Sunday, 21 September 2014

Space Sunday - Ten Questions With Ex-NASA Scientist Phil Metzger

As a matter of fact ...

I got the chance to interview ex-NASA scientist Phil Metzger. Phil worked at the famous Kennedy Space Center where he founded the Granular Mechanics and Regolith Operations Laboratory. He is now a member of the faculty at the University of Central Florida. Earlier this year, he gave a TED talk about the emerging space industry called 'Let's put robots in space'.

Phil recently retired from NASA and is now a
member of the faculty as the University of Central Florida

To my surprise, Phil recently liked one of my previous Space Sunday articles he found via my twitter. I thought this was cool enough but decided to push the boat out even further and ask if he would answer an informal Q&A for this blog. Phil agreed and replied to my questions with some fascinating answers.

I'm very excited to release my inner geek this week and present this amazing and slightly longer than usual edition of Space Sunday. If you love all things space, you'll love hearing what Phil has to say on colonising Mars, the rise of the space industry and even his favourite space movie ...

1) When did you realise you wanted to become a scientist and study space?
I grew up next to Cape Canaveral in Florida, so I grew up watching rocket launches and just assumed one day I would work there. For a while in high school I considered other fields but eventually I went into engineering at my father’s encouragement.  

After working in the space program as an engineer for several years I decided that I really loved physics, astronomy, and cosmology, and that I wanted to go back to school for a doctorate in one of those fields. NASA sent me to school on a fellowship and I decided to focus on planetary science so I could support NASA’s plans to explore the Moon and Mars. 

The Kennedy Space Center 
2) What things, big or small, keep you motivated and passionate about your work every day? What really drives my passion for space is the realization that we are not that far away from a major transition in human civilization. Robotics is making it much easier to access resources in space, and advancements in manufacturing are making it easier to have industry utilizing those resources. 

Our solar system holds promise to enable a vastly more vibrant economy, producing a million times benefit per capita than our present (merely global) economy. This will not only enable amazing science and exploration, but it will bring benefits back to Earth. We could easily eliminate poverty, make clean energy cheap and abundant, and clean up the globe by moving dirty industries into space and by giving us the economic freedom to undo much of the harm we have done to our planet.

3) I read your fantastic article about making space profitable and a potential 'gold rush' to push investors and people into the space industry. What do you think the coveted element might be and how soon before we see the gold rush?
Everybody is hoping for the fabled “solid platinum asteroid” (which doesn't exist) or some dilithium crystals or another miracle resource to get us over the startup hump in the space economy. We probably won’t find anything like that, at least in the near term while we are in near-Earth space. Instead, we will probably focus on extracting water from the Moon and asteroids to provide propellants for boosting spacecraft from low Earth orbit up to geosynchronous orbit. That is almost a miracle resource, and it could enable a great business! The startup cost for such a business is still high. 

The platinum in near Earth asteroid 'Itokawa' means
it is a likely candidate for future 
mining missions that will kick start
the space industry
Space mining companies have their business plans and are sure they will be successful. Nevertheless I think there is an important role for government to help startup industry in space, to make it happen sooner than market forces alone will permit. Government can incubate technologies, put infrastructure in space, create a legal and regulatory environment that promotes investment, and establish standards to encourage commonality and synergy between the different space-faring entities. That would be the next best thing to a solid platinum asteroid.

4) What's your favourite space movie?
That would have to be Apollo 13. It gets a high score for technical accuracy as well as real historical drama. When I started at NASA, many of the people involved in the mission still worked there, so that gave it an extra dimension for me. 

Apollo 13: Even NASA loves it

I also enjoy movies that are not hard science fiction, not based on any possibly real technology. One such is Serenity. It had cowboys driving spaceships, which is awesome. The all-time best of the all-time bad space movies is Cat Women of the Moon (1953). It’s so bad, it’s good. Mystery Science Theater 3000 never did an episode with it, but they tossed out a reference to it one time.

5) What was it like being selected as the Kennedy Space Center’s NASA Scientist/Engineer of the Year in 2011? I felt very deeply honored. Before then always thought it silly when people are given an award and they say they feel “humbled” by it. However, with that award I truly felt humbled, because I knew that everything I did successfully was because of the many other people who worked with me who deserved the recognition as much as I did, and because there are so many other outstanding engineers and scientists who deserve the award. I was part of an amazing team. 

The award made me very conscious of that, and I felt humbled to stand before so many other worthy people to receive it. I will never question why people say that, again. Honored and humbled, both very deeply. 6) If you couldn't be a planetary scientist, what would you be? I don’t know…something in the outdoors. I think I’d enjoy being a field geologist. One of my daughters likes the idea of being an anthropologist and doing field work. I think I’d want to do something like that. But I’m in exactly the right field for me. I have no desire to change. 7) What are your thoughts and NASA's stance on the Mars One mission planned for 2024? Will there be any collaboration? I can’t speak for NASA’s stance on it. My personal thoughts are complicated. On the one hand, I am glad there are groups trying to figure out how to start colonies outside Earth. I want to see that happening sooner rather than later. On the other hand, I am concerned about the safety of the colony. I think we need to send robots to do a lot of work on other planets before humans arrive. I think we should set up a well-developed supply chain in space and on whatever planets or Moons we visit using robots that mine and process local resources.  

The Mars One colony mission will rely on
crucial prelimanary robotic missions

When people started colonies on Earth, there were other forms of life that had arrived long before the humans. They had transformed the barren regolith of Earth’s continents, the rainwater, and the sunlight into food, wood for shelter and fire, skins for clothing, and so on. Lower forms of life are necessary to our existence, even with modern industry. 

We haven’t developed technology that can exist completely without them on worlds that have never been modified by life. Robotics could now fill that role, but we need to spend adequate time developing it. Maybe Mars One will help spur the development of those technologies. SpaceX may also help as they seek to fulfill Elon Musk’s vision of colonizing Mars. 

If we pull together with adequate funding, we certainly can get it done in a relatively short time. I don’t know all of Mars One’s plans. Will they send enough preliminary missions for mining and manufacturing on Mars, setting up mini-factories to make Mars capable of responding to most emergencies without help from Earth? I hope so. 8) If you could meet one historic scientist, who would it be? Leonardo da Vinci. I would take him for a ride in a helicopter. 9) What are your thoughts on the search for E.T? When will we make contact? I try not to speculate but here are a few key thoughts. We need to consider Fermi’s Paradox, which asks why we aren’t living in a Star Wars galaxy with aliens visiting all the time, considering that over cosmological timescales half of all the alien species should be here already. It only takes 50 million years to colonize the entire galaxy by planet-hopping, even without faster-than-light travel. Second, the theory that all planetary civilizations self-destruct--as the explanation for Fermi’s Paradox--is not reasonable and merely reflects the old pessimism of the Cold War.  

Knowing how close we are to getting off the planet within this century, we have already demonstrated that it is feasible for at least some technological species to avoid self-destruction. If only one technological species somewhere in the galaxy avoided self-destruction, they would almost certainly be here by now.  

The Technological Singularity could change everything for our species

Third, we need to factor in the Technological Singularity, which refers to the predicted explosion of computer superintelligence that we will achieve in this century. A post-singularity species would be vastly different than a pre-singularity species like us. Its motives and goals would likely be inscrutable.  

Fourth, the time it takes for a species to go from an industrial revolution to post-singularity is apparently just a couple hundred years. The time to go from having radio communication to post-singularity is even less. The chances we will find a technological species that is pre-singularity must be vanishingly small. With these things in mind, we should consider these questions. Is life, even microbial life, rare in the galaxy for some reason? Is the advancement from microbial to technological life rare in the galaxy for some reason? If a technological species is post-singularity, would it still be detectable by, and communicative with, a pre-singularity species?
10) Star Wars or Star Trek? Star Wars. May the force be with you.


Thanks so much to Phil for taking the time out to talk to me. If you want to hear more from him, check out his blog.

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