Jayshree Seth: Over a third of people say they believe science will allow people to live on Mars in our lifetime. What does the future of space exploration really hold? What is the value of sending humans into space in the first place? We'll count down to lift off this time on "Science Champions."
Welcome to "Science Champions." I'm your host, Jayshree Seth, Chief Science Advocate at 3M. The last time humans set foot on the moon was in 1972. That's nearly 50 years ago. Since then, humans have stayed close to Earth. Of course, we have sent unmanned probes throughout the solar system. We've even landed two robots on Mars, and the Curiosity rover is still going strong six years into its two-year mission. These robotic missions have yielded priceless scientific data. But for those of us raised on Star Trek, the idea human missions to other planets is certainly a captivating one.
Will humans set foot on Mars in our lifetime? Should we take that risk? Or should we leave space travel to the robots? What does humanity stand to gain from sending humans to the stars? My guest this episode has spent most of her time pondering these questions. Abigail Harrison, aka Astronaut Abby, wants to be the first human to walk on Mars. She's the founder of The Mars Generation, a nonprofit organization seeking to advance public interest in human space exploration. Abby, thank you so much for joining me.
Abigail Harrison: Thanks so much for having me. I'm excited to talk space today.
JS: What sparked your passion for space exploration?
AH: I've been interested in space exploration for as long as I can remember. Ever since I was probably about five years old, I was just really excited by the world around me, and especially by the stars. And so I would spend a lot of time outside, looking up at the stars and asking all of the questions that you could imagine. What's out there? What have we done? Where are we going to go in the future? Those kinds of things. And as I got older and learned more about space exploration, I became even more interested and excited and passionate about it. And my dream to become an astronaut just grew up with that.
JS: So was there a specific defining moment that you can remember? Or have you always been interested in space?
AH: People always ask if there was a moment where that passion was born. And I have to disappoint by saying no, it's something that's always been there for me, and was there at a time that I can't remember. So it's something that I've just grown up with this idea that this is what I'm interested in, and what I want to do with my future. And I think it's a really interesting concept, that passion and excitement and for what you want to do with your future can come in a variety of different ways. And for some people, it's lifelong, for some people, it happens at a certain point, sometimes there's a dramatic shift, sometimes there's not. And all of those things are valid, none of them disclude [SP] or invalidate the amount of passion that you have for your dream.
JS: Now, you have a lot of experience as a science communicator, right?
JS: That's something we have talked about on previous episodes, that challenge of relating to the general public, it seems like you haven't figured out.
AH: Yeah, I've been giving interviews since I was about 14. So it's definitely a skill that you have to learn. And I think it's something that we should be focusing more on, teaching to scientists and engineers and everyone really, in every career, but especially in STEM fields, as they start to learn not only how to do research and whatnot in their field, but also, how do we share that with the public. Because that's such a difficult thing to do.
STEM fields are hard to bring across in a very understandable and exciting way. But if we're not sharing that, then what's the point of what we're doing in the first place? As you can probably tell, I'm a big proponent of Liberal Arts and the idea that science communication should be more valued or more supported than it is right now.
JS: How did your parents react to your dream of being an astronaut? Were they supportive?
AH: I'm really fortunate in the sense that my parents were always very supportive and encouraging about my dreams and goals, even though they seemed outrageously or outlandishly large and even impossible in some ways. My parents never said the words impossible to me. They never directly outright said, "You should focus on something else, or this isn't something you can do."
But my mom does like to tell a story that…so I've been saying I wanted to be an astronaut since I was four or five years old. And she always tells me that even though outwardly she was very supportive of it and she was excited that her young daughter was interested in a STEM field, inside, she didn't believe at all that this was something that I was going to do or something that was even possible. Like a lot of people within the United States, and even around the world, space exploration isn't something that we necessarily think about or have a lot of exposure to. And so she didn't see it as a realistic life goal. But she never said that to me, until I was older. And then she told me the story. But it was really important that she didn't say that to me, and didn't discourage me from a young age. And I was really fortunate to have that kind of support.
JS: Did you have any teachers that encouraged and supported you?
AH: Teachers have always been very surprised when I tell them about it. But thankfully, I've also had teachers in the past…I was a student in the Minneapolis Public Schools for my entire K through 12 education. And my teachers, every single one that I've talked to about this has been completely on board and excited and passionate about it, and supportive. And so, once again, that's something that I've been very fortunate in. I especially had a teacher in fifth grade whose name was Miss Hill. And she went above and beyond to try and support me in this dream and to help me believe that it was a reality in my future. And actually, right after this interview, I'm headed to her retirement party, where we're celebrating the years and years and decades really, of work that she's put into myself and many other students in the public school department.
JS: That's wonderful. So in addition to Miss Hill, who are your role models?
AH: I grew up keeping the first group of female astronauts back in the '80s really in high esteem within my mind. And I think that they're really role models that a lot of young women and young people, in general, can look up to. A more tangible set of role models that have played a huge difference in my life and really have inspired me over the past years are Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger and Wendy Lawrence, who are both astronauts and actually sit on the board of my nonprofit, The Mars Generation. And they have really inspired and excited me and been role models because they are not only these incredibly talented and successful women, who have traveled in space and done what I've wanted to do, but they also take a lot of time and effort to share it with the public and are fantastic and passionate science communicators and volunteer their time to help do that, which is such an important thing and has been a huge inspiration to me.
Two other women who I really hold in high esteem and who have been role models to me are Ellen Stofan, who used to be the chief director of science for NASA, and also Eileen Drake, who is the CEO of Aerojet Rocketdyne. And I look at them as women who have been highly successful in areas that have historically been very dominated by men. And so to see them in these positions of power within the space industry is really, I think, it's inspiring to me and a lot of other young women.
JS: Absolutely. Now, let's get right into the big questions. Why Mars and why now?
AH: How much time did you say we have?
JS: We have all the time you need, go for it.
AH: That's a dangerous thing for you to say with a question like why Mars, because I could go for a while. But I'll give you the short answer. Why Mars and why now? Why Mars? Why Mars is such a good and important question as we look at what we're trying to do in the near future with space exploration. Why are we focusing so heavily on this? What makes it worthwhile? That's the big question that's being asked. So I'm so glad you asked it. And the answer, I would look at it from a three-pronged perspective.
One is that space exploration has given us this incredible boost in science and technology, and engineering, and all types of things. We see a huge rate of return on investments that we put into space exploration. It's actually one of the largest rate of returns that we can see for technology, and also for the economy in general. And so, we want to continue to see that happen. We want to continue to see space exploration benefit our lives here on Earth.
And one of the ways that…one of the things that's really important, if we want to see those returns continue, is that we have to be pushing ourselves. We have to be really trying to do things that are out of our comfort zone, out of what we know as possible. Because the reason that we get such high returns is because by, in space, we are running into problems all the time, and having to fix those problems and come up with innovative solutions. And so we have to continue to put ourselves in those difficult situations. And recently, for the last couple of decades, we've been in low Earth orbit, which is a really great place to be with the International Space Station, with the shuttle missions. We've learned time and it's a world-class or interworld [SP]-class research facility, you could say, but there is a limit to what it can offer us.
And so by pushing past that, by putting ourselves into situations that are even more difficult than that, such as interplanetary travel, such as sending humans to Mars, we're really increasing that difficulty level and as such, increasing what we get back from that. So I think it's really important that for economic and technological reasons, we push for those new goals. And Mars is a really reasonable and logical next step, which has to do with my second point, which is that Mars is the perfect next step that we have to take in human space exploration.
We've put humans into low Earth orbit, we've put humans on the moon. Our next step is to ask how can we start to gain Earth independence. So how can we start to put humans on missions that will allow them to participate in space exploration without relying fully or even mostly, or even partly, I guess, on Earth as a backup, as the ability to call back for a concrete physical help, such as supplies, but even more so for information or whatnot. By putting ourselves in this situation of human Mars traveler, human interplanetary travel, we're taking that next step away from dependent on Earth and only being able to explore things that are within a certain distance or radius or area around Earth. And that opens the rest of our solar system, and really the rest of our universe to us when we do that.
So Mars is the perfect next step for that. It's a great candidate, because it's close enough, it's well, I'll start with it's far enough that it's really difficult, and that it will force us to have this Earth independence, it will force us to figure out how space exploration should work without being able to communicate with Earth simultaneously all the time. But it's also close enough that it's doable. And it's close enough that it's not completely independent of Earth. So we do still have that ability to call back for help and to do those things. So you can look at it like Mars is our sandbox, Mars is the place that we can go to dip our toes in, and to learn how we can explore the rest of our solar system and the rest of our universe.
The third reason for Mars is a not as science or practical reason, I guess you could say, but it's more of a feeling. It's more of an emotional connection that we have to exploration. And that's that humans, as a whole, I believe that this is something that truly helps to define humanity, is the idea that we're explorers, that we constantly want to know what's over the next hill, what's around the corner. And Mars is that next hill that we can look over it. It's a imperative of our species, I believe, to explore that. And if we're ignoring that, we're ignoring a large part of what makes us human. Which makes Mars really personally and emotionally connected to a lot of people.
JS: That makes me think of what JFK said when announcing the lunar landing project. We do these things, not because they're easy, but because they are hard.
AH: Yeah, absolutely. That's the whole idea is that by choosing to do things, because we know that they're going to be difficult, we are actually doing ourselves a huge service, we're really improving our futures. And we're making…you know, things being difficult isn't a bad thing. And I think that's something that a lot of times we associate difficult situations with negativity, but like JFK, like going to the moon, going to Mars is only going to do really positive things for our society in our futures.
JS: So you would say humans in space exploration can do things that robots and probes cannot?
AH: Absolutely, you can't look at the future of space exploration, in my opinion, reasonably without having humans be part of the equation. But I also wouldn't want to look at it without robots being part of the equation. It definitely needs to be a partnership and a collaboration between the two. There are a lot of things that humans aren't great for, that robots really excel at. But on the flip side, there's a lot of issues that we have with robotic exploration, things like they can't respond quickly to immediate stimuli or whatnot, and they have a really high or a really long communication rate. So it takes about 5 to 15 minutes to communicate with something on Mars both ways, depending on the position of Mars and Earth in their orbits. And that means that for every direction that you want to send a robot on the surface of Mars, it could take you anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes to round trips sent one direction, whereas a human can make that decision on their own. And they can really drive exploration on their own.
We saw that with the Martian rovers, which have taken, you know, decades to explore the same amount that was explored during the Apollo missions. I think it's something like they were able to transit 20 plus miles during the Apollo missions, and rovers, you know, that's taken them a decade to do that same type of thing. There are also reasons like robots can only do exactly what we've programmed them to do, or whatnot, whereas having humans there gives that ability to make snap decisions and to, you know, really look at things intuitively. So that's, I would say, that's the main reason to value largely human presence in space exploration, not the only reason, but one of the really strong ones for sure.
JS: That makes sense. Let's get into The Mars Generation. What is the goal of that foundation?
AH: The Mars Generation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that focuses on exciting and inspiring people and especially young people about space exploration and STEM education, and then also providing them with support in order to reach goals and dreams and careers in those fields. And our second goal that we really aspire to is to be communicators, science communicators, to the public to get real and truthful information about space exploration out to a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't have any exposure to space exploration.
JS: So what kind of response have you seen to the foundation's efforts?
AH: There are so many moments with The Mars Generation where it's heartwarming to see the effect that it's had. One that happened recently was I heard from a mom on Twitter who told me that her daughter was wearing a space shirt that they have to buy in the boys' section whenever they go shopping because they only carry them in the boys' shirt. And she looked at her mom one day and asked her if she looked like a boy wearing a shirt and a skirt and was really concerned about this. And this girl is five years old.
And her mom reached out and started finding resources and whatnot on the internet to expose her daughter to more women in STEM and in space industries and found me on Twitter. And I was able to send back a reply to her daughter. And I also heard from her that they've started watching all of the videos that The Mars Generation and that I've produced because we have a lot of video content out there. And that's something that really made a difference in her daughter, being able to be confident in her interests in STEM and in space. And so that was an exciting moment, where you see the direct impact that just making role models visible to people has.
Another really exciting one that we've seen is that every year, The Mars Generation sends students to Space Camp, and these are students who are living at or below the national poverty line. We're the only group that sends them on full scholarship. So not just their tuition, but also their plane ticket, their flight suit, everything included and also supports them in the process of getting to and from Space Camp. Because for a lot of families who are really in poverty, receiving a tuition scholarship wouldn't cut it, because their community or their family can't make up the rest to get them there. And so that's something we really wanted to endeavor to close that gap that there is in opportunities. And so when you see the photos of these young people at Space Camp, living a dream that they've had, that's absolutely heartwarming and one of the best parts of running The Mars Generation, I think.
JS: Your TEDx Talk, Find Your Mars, is incredibly inspiring. What advice would you give to young people still trying to find their Mars, their dream that will motivate them to succeed?
AH: So for people who haven't found their Mars yet, I would tell them to not sweat it, to try a ton of different things and see how it fits, to really be willing to go out there and dip their toes in different things and fail. The idea that we have to immediately know what it is that we want to do and that we have to be successful at it right away is really damaging, in my opinion. And it's something that some people do know right away. I knew my entire life growing up what it was that I wanted to do. But for the majority of people, that's not how it is. And there's nothing wrong with that. It can take a long time for you to find what it is that you're passionate about. The important thing is that you keep trying and that you keep looking for that.
I have a sister who's two years old than me. And I always like to tell her story when I get asked about this because her and I are the complete opposite as far as motivation and whatnot go. I grew up knowing that I wanted to be an astronaut. And I was super focused in school. And I had this 20-year life plan that, of course, has changed throughout the years, but has always been something I've looked at. And she is the opposite. She wasn't sure what it was that she wanted to do, you know, tried a lot of different things and still is trying things. But she's done amazing things along the way while she looks for her Mars, while she looks for her goal. She's traveled around the world, she's learned languages, she just started her own small business, things like that. And we don't know if she's found her passion yet. But she keeps trying new things.
And so that's the best piece of advice that I have for people would be to go along that type of model, to really not worry if what you're doing doesn't quite click right now, but to just make sure that you keep looking for something that does.
JS: That's great advice. So what's next for you? What would you like our listeners to know?
AH: So for me right now, the next couple of years include a lot of school. I'm currently a rising senior at Wellesley College. So I'll be going into my senior year pursuing a double degree in astrobiology and Russian. But, super interestingly, is that I'm spending the summer down at Kennedy Space Center working in a Mars-focused astrobiology lab. And so if people are interested or excited and want to learn more about that, I'll be sharing all of it over the summer on my social media channels, so they can go ahead and find me as @astronautabby on Twitter, or Instagram, or Facebook or YouTube. And they can also find The Mars Generation as The Mars Generation on all of those platforms, or at our website at themarsgeneration.org and go ahead and join us in our goal to excite people about space exploration and STEM.
We have programs that really anyone can be involved in, no matter who, if you're a student or if you're an adult, or if you have a small interest in space exploration or it's all-encompassing. We want you to be a part of our community, no matter how, no matter where you fit in. So make sure you go ahead and check out The Mars Generation and we'd love to have you join us.
JS: Fantastic. Abby, thanks so much for joining me today.
AH: Thank you. I really appreciate the work that you're doing too. You know, you're a science communicator as well. And it's invaluable what you're doing, creating platforms and helping others to get the word out about their passion and their interest. So I really appreciate the time that you spend.
JS: Why should we send humans to Mars? Many believe that there is a wealth of knowledge to be gained from having a physical presence on another planet. Mars could also serve as a launching point to explore the rest of the solar system. But the biggest benefit of human space exploration maybe that it gives us new problems to solve. As we solved the lunar landing program, solving these challenges could lead to amazing breakthroughs and advancements in technology, medicine, healthcare, and more. And that would benefit all of humanity, no matter what planet you happen to be on.
Thank you for listening to Science Champions. For more in-depth analysis of the current state of science, join us at 3m.com/scienceindex. And make sure to subscribe to the podcast to catch our next episode! You can subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.