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Planetary Exploration as the First Step in Understanding Our Species
Q. Which of the missions you have been involved in has left the deepest impression?

Mars Explorer Mars Rover (Courtesy of NASA)
Mars Explorer Mars Rover (Courtesy of NASA)

Personally, as an individual, the one that impressed me most is the first one I was involved in, Magellan, which was a mission to send a radar in orbit around Venus. When I was a student and started working at JPL, that was the first mission I worked on. So, you can imagine, when you are young you remember those things. But since then there have been many very exciting missions also. The Mars Rovers, the Spitzer space telescope, the space shuttle missions - it's kind of hard to say. It's like your kids, you know. People ask me, "which one is your favorite daughter?" Well, I love both of them the same amount. Each one has slight differences, but I love both of them. So I would say I found each mission has a fascinating aspect, because you learn something new from every mission.

Q. What is the major target of the United States' future planetary exploration projects?

We have a number. The goal of our planetary exploration projects is to understand both the formation of planets and whether life evolved outside Earth. So that makes Mars a major target. Every two years we are sending a mission to Mars to understand its history, and whether biology occurred on it. But there are also other targets. Europa, which is a satellite of Jupiter, is of particular interest. We think there is an ocean below the surface. We have Titan, one of the satellites of Saturn, which we are observing now with the Cassini spacecraft, because it has an atmosphere that's made up heavily of hydrocarbons, which gives indication that maybe there is organic activity, and possibly biological activity. So these are some of the targets that are getting particular attention because of the possibilities that life might have evolved on those planets.

Q. What are your thoughts about the need for public education and promotion of planetary exploration?

Comet Explorer Deep Impact (Courtesy of NASA)
Comet Explorer Deep Impact (Courtesy of NASA)
In the U.S., we feel very strongly that because the program is funded by the public, it's important that we keep the public informed and excited about what we do.
And we find in particular young people in the U.S. are very fascinated and excited about space exploration. I'm told that the number of visitors to science museums exceeds the number of people who go to sporting events, which is a big deal. So clearly there is a lot of interest. We see it from visits to JPL - something like 20,000 students come and visit every year. We see it from the number of hits on our Web site, particularly when there is special event such as Deep Impact or when we landed the Mars Rovers. In a matter of weeks, we got billions of hits on our Web site. So we play a very proactive role in informing particularly young people but also the general public about what we do. It goes from tours at JPL, to Web site, to having displays at a museum. And when I say display, I don't mean static displays. When we have a landing, people at science museums around the U.S. can see it in real time as it's happening.

Q. How do you think the theme of outer space should be utilized in education?

What is particularly exciting about space exploration is that it kind of opens the minds of children by saying that anything is possible. That you are not limited to your immediate environment, that you can look up at the sky and see all these beautiful stars, and that you can travel there one of these decades in the future. I think it gives children an expansion of their imagination, telling them that, look, you can dream of things, and it could happen, whatever you dream of. Now, that doesn't mean that all they have to do is dream about space. Space gives them an opportunity to think. They look at the Moon, and dream about being on the Moon, and people actually do travel to the moon. So I think it gives an uplifting feeling to children that almost anything is possible that is important in our life. And that's what builds a spirit of exploration, and discovery, and innovation, and learning, and so on.

Q. What is the significance of planetary exploration to you?

Image of the Surface of the Moon and Earth taken by Lunar Explorer KAGUYA
Image of the Surface of the Moon and Earth taken by Lunar Explorer KAGUYA

One way to describe it is this: we took images from Cassini looking at Saturn. You look across the ring from Saturn, and you see a little teeny dot of light, and that's Earth. I saw the picture of Earth taken from JAXA's KAGUYA. It is sobering or humbling, to see the Earth from this perspective. We think that we are at the center of everything. We keep fighting, countries fight, over resources or for whatever reason. And then when you look at that picture, you see how small we are, and we are all sharing that little sphere with that thin atmosphere around it. It gives you an idea of how fortunate we are, and that we really ought to protect our planet, because it's a very fragile environment. Until you see it from outside, you don't appreciate how fragile and how little it is. When you look at the Earth from that perspective, you see how small we are within the Solar System. For me, it's very important that we really understand the whole Solar System, how it formed, what our position is in it.
In the Middle Ages people thought that the Earth was at the center of the universe. And we quickly discovered that we are not at the center of the universe, we are just little blip around a little star called the sun, in a little galaxy, and there are billions of galaxies in the world. So it is really important for us to understand where we fit as humankind in a broader context. And I look at planetary exploration as the first step in understanding that.

Q. What do you think is the future outlook for space development?

Charles Elachi Photo
I think space development is going to have a broad spectrum of benefit. I mean, clearly there'll be the economic benefit. Today, we use it all the time when we use satellite TV. We use a spacecraft for relaying communication. People use a GPS receiver - that's done because of space development. There are satellites we call search-and-rescue. If people get lost on boats or in mountains and so on, there are ways of communicating with them using these satellites.
So that had been a major step in development. What will happen in the future? It's always limited by imagination. I mean, there could be future applications that we haven't even thought about. At the present time there could be space tourism. That's beginning to happen - people doing suborbital flights, talking about having space hotels. Even if just some of these happen, I think that will be a great expansion of mankind's sphere of activity. So, no question, I think, there would be a lot of new things particularly for the next generation to imagine and make happen.
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