Space Reporter Loren Grush: Hope and Hubris in Space Exploration

July 18, 2017

The U.S. space program is both beloved and neglected. It brings us breathtaking pictures from distant worlds and drives the human species to push itself farther out into the cosmos. But at the same time, it is subject to terrestrial political concerns, and without the urgency of a Cold War-era “moonshot” to galvanize the public’s enthusiasm, U.S. space policy is at times directionless, and always underfunded.

To talk about the state of space exploration, Point of Inquiry host Paul Fidalgo talks to Loren Grush, space reporter for The Verge, and previously of Popular Science. They discuss space policy in the Trump era, the challenges NASA faces to realize its ambitions, the grand promises of the private space industry, the prospects and perils for a human mission to Mars, the hostility women continue to face within the space community, and much more.

Oh, and we’ll also find out what it was that Mike Pence touched at the Kennedy Space Center that he was told not to touch.


This is point of inquiry for Tuesday, July 18th, 2017. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, the flagship podcast of the Center for Inquiry, an organization that strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry and humanist values. 

I’m your host, Paul Fidalgo. It’s been almost half a century since humans last walk on the surface of another world. When the Apollo missions brought a select few pioneers to the moon and in all that time, the exploration of space doesn’t seem to have gotten much easier. It’s a testament to the brilliance and the perseverance of the women and men of the world’s space programs that we’ve seen the momentous successes that we have rovers on Mars, close ups of Jupiter, Saturn and Pluto. We’ve hitched a ride on a comet and we’ve sent two of our earliest spacecraft out beyond the solar system itself. Not bad for a species that is otherwise more or less stuck on one particular rock for now, but just for now. On today’s episode of Point of Inquiry, I’ll be talking to Lauren Rush, who reports on all things Space for the Verge. And she previously covered the space beat for popular science. As you’ll hear in a moment, Lauren has a joyful curiosity that drives her reporting, which gives her a truly impressive grasp of the numerous moving parts within NASA, U.S. space policy and the increasingly ambitious private space industry. And she’s able to explain what she knows with the right balance of enthusiasm, concision and healthy skepticism. She’s just the right person to talk about the current state of the U.S. space program, the technological and political challenges faced by public and private space enterprises, and whether a human voyage to Mars is still just a dream or something far more real. This is a good one, folks. And now here’s Lauren. 

Laurence Rush, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Thanks for having me. Happy to be here. 

Lauren, you’ve been doing space reporting at The Verge now. For how long? 

A couple of year. Yeah, two years here. And then I was. I got started when I was at Popular Science before I moved over to here. 

What draws you to the space beat, assuming that was something that you chose to cover? What specifically drew you to this study? 

And I definitely chose it, which when I tell people that they are just like what? How did you pick space reporting to be something that you your time get to do? Yeah, well, yeah, it’s such an interesting niche. But so some background about me is I I’ve grown up with space all my life because my parents both worked at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and they both worked on the shuttle program. So I’ve always kind of been in the family of space. But I, I and I definitely had an aptitude for it, I think, at least. And when it comes to engineering, I was very good at math, puzzle solving. And I loved physics, but I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to actually, you know, go into engineering and build the rockets, you know, do that’s that stuff. Because I really did love storytelling. And I was a big theater kid, too. So I was trying to do a lot of different things. But the storytelling aspect, that kind of career really stood out to me. So I went into journalism. And then I noticed as I was, you know, doing more stories and picking more more beats up that I love talking about science and space because I felt like I knew it well and I understood a little bit better than most. And I just feel like it’s much more aspirational and hopeful at times than, you know, some of the other stuff that you can cover in journalism, especially right now, especially these. 

Thank you. Yes. 

So, yes, it was it was a very slow process where I and it wasn’t always, you know, I had an aptitude for science and engineering, but I definitely kind of straight away from it for a while. So I did come full circle where I was like, OK, I don’t really want to go into that field. And then I kind of got drawn back in when I was when I started doing journalism. I just thought it there’s just so many amazing things happening in the field right now. And so I really do feel privileged to talk about it because it can really be like a beacon of hope when other things seem very bleak. 

I’m so glad to hear you say that. Actually, I want to jump back to something that you just kind of glossed over very quickly was that you were a theater kid now. So was I. 

I was in fact, I was a professional actor for like ten years before I started doing this kind of stuff. So I. I feel like I totally know what you mean by the idea of storytelling being so important to the rest of the work. And I feel like especially when my show, my group advocates for science and critical thinking and you report on science, but someone has to bring that appreciation, build that bridge to the audience. And I feel like a background in theater for me certainly has made that easier to do. And I assume that’s the same for you. 

Definitely. And, well, at least what I feel is that it kind of just really opens up your eyes as to what people how people communicate and how they understand things. And I think if you go into the sciences, I mean, that’s great. And I’m not downplaying scientists to become writers, but there is a tendency to kind of rely on the jargon that you hear because, you know, every every field you go into is kind of like they’ve got their own language, you know? But I feel like kind of coming from that storytelling background, you understand how to speak like the the language of everybody else who isn’t in the field that you’re in that is so useful. 

I’m really glad to hear that. Regarding your coverage at The Verge specifically, I feel like there’s a there’s a particular Virge voice. Right. And the way I would put it is like this thing is really cool, but it’s like it’s like enthusiasm. 

Right. But like with skepticism lined with it, I feel like that’s kind of dead. Yeah. 

So it’s certainly not neutral. It’s not just giving you the facts. So I feel like if you’ve already kind of answered this, but how do you what do you feel is your particular angle on space reporting? Is it just simply like I know the general public doesn’t totally get this and I’m going to help them get it? Or is there something else? 

Yeah. So I think that the cool thing about space is there’s a lot of drama going on in terms of, you know, what companies want to get there. 

You know, vehicles used by the government, you know, which was not necessarily the case 20 years ago. 

Exactly. And so right now, there is a lot of kind of behind the scenes drama going on. And I like kind of illuminating that for people that just have absolutely no idea. Because much like the general public does not know that this is going on. But I think it’s kind of funny. It’s it’s it’s very Game of Thrones style to reference the show that we’re getting back soon, huh? Maybe with less violence. 

I was going to say that is that cut throat to your mind, like I even even I don’t don’t think of it as being that kind of. 

I don’t know from it. It can get very political in terms of the players that are, you know, vying for what they want and. Yeah. So I guess my angle, my angles is always to kind of tell you what’s going on and then maybe not always be just constantly gushing over the new things that we hear. And and because that there is a tendency to do that. Like my editors, you know, in space reporting, there is a lot of cheerleading because, yeah, stuff is really cool. But at the same time, not everybody is you know, we’re not here to kind of just be PR people for these companies and for for NASA. You know, at the same time, we need to really critique what’s going on and say, OK, is this really the best course of action? Or, you know, oh, this company says they’re going to go to the moon. Well, let’s take a look at what they’ve done. Oh, they haven’t actually launched anything to space yet. So, you know, A, we like to get people cited, but B, we also want to tell them the reality of the situation. And a lot of times in space, it’s easy to hype up things because we all want to get excited about new and exciting things. But at the same time, you know, we have to take a step back and say, OK, you know, what is the realistic possibility of this actually happening here? 

You know, I’d say that’s my experience of getting space coverage from, say, CNN or something like that where, you know, it’s but, you know, it’s the same thing with any subject. But they’re limited to these little blocks. And so if there’s a new idea, a new mission, a new spacecraft, then it’s like, look at this amazing thing. Isn’t this great? Moving on. 

Right. Exactly. And no fault to them that shows the nature of their game. But what I like about us is, you know, we have freedom on the Internet to go as long or as short as we need to go. And and so we have the time to kind of like talk about the caveats in the situation or to take take an angle that maybe, you know, other organizations can’t take. 

Yeah. So with the news environment that we’re in now, the whole post Trump post Alternative Facts era. Is that affecting your beat right now? We know that it’s poisoning the political coverage, but has it hit your arena in the same way? 

Just a little bit, but but very barely. So what has happened since the inauguration or even before the inorganic inauguration is that everyone in the space community is just trying desperately to understand what the future holds for this administration in regards to space policy. And we’re getting little scraps here and there. So it’s almost like we’re hinging on every word that is said. But we really have nothing in stone yet because it’s very clear that, you know, space policy hasn’t been drafted yet. All we have now is this new National Space Council, which, you know, there is some debate and it’s not even new. It’s a resurrected group, you know, for to guide policy into in terms of NASA and the Air Force and stuff. And, yeah, there’s debate on whether or not it’s going to be good or whether it’s going to be bad. But we really don’t know. That’s the investment thing is just a lot of waiting. And we get it. We get to a scrap here and there. And we, you know, go crazy and really speculate on what it could mean. But, you know, until we have, you know, legislation or appropriations, like, it’s going to be a waiting game for sure. 

Is this different from how it is, how it’s been with previous administrations? I say that because I always feel like the space program is sort of like the Cinderella of the government where like the wicked stepmother is Congress and they keep it in the kitchen cleaning things. And then once in a while it gets to go to the ball like we get to. We get pictures of Jupiter, we get pictures of Pluto. And it’s all fun. But is you know that then back to a pumpkin and back back, OK? 

That’s such a good way of saying it. It really is kind of this gem for both sides politically because everybody loves acid. They’re like no one’s going to say that Dassa is bad on either side. 

I’m just wondering about that. 

If there’s a partizan divide at all and they’re not really in terms of is space good or bad? Everybody thinks that space is good. This is a tough question. I am seeing a divide in terms of how we go to space, because right now there’s this new debate about old versus new space. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a Republican versus Democrat thing. We do see a certain number of legislators on one side and certain on the other. But I wouldn’t necessarily qualify it as a Republican versus Democrat thing. That’s very refreshing, actually. Yeah. But, you know, it’s an interesting time right now. I really hope it stays that way because NASA. I do like taking refuge in national news because it is the last one of the last places, I think where there, you know, the. Nonpartisan. 

Well, I have to know, though. I heard it from Infowars that there is a Martian colony of slave children. And so I guess what I want to know from you is, based on your reporting, how many kids are there and are they having fun? Maybe they’re having fun. 

You know, I hate to inform you that there are no children on Mars, and I expected you to say that. 

Because a bad colony. 

Yes, not very good. 

So we won’t be glad there are no kids on Mars. 

Back to U.S. space policy, though. So we’ve got Mike Pence. He’s apparently Trump’s guy for overseeing all this stuff. Is there any particular reason for this? Is this just a thing where he just throws a jab at Pence because he’s there? 

The president was set with the former National Space Council. So the National Space Council has been around before. It was around in the 60s and 70s, I believe was the first iteration it. And it’s always been run by the vice president. And then it was closed and or they disbanded it. And then it came back during the George H.W. Bush administration. And the vice president there also oversaw it, but then disbanded, too, because of some interpersonal conflicts like the Game of Thrones stuff you’ve been doing. Yes. So and in terms of what I’ve heard about it from experts, it just all depends on how you use it. You know, it could be another layer of decision making that just kind of hampers the process. And or could you know, if the people are really invested in space that are on the council, then perhaps it could be a very viable tool for coming up with policy. I know that just today they announced the new executive secretary of the National Space Council, which is Scott Pace. And he was he’s the current director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. And I talked to him a few times before. He’s really great, very knowledgeable when it comes to, you know, different routes for policy. And he is going to be in charge of the day to day activities of the council. So. So that’s a good thing. It’s good. And we at least have somebody in this spot. Because that’s the thing. I mean, we’re in July now and we don’t even have NASA administrator. And I think it’s officially been the longest that we have that a new administration hasn’t named NASA administrator and or not NASA administrator. And it’s always like, you know, NASA is always kind of the last place to get, you know, leadership when the situation comes in. But this is if they are taken, they they have set the record for not appointing that position yet. 

So actually, I’ve meant to ask you this much earlier, but so this is very important. The most important question I could ask really is Mike Pence was at NASA. There is a thing there. It said, do not touch on it. But to the shock of the nation, he touched it. Lauren, what did the vice president touch? And has he ruined space forever? 

So he was actually touching a piece of the Orion capsule, which is that the capsule that NASA’s building to take people into deep space and then onto Mars. And it was actually I I talked with somebody I know who works on Orion, and he told me it was the titanium forward bay cover, which, you know, covers the four bay. OK, so what does a board do? It holds the parachutes that pop out whenever the the capsule is landing back on Earth. And the thing about the forward bay is that it actually jettisons off of the capsule because you got to reveal the parachutes. Right. But the first thing I noticed when I saw that picture, I mean, it was hilarious. But it if it really was if that needed to be pristine, that piece of hardware needed to be pristine, they wouldn’t have taped a piece of paper to say, look, wouldn’t a glove be a bad idea or just being around humans? Clearly, it wasn’t a huge disaster that he touched. If it was something that desperately did not need to be touched. NASA would not let him touch it. 

And in his defense, I would want to, you know, handle everything in there. 

You know, if I exaggerates now that the reason that I was told that they had the piece of paper, it was just to minimize people moving it around, you know. 

Don’t touch it and leave it there. Yeah. Don’t take my sandwich from the fridge. There you go. All right. Let me back out of this subject a little bit. 

Because in recent weeks, as I’m sure you know, there’s been a lot of news about revelations about women having to endure a lot of sexual harassment, other bad behavior for men in the tech industry in Silicon Valley. And now we’ve got something specifically in the world of astronomy which blew my mind. There is this survey that said that women of color were feeling this. Hostility in the workplace in who were, you know, astronomers and planetary scientists, you know, like it was a high percentage. 

It is. Yeah. 40 percent of women of color everywhere feeling unsafe because of their race. 

And then I think another one was about feeling unsafe because of their gender. 

I forget. Yeah. 40 percent was because of their gender and sex. And then twenty eight percent was because of race. 

That’s astounding to me. You were just saying that this field is one of like this forward looking hopefulness. Right. And yeah, I have this situation where where would this almost half of women are saying we’re women of color, at least feeling that they feel unsafe. What do you what are you hearing about that? 

Like, what’s going on? We’ve been hearing stories about this for a while. I mean, we haven’t had really concise data like this, but we’ve just been seeing so many stories pop up of women or of, you know, men harassing women in the astronomy field. And I think this was probably one of the first times that there is like, you know, concise research that looked into this problem. And it really just kind of proved what a lot of women had been saying. A lot of women of color had been saying for a long time. 

And I’m not I mean, I. 

I mean, I am a woman, but I am also not a woman of color. So I don’t really I won’t say that I know what they’re going through, but I will say that it doesn’t really surprise me because in these fields it is still very dominantly white, male, heavy. And, you know, I’ll notice that when I go to any kind of space conference or, you know, any kind of event, it’s I am what? There’s so many guys there and it can really be, you know, it just makes you feel out of place. I really don’t feel like I belong there when I feel like that’s my first initial thought is, oh, I’m just wrong for this crowd. 

Right. That’s the biological response. Like, all these things are different than I am. 

And then, you know, you can overcome and persevere and that’s fine. But that’s my little thing. I can’t even imagine what other women of color go through. So I really am glad that this study, like a lot of people, gave attention to it. Now, I’m just need we need to figure out ways to make these people feel a lot safer, you know? 

Yeah. And like I said, it’s not limited to astronomy, certainly. But that certainly surprised me. But yet, like you said, I’m glad that people are coming out to get all these new revelations about the tech industry and venture capitalism and stuff for these women and finally yanking up. So this was not news to you, though. So I’ve been hearing about the stuff in the sciences generally for for quite a few years, as I’m sure you have to say. But so has it hasn’t been your experience that, you know, that that women, not just women of color, but women generally in the sciences and planetary? I mean, specifically in planetary sciences, in astronomy have been facing this kind of hostility on a regular basis, even even today? 

Oh, yeah. 

I mean, I, I am very fortunate because I haven’t really experienced anything too too too bad in my opinion. But I just see a lot of people speaking out, you know, online and and you just have to listen. And there are a lot of women out there. I mean, I try to follow more as many women as I can. And, you know, if I’m telling a story that has zero space, you know, I tried to talk to women as much as I can, but it really can be tough because that’s another thing, is that sometimes all you have are guys to talk to when it comes to a certain story that you’re working on. So and I hope that changes. And I hope by, you know, illuminating the voices of more women, more especially women of color. 

Is it the same situation for for your beat, for the, you know, space industry beat? Are you are you one of the few women or is that starting to change there as well? 

I’m definitely starting to change. When I first started well, I mean, it wasn’t even that long ago when I first started. But there’s definitely a I’ll say there’s a contingent of people who’ve been doing this for a while that are more guys. But I think a lot of young women are starting to get into the field. And it’s been very inspiring to kind of talk to them and become friends with them. And I’m seeing more and more people all the time. I am, too. It’s a.. It’s really encouraging. So I think we’re definitely on our way. But, yes, there’s so like when I go to a launch down in Florida, it’s definitely a lot of guys down there. 

Sure. Sure. I can imagine that. All right. Yeah. 

OK. Back to some of the some of the major ventures in space going on right now. Speaking specifically about Mars, presidents are always promising. I feel like every four years or so a president goes out or this time of vice president, I suppose, goes out and says, we’re going to put humans. Mars and the dates they give us are like just far enough over the horizon that we forget about it. And it’s a nice speech and we all get excited about Mars and then we kind of forget about it. So what do you think is happening right now? Is there like other than not the private companies, per say, but like on from at least from the US or even maybe another government? Is there a human mission to Mars really in the cards right now? 

I would say a lot has to change in order for that to happen. At the moment, I think what’s happening? Well, OK. You know, Obama was the one that Reider activists to Mars. And during his administration, you know, things got a little muddled as to the actual plan for how to do that. And now at the moment, we are still on the Mars path. You know that Obama said, OK. I don’t know that. 

I mean, Mike Pence said all those things at KFC. 

But if you listen closely, he really didn’t say anything that hadn’t already been promised during the Obama administration. And I think that was key because, you know, maybe we will go back to the moon. But we already had robotic missions to the moon plan. We also have this plan to build a deep space gateway like an outpost, kind of another international space station outside year around the moon. Right. That could constitute our our return to the moon. You didn’t say we put people on and he was very vague. So I think he did that on purpose because let’s say things change with when they meet with the National Space Council, then, you know, he no one will give him flak for saying that we are going to do this. 

And then going back on that, I mean, it’s not just a whim right now because, I mean, there are studies about how to survive on Mars. They’re doing the bio domes and stuff like that. So, I mean, there’s work being done. 

It’s not a whim by any means. The problem is the budget. 

We do not have I mean, unless the U.S. government wants to commit a whole lot more money to NASA on top of what they’re already committing, then perhaps, you know, we can make it work with with the current programs. The problem is we have a lot of big budget programs going on right now and people will argue with you about whether or not they’re necessary or not. They aren’t. But those include the space launch system, which is this big, huge rocket that they’re building tends to do the Mars missions. And then you have the Orion capsule, which is the the deep space capsule that is touched or part of it very touched and ruined it. 

So now we can’t go to Mars. Thanks, Mike. Right. 

And those developed that costs are costing billions. They’re they’re costing billions each year to to make those. And that’s only receives about 19 billion, a little over nine billion each year. So we just don’t have a lot of room in the budget. We’re spending a lot of money maintaining our current programs and developing these new big budget programs that there just isn’t the money to develop all the other stuff that we need, like landing. I mean, I think that that came out this past week that Bilger Sumire at NASA was saying we just don’t have the funds to to develop a lander for Mars because we were spending it elsewhere. 

Do you think it’s the right priority? Or maybe maybe these funds shouldn’t be directed toward a human mission to Mars at this point? Do you think it’s the right direction? 

I think we spent a lot of time focusing on the direction and less time focusing on establishing an infrastructure for exploring deep space. So there are a lot of smart ways to lower the cost of missions. You know, SpaceX doesn’t have to be unbelievably expensive. But Duchesse, the way we’ve been doing it for so long, we haven’t really changed our methods for making it less expensive. I talked about old versus new SpaceX earlier, and that’s kind of where this this argument is coming in. So the old way of doing space was, you know, you would get these big budget items. You know, NASA would develop its own vehicles. And whenever they needed something to be developed, Congress would give them all this money and they would give out a contract to one of their preferred contractors. And it was cost plus. So if they needed to give more money to the contractors to do things, then they would you know, it wasn’t like you had this finite amount of money. They would keep giving money if you needed it. And so NASA is very involved in that process of developing. So they oversee a lot. They work a lot with the contractors. So it’s it’s very NASA heavy. And then this new way of doing this, this is like fixed price where NASA doesn’t necessarily have its tentacles in the design process. Basically, NASA says, OK, I want or rocket or I want a spacecraft that will do this. And a good example is the commercial crew program. They said, OK, we want a spacecraft that will take people, our astronauts, to the International Space Station. And they didn’t say how long you could do it. They just said this is what we want. And so all these different companies gave them they pitch their designs is basically like a pitch meeting. They’re like, OK, I’m going to do it this way with this capsule. And so then NASA picked two companies that it wanted Space X and Boeing and gave them a fixed contract that was like, OK, you know, we’ll give you this amount of money if you can develop this capability for us. So it gives the companies a lot more flexibility in terms of of what they do and how they make their vehicles. And then NASA still has its say in the process, a little bit like they’ll say, OK, we need these safety measures. Check. You know, well, we need A, B and C checked, but it’s not going to be like, oh, you need to change this part because of this, you know, because we like that design better. It’s like you come up with your design and we’ll tell you if it meets our criteria. 

It sounds like in the current environment, then that that’s the better approach. But might not it might not be the better approach if NASA were much more generously funded, like if it had all these, you know, hundreds of dollars than it would need to do this kind of thing. But given the restraints that they have now, that this newer way is a better way to go. 

Yeah. And I think a lot of people will tell you. 

Yeah. I mean, it worked when we were in the, you know, an Apollo program because we had, like NASA’s budget increased so much just because we were so focused on this one goal and then that way of doing business kind of sustained for a while. But now we don’t have that pressing need to go to the moon like we did back in the in the Cold War. So now it’s time to change, to modify and and to go with the new times. And it’s there’s a kind of a battle between because you have to understand when you when you take away when you switch to this new way of doing business, like a lot of people have relied for a very long time their jobs and relied on the old way of doing business with assets here were to suddenly switch to the new new space paradigm. A whole bunch of people would get jobs and work, and then a whole bunch of people lose jobs. So I understand I’m very understanding in terms of both aspects, but I think in the long run, we want to do what’s best for our space program. And so I think finding a way to either do a balance between old and new or transition, you know. Yeah. Slowly, which we kind of are. I mean, there is a transition going on, but there’s still a big fight to keep things the way they were. 

Yeah. Let’s talk about the new paradigm a little bit more with some of these private missions here. And I’m thinking specifically still about the Mars stuff, because I think that’s got you know, there are these sort of existential and philosophical implications to these kinds of ideas. They’re not just like, let’s go to the moon and get some rocks. You know, this is more about like who we are as a species. And so the first one I want to talk about is Mars One, which I assume you are with very beautifully. For the audience, it’s sort of a thing where they they called up a bunch. They got candidates like 200000 candidates who said, yes, I want to go to Mars. And it’s a one way trip. You didn’t live there forever. They they they pick it. They they round it down to like 20 or so and they train you for 10 years. And then 10 of you will get to go up and live on Mars until you’re dead. And they say that the proceeds from like a reality show about the mission is going to pay for it all. So before I discuss my feelings about it, because I’m deeply skeptical about it, what is your take on Mars One? 

It’s a mess. 

I don’t get so much so much for listening to understand. It’s like they they definitely came up with the coolest. Get it right. Right. You’re not you’re going to go to Mars and live there for the rest of your life. But, you know, even if you get to Mars with this program, your life is going to be super short. 

How it’s you know what? 

I have to point people to your article from Popular Science. Just grab more and grab popular science about how you will die on Mars. It is both harrowing and hilarious at the same time. It’s just this this wonderful list of you’ll crash, you will explode, you know, you’ll freeze it. Everybody go in. Like when this is over. Go and Google that and go read that article. Anyway, go ahead. 

No, the thing is, people just I think the Mars people who love they they like, you know, disagree with me. I just think they completely underestimate the extreme engineering challenge that this presents for people. I mean, it’s going to take people from every discipline so to make this happen and to keep people safe. And the technology just isn’t there yet. I mean, some technologies are there, but they haven’t been tested out on Mars and nothing’s been tested out on Mars to literally anything yet. You know, major landed robots for sure. But like, you’re going to need life support systems. You’re going to need, you know, ways to grow plants. You’re going to need ways to recycle water, you know. And we’ve done these things in space. But we really need to test them out on Mars first. And we just haven’t even gotten close to doing that. 

Yeah. You know, for for Mars One specifically, though, now I’m very influenced by the reporting that Elmo keep had been doing. 

I was going to say I was surprised you pulled out that two hundred thousand number, because I’m pretty sure that’s been debunked. 

Oh, that’s true. Yeah. 

Well, that’s exactly what I mean, because so many of the claims that the Mars One organization has made have been apparently either just completely made up or vastly exaggerated. And so my feeling about it is that it kind of feels like a space Amway kind of a pyramid scheme is what it sounds like to me, where they get a lot of people to pay to be. Part of the screening process and stuff, and then all these kind of vague promises and they and they encouraged everybody to like not bring on more candidates, bring on more candidates on it. And it rings like a scam to me. But I don’t want to you know, I don’t need to, like, make a hard and fast accusation that these guys are like scamming. 

But, I mean, it is a very much a trend within the space industry to promise a lot, you know, even if you don’t have anything to back it up. But at least with Space X, like they are launching rockets, you know, they they did make big promises, but they’re making steps to meet those promises. 

And Mars one day will upend people’s lives, though, because people do throw away everything and try to get into this program. 

Exactly. So. But Mars One just keeps continually stepping back like they’ve delayed their missions so many times now. They have like an all they really have is that Web site like ours. 

I can’t wait for the reality show. It’s going to be great, I’m sure. 

Yeah, I know. I went to a debate a couple of years ago between Mars One’s CEO, Best Lansdorp, and these two graduate students at a white team who had done this feasibility study. And it’s just very clear that they really have no idea what they’re talking about. 

But you’re not ready to go all the way to like it’s a scam where there’s a malicious intent here and there. 

I’m not really sure what the intent here is because, I mean, if it’s a scam, I mean, it just seems like such a it’s a big one because I see, you know, like not a very good one. So inefficient. Yeah. There’s so many other ways to get people’s money. Sure. 

So I’m not really sure. And they keep perpetuating like they are still there. You know, there’s still a little kicking along. So I’m not really sure what the end game is because I don’t I don’t think I just wonder if they realistically think they are going towards because it’s so sad. 

Yeah. Okay. Well, I mean, I know that people who are signing up are sincere. And I just wonder about. 

And I feel bad for them. And they and they you know, if if anybody, any of them listen to this podcast, I guarantee you I’m going to get so many tweets because they are so they are so adamant. Yulee, you know, defending. 

Yes, I’ve gotten that, too. Yes. 

Yeah. And it’s like, OK, well, show me. Show me anything that is space related other than a bunch of talking points. All they have are talking points like, oh well they constantly talk about, oh well we have the technology to land you on Mars. But there’s just no technology to bring you back. You know, they’re there. And then the technology could be there if we invested in it. But I hope it isn’t. 

Okay. So more maybe more based than in reality or or maybe not. You tell me, is what you mentioned before Elon Musk and Space X, who what was it last year, I guess, promised that he was going to build a rocket. That was sort of like a cruise ship apartment. Yeah, Max, hundreds of people would would go and you’ll do it better than I. Can you briefly describe what his plan is? 

Yeah, I know. He basically wants to take his Falcon nine vehicle and kind of put it on steroids and make this huge reusable booster that it takes you up into orbit. Yeah. And it’s like it can and can carry 100 people at a time. And then, you know, it Parkson orbit and then you refill it with the fuel. You need to take you all the way to Mars. And then you go, oh, I look, there is no doubt that Space X is changing the game in terms of spaceflight and what not. But I do have my doubts about this. That is a huge undertaking, especially even for Space X. And he kind of left out a few things when it came to keeping the people alive. You know, not to say that he he didn’t think about it, but it just wasn’t a part of his presentation. You know, he kept talking about how fun it was going to be to live in the spacecraft. And I was like, okay, well, what about cosmic radiation? Or, you know, you basically have to work out every single day in order so your bones and muscles don’t atrophy. 

It’s not going to be a lot of fitness. And I have to go. 

I mean, we only send people into space with peak physical fitness right now. And people get upset about that. But you’ve got to think about it. What happens if you have a kidney stone in space? You know, is there going to be a hospital on board? Oh, my God. You can’t just turn around and come back. Yeah, I’m just saying that it’s not going to be all fun and games. And I’m and maybe he I’m sure he understands that, too. But I feel like a lot of the times with these last trips, they are presented as if, oh, you’re just taking like a plane ride. Yes. And it gets people so excited. And I just think not to say I want to damper anyone’s hopes, but. When we don’t fast, it’s going to be a really rotten experience. 

Never go outside. They really better want it. Yeah, exactly. But is that like on an alley, even just on a technological basis? 

Is that on firmer grounding than than maybe where NASA is right now? Like, are they a few steps ahead or is it just mostly fanciful at this point? 

I mean, I would say it’s hard to compare because one thing that that Space X may have a leg up on is the landing tech capability. 

So what went the same way that they land their their Falcon nine rockets? It’s called supersonic retro propulsion. And it’s basically just using your engines that take you up to lower you back down. So it’s like when you’re when you’re falling to earth and you ignite your engine again, it’s going to slow that fall. And then you can kind of do this control landing on us on a surface. So they want to use that same basic technique to land spacecraft on Mars. And they they say they’re going to send their first dragon capsule up the capital so that they used to take cargo to and from the station. They’re going to use that to land, try and test out later. And that can be good because we really it’s very tough to land things on Mars right now. If you remember what the Curiosity rover, we had to use the sky crane. 

And there are all these different sounds and everything like getting deflated in it. A bounce, right? Exactly. 

It’s all very complicated because Mars has this really thin atmosphere. So you don’t as much atmospheric drag to slow something down like you do here on Earth and can’t just rely on parachutes. So if they can successfully test out their landing technology, that works like that. And then if they can scale it up to allow humans to land in that same way, that could be a huge game changer for getting things to Mars, because that really has been one of the rihad aspects of landing on the planet so far. So so I wouldn’t say they’re on a leg up, though, because they still have a long ways to go. Like, they haven’t even tested out a dragon landing like this on earth yet from space. So until they do that, I mean, there’s a lot of steps for them to in order to get to that point. Right. 

I’ll say a line is a mad genius. So if he wants it, he’ll push it. Right? 

I’ll give credit. He does make a lot of promises. And a lot of the big ones have been kept. But there are still quite a few that he’s made. And they never, ever happen on time. So I think he said that we are going to go to Mars as early as 2024. 

And I like flat out loud music, said that feels a lot closer all the time, especially with the current administration in power when you think 2024. That’s a you know, I can see that on the horizon already. 

I mean, I had my boss asking him about this once at a conference because I think it was just after he had talked about the 2024 timeline. And I would just like to just ask him where he comes up with these these times. Yeah. Yeah. And he said, you got a little defensive about it. But he said that he never makes the time. You know, you never takes prediction for a timeline that he doesn’t think that they can meet. So we really, along with be a very optimistic person. 

This just happens to be wrong. OK, let’s fine. All right. Well, I know I’m using up a lot of your time. I want to get a couple more things in, though. Just pulling back a little bit. Big picture here. I feel like from the general public’s point of view now, and I may be wrong about this, but my sense is that the really ambitious claims, you know, there’s been a lot of big things that have been promised, like we’re talking about Elon Musk and Mars and stuff like that. They’ve been promised for decades. And I feel like we’ve been primed for generations, like since like the moon landing. 

And in the 80s, we all thought we’re gonna be in flying cars today. And these things, like they haven’t happened in that way, but we’ve been primed to think they were coming and they just don’t. So, yeah, where do you think? How do you think the public attitude toward SpaceX is right now? Space travel, space exploration, these grand vision things? You know, does this excite people in the same way that it used to? I mean, I know we see people get excited at the pictures from Pluto, but I wonder if that’s a self-selecting group of people who are very excited. 

I’m curious if you have an idea about, like the general public’s take on space stuff these days. 

I will definitely see that when it comes to our coverage and readership. People do love reading about space. And I think that is there’s definitely been a lot more interest lately. Like, I will give credit to Space X for that, too. They really re energized, you know, people’s excitement for space like they’re there. Launches are are like mini events online. You know, we all kind of come together and watch at the same time. You know, it’s still definitely a very small community. And I think I think people are very much into space as long as it’s you know, they’re kind of not involved, you know, like this doesn’t affect them. 

So people have this misconception that, you know, they don’t want to pay for space, but honestly, they’re they’re barely paying for it. 

NASA’s budget is so small compared to the rest of the federal government. So so I do think there’s we are still combating with this preconception that it’s a waste of money. But I. I would definitely say when I at least when I was young, I felt like no one really cared about, like the shuttle program, people were starting to kind of lose interest because it’s been around for so long and it was so reliable, which sadly, I mean, it is kind of the case is when you have something there for a while, it’s not news. But, yeah, that kind of led to to waning support. And and then for a while, people just kind of gave up and didn’t really care about space. But like I said, in recent years, I’ve said I’ve seen an uptick and people are very passionate about it. A lot more people, at least I think is part of it. 

Like the tech angle, like, you know, I know you work at The Verge. 

That’s a thing. People like gadgets and cool stuff like that. And so you mentioned like the rocket lift offs and landings. And is that more like a tech event, like a new iPhone is coming out or is that what. I don’t know. I mean, or is that fueled by. Is that also fueled by the like the grander notions of humanity reaching out and and all of that touched the face of God? 

You know, I wouldn’t necessarily call there not. I mean, sadly, the iPhone still gets much more play than launch. But I would say it’s definitely like more and more people are able to become involved in the space community online. I think the Internet has really helped with that. And so whenever there is a launch, it’s kind of like all of my friends that I haven’t even met. A lot of them I haven’t met in person, just come online together. And we all watch this together and talk and. And Twitter is a good place for that, too. So, yeah, there is something something about these launches. There are definitely many reunions. 

Right. Well, I like that. I like that. OK. So we’re almost done. I know. Use up a lot of your time. Can I do a quick lightning round here? Sure. OK, we’ll just shoot some answers out. I mean, you know, you can take as much time as you want. Favorite movie that is about or takes place in space contact. 

Oh, good one. Good one. Favorite planet. That is not earth. 

Oh gosh. 

Tom Flynn I know I ocracy with all this Juno stuff recently that Jupiter is really then blowing my mind. Yeah. But if I can have a caveat, I am very much a fan of moons and I, I know we talked about infrastructure earlier, but I would love to go back to the moon. I think that is just so ripe for exploration. So I have a soft spot for the moon. 

I did not expect that answer. That is again, the correct answer, however, is the nemesis planet Nibiru, which will kill the correct answer. 

Favorite space exploration mission like Juno or Cassini or what? 

What have you see? 

I have to say New Horizons was very special for me just because I came onto the Verge right when that was happening. And that was a moment where it’s just that that is the one where it kind of broke free of just the space community. 

Everybody was getting involved. Everybody was pretty astounding. It’s a little tiny rock out there. And they and they got close up to it. So that was pretty mind blowing. 

It was the first time that, like, whenever I go out and hang out with friends or meet new people, you know, I can support her and they’ll have absolutely no idea what’s going on. But that was a moment where everyone was like, have you seen the new Pluto pictures? It was mad. You finally visited Pluto. That’s so crazy. Oh, that’s so that was that was a really special summer two years ago. I think, actually. Well, you probably won’t air this on July 14th, but today is the two year anniversary of the Pluto flight. 

Oh, see, I didn’t even know that. That’s perfect. That’s perfect. Well, I’m glad that we’re talking on that day that that works. One last question. Here we go. Do you want to go to space someday? 

Oh, of course I do. But I have this discussion all the time because, you know, the option might be on the table soon because there are all these different companies, you know, like you like the Richard Branson kind of thing. 

You go up and. Right. Not even into orbit. 

But, you know, you don’t go to orbit and then you’ve got Blue Origin, too. And I always think about it all the time. You know, if they asked me to go on it for free, would I do it? And I might tend to their answer is yes, but I don’t want to be the first not the first journalist in space. 

I just yes, I am OK with that. 

Other journalists going before me, they could test it out. And then of gladly being second or showed them up. 

Yeah. That’s right. That that’s the way to go. That’s very sad. Yeah. Very practical minded. OK. Lauren, I cannot thank you enough for talking to me today. I really, really appreciate this. I’ve had a lot of fun. Where would you like people to find you? How can they find you? What you want to plug? 

Definitely on Twitter. I’m at Lauren Gresh, but l o r e n g arguers age. And then also the verge dot com. And you can also follow me on Facebook, too. I have a link. You have the option to follow me there, but I don’t post a lot. All right. 

Well, we’ll link all that stuff up on the point of inquiry Web site in the show notes. Lauren, thank you so much. I appreciate it more than I can tell. 

I had a great time. Thanks for having me. 

That’s all for today. Look for the next episode of Point of Inquiry in the next couple of weeks when we plan to discuss another aspect of space. What else may or may not be living out there? If you’d like to support this show, and I know you do get a point of inquiry dot org slash support. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Please give us glowing reviews on Apple podcast, Google Play and wherever else you listen and subscribe. Point of Inquiry is a production of a center for inquiry. Learn more at Center for Inquiry Dot Net. I’m your host and producer, Paul Fidalgo. Thank you for listening. 

Paul Fidalgo

Paul Fidalgo

Paul Fidalgo has been communications director of the Center for Inquiry since 2012. He holds a master’s degree in political management from George Washington University, and has worked previously for FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy and the Secular Coalition for America. Paul is also an actor and musician whose work includes five years performing with the American Shakespeare Center, and he currently directs productions for the University of New England Players. In 2017 he was the second Richard Kirschman Free Thought Fellow at the Mesa Refuge in Point Reyes, California. His work also appears in the 13th book of the Dark Mountain Project. He lives in Maine along with his two dangerous kids. His personal blog is Near-Earth Object, and he tweets at @paulfidalgo.