Ariel Waldman has worked with NASA, the National Academy of Sciences and hundreds of citizen scientists and inventors to ensure that humanity goes into space. For our seventh episode of Ars Technica Live, we got her uncensored take on what it really takes to inhabit the solar system. It’s much harder and weirder than you might think.
We started by talking about how Waldman became a “space activist,” a job description you don’t often hear. While in design school, she fell in love with space and applied for jobs that allowed her to pursue that interest. Fortunately, NASA hired non-scientists to work on outreach programs, and that’s where her career took off.
She has since set up Spacehack.org, a list of space projects that need your help, even if you’re not an astronaut (or astrophysicist). And she has worked on a National Academies committee to advise the US government on how to plan for the future of human spaceflight.
What Waldman learned from working on the human spaceflight report (which you can read as a free PDF here) is that NASA is not currently on a trajectory that will take humans to Mars any time soon. She said the problem is that the agency is instead planning an asteroid mission called ARM, which would require a plethora of purpose-built equipment that couldn’t be reused for a Mars mission. The committee instead recommended that NASA plan its missions around equipment that will eventually lead to the development of resources we can use to land humans safely on Mars and return them home. Within NASA and the larger space community, Waldman said, there are a lot of bad feelings about ARM, and it could be scrapped when the next president comes out with a new space agenda.
So what about SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s proposed mission to Mars? Waldman said NASA and other agencies certainly take Musk seriously since he’s built rockets that work. That said, a mission to Mars is so complicated and difficult that it requires international cooperation. “It’s going to be a great moment for the Earth,” she said, not just for the United States or a private company.
She is also excited about a number of futuristic space projects emerging from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. NIAC gives grants to people who want to develop early-stage ideas that sound like they’re straight out of science fiction. Some of them include things like making autonomous asteroid cars or making a soft robot that can crawl through cracks in Europa’s icy shell to explore the watery interior of the Galilean moon.
If Waldman had to choose one place to look for life in the solar system, she would choose Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus. That’s because the Cassini spacecraft was already flying through a watery plume that erupted from Enceladus’s surface, sampling the oceans that flow beneath its icy crust. Chemical analysis revealed an environment that could support the development of life as we know it.
When we opened up the word to questions from the public, things got really interesting. Waldman talked about the double-edged sword of making spaceflight dependent on political maneuvering, and she described her favorite CubeSat project. She also told us how to get to Science Hack Day, a global event where scientists and ordinary citizens come together to prototype new projects within 24 hours. Watch the video to see the entire fascinating interview and to hear Waldman joke about my pronunciation of “Enceladus.” I’m still ashamed.