Alan Stern: ‘I’d like to see the U.S explore planets with human beings.’

“One of the most important things about exploring space is that it is something that sets us apart in this time that makes history for our nation and for our society,” says Stern.

Alan Stern: I think that one of the most important things about exploring space is that it is something that sets us apart in this time, that makes history for our nation and for our society, in a way that few other things do.

Alan Stern is a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute. Dr. Stern is principle investigator of the New Horizons mission to explore Pluto, and he’s been a leading scientist with NASA in guiding their research. Stern spoke more about the future of human spaceflight, and whether Pluto really is a planet, with EarthSky’s Jorge Salazar.

Alan Stern: I’d like to see the United States go back to exploration of the planets with human beings.

Dr. Stern leads an ongoing NASA mission – one that launched a spacecraft to explore Pluto. That craft – which will reach Pluto in the year 2015 – is unmanned. But Dr. Stern told EarthSky he believes in sending humans, not than just robots, to explore the moon and other planets.

Alan Stern: Human beings are much more efficient than the robots. Now bots can go much farther afield, the robots can go to toxic environments where humans can’t go, but for doing fieldwork on the moon, for exploring Mars, the kind of things that we do with robots are pretty limiting. It’s been said that the Mars rovers that have been on Mars since 2004 have done about as much work as a single, two-man Apollo crew would do in a day.

The major hold-up, said Stern, is the large costs involved. But Stern argues that the money needed would only amount to about five tenths of a penny for each federal dollar spent.

Alan Stern: When I was a boy, in the 1960s, astronauts walked on the moon every few months and explored different terrains, different sites on the moon. And we haven’t done anything like that since 1972. By now, from a technological standpoint, we could have had bases on the moon, asteroid mining, expeditions to Mars. But we haven’t.

Dr. Stern told us his thoughts on the future of human space flight.

Alan Stern: Human spaceflight is a 50-year-old enterprise. The Apollo landings were 40 years ago. The first human spaceflights were in 1961; in the year after next that will be 50 years. And some spectacular achievements, but really since the Apollo moon landings, although the Space Shuttle itself is an amazing achievement, so is the International Space Station. Really, I think there’s a pretty broad consensus that the government-led efforts have been limited by external factors. We could be doing so much more.

He spoke more about what humans would actually do on other planets and the moon.

Alan Stern: Humans would do same things that humans do when we explore the Earth, when we send scientists, for example, to Antarctica, to do field work, to do geology, to do geophysics, geochemistry, to study the atmosphere, to search for evidence of life. Human beings are amazing machines for recognizing new situations and adapting to them, for finding the most interesting samples, for example, in a suite; for making choices about where they should go, and to locomote, and to drive much faster than robots can by remote control, which are glacial by comparison.

Dr. Stern answered our question on what’s most important about exploring space.

Alan Stern: : I think that one of the most important things about exploring space is that it is something that sets us apart in this time that makes history for our nation and for our society, in a way that few other things do.

Jorge Salazar