Tech UPTechnologyMichael Kaplan:

Michael Kaplan:

Jacket and suspenders worthy of the props from the movie Wall Street. Tie with the most genuine American flavor (astronauts and planets on a black background). The gesture impassive before the siege of the media: now a press conference, then an interview, a photo session …
It is inevitable that many are struck by the doubt: is Michael Kaplan really a scientist or rather a shark from the New York Stock Exchange?

In a way, it could be both. His work places him halfway between the researcher and the manager. And, talking to him, it shows: he is obsessed with money!

What is the Origins Project, which you lead?
-It is an idea conceived just a few months ago that intends to put into practice some recommendations made to NASA by three groups of scientists in the United States. The first proposed to compose a kind of cosmic road map that serves to detect planets in systems other than ours and determine if they can support life. The second asked NASA what we are going to do when Hubble stops working. And the third offered the construction of an interferometer in Earth orbit. We saw that the three ideas had something in common and we have integrated them into the Origins Project, which is designed to solve fundamental questions for science. With it we can better understand the origin of galaxies, stars and planetary systems, and enhance the search for other worlds with life.

What will be the strategy to achieve it?
-First we are going to use the full potential of Hubble until 2005, when its operational life ends. Then we plan to build a successor to this telescope, the NGST (New Generation Space Telescope), which will be much more powerful than Hubble and will open a new window to the knowledge of the origin of galaxies and planetary systems. Finally, we will have to develop the technology to put infrared interferometers into orbit that allow us to locate other planets outside the solar system.

This last extreme seems the most controversial. Is it realistic to think that a technology as complicated as interferometry can be achieved in space?
-I am not concerned with technical problems, but with the cost of solutions. In the laboratory we have sufficiently demonstrated that the space interferometer works. We have even reached unsuspected accuracies of a couple picometers (one millionth of a millionth of a meter). That is much more than enough for what we need in planet hunting. The challenge is that we have to turn that laboratory experience into real technology that is useful in space. And I think we are going to do it without problems.

He looks excited. What other milestone in space exploration would you compare Project Origins to?
-From the point of view of public impact, it is possible that it is as important as the Apollo Program did. But there is a fundamental difference: Origins should only cost a small fraction of the budget that was launched with the missions to the Moon. That’s my job: I have a responsibility to make sure that all the individual projects that are linked in Origins can be developed freely and creatively, that the best available technology can be used and that it does not cost too much. At the moment, it seems that people like it, because we have begun to receive the attention of the press, we have carried out dozens of reports and interviews …, and we have only just begun.

How important is it that your project receives public attention?
-Of course. We must never lose perspective of doing the science that the public is demanding. Governments are responsible for the needs of the people – including their scientific adventures – and for their funding; at least, that’s very clear at NASA. The challenge for the scientific community is to imagine what projects can be carried out so that the generosity of the public, that is, those who pay taxes, can sustain them. I think it is important that scientists focus their research on areas of general interest, such as dinosaurs, cancer or AIDS. At least, as long as the tough economic times continue …

In other words, the crisis rules …
-Yes, of course. We do not have the freedom of action of other times. But I think that big projects like this one, which are top priorities, will continue to receive financial support. NASA is realigning its spending on other non-scientific issues, such as bureaucracy, and science programs like Origins will remain a priority if they meet two requirements: they are realistic and they attract public attention.

And that obsession with social projection cannot be dangerous for basic science, for experiments that are not so spectacular but – they are still essential?
-I think not; at least, in our case. Origins is not here just to get movies made about it, but it is going to give the scientific community a lot of background material on such important issues as the origin of life and the cosmos.

Who is responsible for dazzling the public, scientists, governments, the media …?
-Everyone. At NASA we are going to work with all levels to get the public excited. Scientists cannot always have that initiative. For example, one of NASA’s next projects is SOFIA (Stratosferic Observatory for Infrared Astronomy), and in this case, we have had teachers from many parts of the United States to tell us how we can interest children and students in this kind of complicated project. So it is going to become a NASA norm that each new scientific project that we launch has an important educational component. It is a new social responsibility that we have to assume.

What do you think will be the next milestones in space exploration?
-In the next ten years, with projects such as the NGST, which will be launched in 2003, or the Mission of the Space Interferometer, in 2000, we will be able to give very good answers to questions as fundamental as the size of the universe, its age. or your destination. We will know, for example, if there is enough dark matter to foresee a closed end to the cosmos. The Planet Finder Array, which will be launched in 2006 or 2007, will allow us to definitively answer the question of whether or not there are other planets close to stars other than the Sun that are capable of supporting life. I think in 2010 we will know if there are other planets like Earth. At least in this decade we will be able to make more understandable some of the fundamental questions that anyone can ask about the universe. And this is not a dream, but something that is really going to happen.

Colonizing other planets will be a dream …
-I think it’s a more distant goal. Our challenge is how to make space colonization technologically feasible. But it is a very expensive proposal today. NASA is now embarking on space shuttle missions and, for the moment, the possibility that these trips can be made every day seems very remote. It would be interesting, but I think somewhat illusory, considering the prices. We need to have a better understanding of the effects of microgravity on humans or the impact of radiation outside the atmosphere; know exactly how this will affect biological systems, what degree of protection we should wear … I’d like to see how we get to Mars, of course, but I don’t know if I’ll be alive to witness it. What we will see very soon will be a series of robot explorers on the red planet. The Pathfinder, which will launch in 1997, will open up a new generation of low-cost missions. Keep in mind that the last mission of a space probe to Mars cost about a billion dollars, but the next Mars Global Surveyor, for example, will only take us about 150 million dollars. With this new cost policy, each year two new missions will be able to fly to Mars, which will provide us with very rapid progress in robotic exploration.

However, NASA has been getting some disappointments lately. As an expert in project planning, how do you rate the latest failure of the Thetered mission, during which it was impossible to put the new power generation system into operation from a gigantic cable tied to a space satellite?
-A colleague of mine worked a lot on that mission. The truth is that they were unlucky, and no one can understand what happened. As an engineer, I know how promising the mission was. It would be very interesting to be able to generate energy by sweeping the Earth’s magnetic field with a cable of several tens of kilometers tied to a space satellite. A few years ago the first attempt was made and the thread jammed before being unwound. Now, they have been broken in full operation of the deployment. It’s bad luck, but the space business is risky and everyone knows it. It’s like riding a bike: you have to try again and again. Be part of the game.

Jorge Mayor

This interview was published in June 1996, in number 181 of VERY Interesting


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