As a recognized master of hard science fiction, author Gregory Benford has faithfully led his readership through many a mind-altering future and parallel present, manipulating the standards of the genre—time travel, space exploration, alien contact, species demise—to address not only the agendas of the science community and its political counterparts, but the direction of human civilization and the multiverse at large.
Besides being a Nebula award-winning author, Benford is a physics professor and researcher, longtime consultant to NASA, and board member of the Mars Society. The fourth planet is an especially fervent interest, and over the course of his twenty plus year long career, Benford’s developed many a rational opinion on the technological advancements and changes in cultural attitude required for us to eventually land a man on the Red Planet; as well as the bureaucratic vagaries that currently keep us from doing so.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m continuing to work on the long-range exploration of mars and trying to figure out what needs to be done. Within NASA, his is more of a political thing. NASA at the highest levels is terrified of interplanetary exploration, particularly manned exploration. I mean they talk bravely about going to Mars in a manned expedition eventually, but in fact there’s no funding to make that happen at all. You need two things to send a manned expedition to Mars: you must have a real knowledge of how to run an enclosed, recycling habitat, and you must use centripetal gravity on the way there. That is, spin the space ship on a cable with a counterweight in order to not have the astronauts so feeble when they arrive after a six-month journey that they can’t walk. Neither of those have ever been attempted.
Space seems full of opportunities for tourism, industry, and innovation—what keeps it so entrenched in the status quo?
It’s the philosophy of jobs, jobs, jobs, which is why NASA has a stake in every state in the union. They essentially want a technological welfare program. And Boeing wants to keep cutting the same metal they’ve been cutting for forty years—they don’t have to do R&D, only production. It’s like why the post office works pretty well, but not great, and FedEx works so well; FedEx works with only the high end of the business. So, until NASA is radically changed, you won’t get anything more than that. Their unmanned program is fine but has reached its limit as to what it can do.
Do you look favorably upon the experiments in rocketry and space tourism being carried out by the private sector?
Yes, it’s a good idea, mostly because it’s a way of getting some innovation. They can’t do the big things, like nuclear rockets, but developing a way to get into orbit cheaply is essential, and NASA will never do that, though there is nothing these private companies are doing that NASA couldn’t have done years ago.
When do you think it would be likely that we could send a manned mission to Mars?
If it was decided, it could easily be organized in fifteen years. What you want to do, if you’re going to be smart about it, is develop nuclear rocketry, because that increases the efficiency of rockets by at least a factor of two to three and they can literally run on water. All rockets are steam rockets, and the nice thing about Mars is that it has water on it. We know we can get it; it’s locked beneath the surface and at the poles too. The chemical rockets have outlived their usefulness in the space program. You’re really limited to what you can do with chem rockets in the solar system, as they can’t move significant masses over distances in less than the career lifetime of an astronomer. The U.S. and the USSR both developed nuclear rockets in the 70’s, and they stopped because of the test ban treaty. But they worked functionally. The U.S. ran their Nerva (?) rocket for 100 hours in Nevada, and the Soviets ran theirs for 1,000 hours. And that’s the smart way to explore the solar system, to build in your own obsolescence. It’s like trying to explore the new world using only caravels, which were designed for the smooth waters of the Mediterranean. The Spanish had to quickly develop better ships.
What do you see as the primary benefits of getting to Mars?
Well, the major scientific question that can be settled is that of life on Mars. Is there life there, is it related to us, did we come from there like a bacterial transfer in the early solar system? How old is it? Life has a chance to develop there, easily. Mars cooled off and had a warm, wet environment for probably over a hundred million years before Earth did. The collision that created the Moon in the Earth’s early phases caused the planet to be re-heated and thus it took another 50 million years before the formation of stable oceans.
What alternate history or future do you most enjoy contemplating?
I like to think about what would have happened under Nixon if the U.S. hadn’t decided to just turn the space program into a political game, basically allowing a committee of lawyers to design the shuttle. The shuttle’s obsolescence date was 1995, and now its scheduled to fly until 2015. It’s using computers that have a capacity of 64 kb. The reason astronauts take laptops into orbit is because the ship’s computers have systems from the 70’s. An astronaut once joked to me, ‘You think it’s funny but these systems are running on hard disks designed in 1974.’