want to understand what happened there and whether there is any kind of chance for life on Mars. The probe that’s on there now, the Insight lander and then they have another Mars rover going in on 2020. So the search continues.
BASHAM: It seems like travel to Mars seems to capture some of the same awe that the first lunar missions had in the 60s and 70s. And yet as we’ve already discussed, we’re still trying to go to the moon as well. Why is the lunar surface still so appealing?
LICHTENBERG: Well, it’s much easier to get off the surface of the moon in terms of no atmosphere, much lower gravity. You have the added benefits of 24 hours a day, 365 days a year of sunlight for electrical energy if you place your solar panels properly. So what it’s going to do in the meantime is give us more experience in operating on another celestial body. The moon’s about three days away, one-way trip. Whereas Mars, the shortest round-trip is probably almost three years.
BASHAM: So a much less arduous journey.
LICHTENBERG: Much less, yes.
BASHAM: Byron Lichtenberg is a professor at the Christian polytechnic college LeTourneau University. Professor, thanks for joining us today!
LICHTENBERG: Thank you, Megan. Happy to do it.