ARMENPRESS Exclusive with SpaceX senior advisor Garrett Reisman on Starship, Space and the Baku Conference refusal

22 minute read

ARMENPRESS Exclusive with SpaceX senior advisor Garrett Reisman on Starship, Space and the Baku Conference refusal

BRATISLAVA/YEREVAN, JUNE 7, ARMENPRESS. On June 6th, SpaceX's Starship super heavy rocket achieved a historic milestone, flawlessly entering Earth's orbit and returning safely. Unlike its previous three attempts, which ended in explosions before reaching orbit, this launch proceeded with minimal issues.

Starship stands as the largest rocket ever launched into space, with the potential to ferry up to 100 people and over 100 tons of cargo in the future. Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, views this rocket's launch as pivotal, especially in realizing his longstanding ambition of sending humans to Mars and establishing colonies there.

Before the rocket's launch, "Armenpress" had the privilege of meeting Garrett Reisman, a former American astronaut, professor at the University of Southern California, and senior advisor at SpaceX. They discussed the prospects of Starship within the context of the STARMUS festival held in May.

Notably, Reisman was among the few individuals who publicly declined participation in the International Astronomical Conference held in Baku in 2023, urging others to reconsider their stance. On his social media platform, Reisman cited Azerbaijan's responsibility for aggression against Armenia and its status as one of the world's most corrupt nations, where human rights violations are prevalent.

The following interview delves into Reisman's decision to abstain from attending the conference in Azerbaijan, the future of space exploration, the collaboration between NASA and SpaceX, and the burgeoning field of space tourism.

- As a former astronaut, what do you miss most about being in space?

- I miss floating. And when I say floating, what I really mean is flying. When you push away from the wall, it's like you're Superman—you have magic powers, you can fly. I miss that.

- How many days did you spend in space?

- A hundred and seven.

- Wow, that’s a lot. Can you share some of the most memorable moments from your time in space?

- There are many: launching and landing, but probably the most memorable visually are spacewalks. During my last spacewalk, I was fortunate enough to have some free time, which doesn’t usually happen. We were doing really well and were ahead of schedule, so we had the opportunity to take a little time. And also both my partner and I knew that this was probably going to be our last spacewalk, so we wanted to really enjoy it.

At one point, we were at the end of the space station, and I was holding a handrail behind me. I couldn’t see the station; I knew it was there because I could feel it, but I couldn’t see it. I was just looking out. I saw the sun come up over the edge of the Earth. It was night when it started, and then the sun rose. I got to watch the orbital sunrise, and I can still see it very clearly in my memory. It was the most beautiful thing.

- You worked on both Space Shuttle missions and with SpaceX as well. What do you consider the most important and crucial differences between the private and government sectors in terms of space exploration?

- First of all, it’s important to note that this is a public-private partnership. SpaceX and almost everything they do is partnered with NASA, and they work together. Both organizations benefit tremendously from the partnership. NASA, I think, is a little bit out of its comfort zone and more risk-tolerant, actually, and SpaceX has learned a lot about how to handle very complex systems and have processes that don’t avoid mistakes. In a way NASA helps SpaceX mature to handle very complex tasks safely, and SpaceX helps NASA to move forward more quickly. It has been beneficial for both sides. It is a partnership together, not one more than the other.

About the differences - the culture is very different. At SpaceX, there is a Silicon Valley startup type of culture where decisions are made very quickly. At NASA we would take a long time. We might make a decision at SpaceX in an afternoon that would take a whole year to make at NASA. At it’s not because NASA is like lazy or not smart - they’re very good. The problem is that at NASA, there’s a high cost if you make a wrong decision. SpaceX is very agile, so if you make a decision quickly, the danger is that you might make a wrong decision, but you can figure that out very rapidly by trying it and then changing your mind.

SpaceX can do that because it’s vertically integrated and make a move very quickly from design to development. They can switch directions very fast. At NASA, it is much more difficult. For example, if you made a rocket and then decided, “Ah, you know, this Falcon 8 sounded like a good idea, but we really should add another engine. Let’s make it Falcon 9,” at NASA, it would be unthinkable. You would try really hard to make it work with 8 engines and avoid making a big change. At SpaceX, they would say, “Hey, Joe, put another engine on and let’s make it Falcon 9,” and it happens. I’m exaggerating a little, but you get the idea about the importance of agility.

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- You know, nowadays many people say that we should not spend so much money on space exploration and space programs because we have so many problems here on Earth, and it’s better to solve those problems first. What are your thoughts on this?

- It’s not just these days. People have been saying that since we first started exploring space. For over50 years, that comment has been made. And if we were spending a tremendous amount of money percentage-wise on space exploration, I would agree. If we were spending even 10 percent of our federal budget in the US on NASA, I would say that’s too much, and we would be overlooking a lot of problems we have, certainly with climate change, security problems, and our environment. It would be too much. But do you know how much of the percentage of the US federal budget is spent on space? Less than one half of one percent.

So, of all the tax dollars that are paid in the US, less than one half of one penny goes to NASA. If we shut down everything that NASA’s doing, if we took away Artemis and we took away the James Webb telescope, we took away the rovers like Curiosity and all the rovers we had on Mars, and everything else that NASA’s doing, including Earth observations to understand climate change, you would get back one half of one penny. If you divided that up among all the other things we do, nobody would even feel it. There would not be any significant change to any of these other problems.

That money we are spending is 20 billion dollars. And sure, you could do something else with these 20 billion dollars. But that’s a relatively small amount of money that is an investment in our future and can help us solve some of the biggest problems we have today, especially climate change, but also understanding the cosmos. I think that’s perfectly reasonable amount money to spend.

- Collaborations between government agencies, the private sector, and international organizations have always been a crucial part of space exploration programs. How do you see these collaborations evolving in the future?

- You are very right that this action is nothing new. Most people don’t understand that. The government and private companies have always worked together to do space exploration. NASA didn’t have a big factory that build the Saturn V rocket to go to the Moon. Government employees didn’t build it; private companies did. In fact, a portion of the Saturn rocket was built by the Crysler Corporation that makes cars. Private companies have always been building spaceships for NASA.

What’s different now is much more significant. Instead of an unequal partnership where the government tells the private company, "Here’s exactly what we need you to do, build it just like this," they are having a more equal partnership, saying, "OK, we want a rocket that can carry four people. You figure out how to make it work; we’re not going to tell you how." So, they are giving contractors a lot more freedom to innovate.

The other big difference is the ownership of the vehicles and the intellectual property. Now, SpaceX owns the Dragon and the Falcon 9, and when NASA wants to send astronauts to the space station, they essentially buy a ticket and pay for a service. SpaceX can take that Dragon and Falcon 9 and put private individuals on board, selling tickets. NASA did this on purpose because they knew that if some billionaires buy tickets to fly into space and NASA pays for their part, NASA doesn’t have to cover 100% of the cost. So, it’s actually cheaper for NASA and for the taxpayer.

- You talked about commercial space. Do you think one day it will become as usual as planes to fly to outer space?

- Yeah. One of the problems that we have right now is that it is extremely expensive. You can buy a ticket now, at least you can. When I was a kid, you couldn’t do this. Now you can go and buy a ticket, but they are very expensive right now. To go on a 15-minute suborbital ride, which is like what Blue Origin and Virgin are offering, that will cost you something like $500,000 to a million dollars. To go to orbit and spend more than 15 minutes, they spend a couple of days, you can buy a ticket with SpaceX, but it’s still tens of millions of dollars. Obviously, this is not something that anybody can do.

But that was also the case with airplanes. In the very early days, only millionaires were flying. The average American would dream of doing that. And now, most people can afford to buy a ticket, and that’s going to happen in space. It’s just a matter of time.

- What do you consider the most pressing challenges that humanity needs to overcome in order to establish a sustainable presence beyond Earth, on the Moon, Mars, or somewhere else?

- First, we need to keep this planet healthy. That’s the most important thing. If we don’t do that, any missions we send to Mars in the near future won’t have anywhere to come back to. We also need to find a way to stop killing each other and having wars. We have problems to solve over here. Then, if we manage to get along and take care of Spaceship Earth, then we can think about going somewhere else.

The biggest problem we have when we talk about going back to the Moon or Mars for humans is probably radiation, the biggest issue we have. We know exactly what kind of radiation is up there, we know how many ions and electron volts of energy they have, and the density and fluxes of galactic cosmic radiation. We know relatively how often to expect the Sun to burp out bad radiation. We kind of know what to expect but we have no idea what all that staff do to human body cause no humans have ever been exposed to it.

We are very fortunate; we have Earth’s magnetic field that pushes away all that radiation. Even when I was on the space station and on the space shuttle, I was still below that magnetic field. We were above the atmosphere but inside the magnetic field of the Earth, so we were still protected. I received a little more radiation, but I don’t glow in the dark at night or anything.

If you go back to the Moon, though, you leave the protection of Earth’s magnetic field. Twenty-four men have gone beyond the Earth’s magnetic field, but they didn’t stay very long. They were there for only one or two weeks during those Apollo missions to the Moon, so they didn’t stay long enough to learn anything useful about what happens to the human body because for such a short period of time, you can’t tell.

If we go back there, we are going to stay for a month, two months, six months, or a year, and then we’ll learn what happens to a human body. But if you go to Mars, you can't do that incrementally; you have to go for it. The first time you leave, you're committing to a two-and-a-half-year voyage, so when you come back, you'll find out. But without any way to know in advance, it’s a complete gamble. So that’s the biggest problem.

- What breakthroughs do you expect to see during your lifetime in space exploration?

- The first breakthrough would be if the Starship lives up to its potential, and that can happen relatively soon. Firstly, we've almost demonstrated that it can successfully get us into orbit around the Earth. We don’t know yet if it can successfully reenter and land, or if it can be reused. We also don’t know if Starship can be in space and we send tanker ships up to refuel it, filling up the gas tanks. If we can do all that and if it all works, we might know in another couple of years if it does. If it does, we could take a large number of people back to the Moon, to Mars, and we will have the vehicle. We still don’t know if they can be healthy and what will happen with radiation, but at least we will have the ability to go. So I think that’s the first big breakthrough with Starship. It’s amazing; it’s twice as powerful as the most powerful rocket we’ve ever launched. It can carry the most number of people ever launched in one rocket, which is 8. Elon says Starship can carry 100; I think more like 50, but even 50 is 6 times as much as the world record. If that works, we've solved a good deal of the puzzle. But we still don’t know if those people go to Mars and come back if there will be anybody still healthy. That’s the last piece we have to figure out.

- When is the next text flight of Starship?

- I think that this summer we should see the next one. And I hope this time we will get the Starship all the way back to the surface (editorial - the successful flight of Starship took place on June 6, the interview was held in May).

- Last time you blew it up in the atmosphere.

- When it started entering, it came apart because can’t control, there was spinning, because the control system didn’t work properly. But they know exactly what happened. People are asking me, "Were these really successful because it keeps blowing up, so isn’t it a failure?" To me, it’s a success because they have never repeated the same problem twice. Every time they try again, they fix the problems from the previous time, and they don’t make the same mistake. And they keep moving forward. That’s how they quickly achieve success. I am optimistic.

- What do you consider as the biggest scientific achievement of the 21st century?

- In my field, I think the most significant scientific achievement in space so far is probably the James Webb telescope and the science it is providing us. But if you look more generally, not just in space, I think the biggest thing that has the potential for technological changes is AI. That’s not my field, but we all feel it can be very impactful. From a social standpoint, the Internet and social media have had a significant impact. However, when I talk about these things, I'm not just focusing on the wonderful scientific breakthroughs; in fact, I think with any technological breakthrough, it's a question of how it’s used. The Internet and social media have done a lot of harm to our society, so it’s not always for the best.

- Could you tell a little bit about your experience in Armenia, as you’ve been in our country in 2022 as a STARMUS speaker?

- The last STARMUS was held in Armenia. It was the first time I had been in Armenia. I have Armenian friends in the United States but it was my first time there. In fact, I brought one of my Armenian friends with me and he was my tour guide. I got to go and see Lake Sevan, Dilijan and the one I can’t pronounce, the ski resort.

- Tsakhadzor?

- Tsakhadzor, yes. We went to all of these places and of course Yerevan and I absolutely loved it. The people were so friendly, so warm and very cheerful. But there was also this underlying sense of concern because of the unstable political and security situation. The night we left to fly back to the United States was the night they started attacking the borders and it was painful because I can see politically there’s not any good solution. Historically, Russia provided security guarantees, but given their actions in Ukraine, they are unable to do so now. In fact, I've discussed with politicians in the United States about providing more support to Armenia. Shortly after my visit, Nancy Pelosi came over and held meetings with the government. I know there’s interest and care, and there are a lot of Armenians in the US.

I’ve got to hear from a lot of them because one of the things I did when I came back, was about an international conference called the IAC – the International Astronomical Conference. It’s the biggest international conference for space and they were holding it in Baku. And I refused to go. After making that decision, I heard from a lot of Azeris and Armenians; my Twitter account kind of blew up.

I felt that by having the conference there, we were science washing, tacitly acknowledging that this aggression was acceptable. I know this is a complicated story that goes back a very long time, like most of these conflicts do. But still, I always feel that whenever there’s unprovoked aggression, it's inexcusable.

Interview by Araks Kasyan


Armenia, Yerevan, 0002, Martiros Saryan 22


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