Part-One of: A conversation with Dr. Paul Spudis

OotC: With the solid possibility of hydrogen deposits along with other volatiles trapped in the polar regions of the moon attracting so much attention, what other regions of the moon interest you geologically and why?

PDS: Basically, all of it. Every place on the Moon has a unique and interesting story to tell. There are some scientific problems that can be addressed anywhere on the Moon, such as recovering the history of the sun from study of the lunar dust grains. But we’re focusing our initial lunar return efforts on the poles because we found in the 1990’s that they were interesting in a variety of ways (e.g., permanent sunlight, not just water ice) and we know very little about them. There are many other places scattered all around the Moon that hold their own secrets. My preference is to get a permanent outpost established early, then mine the Moon for rocket propellant. After that, with the ability to refuel rockets on the Moon, we can go anywhere we want, for whatever reasons we want to.

OotC: Starting with the unexpected robustness of the two Mars Rovers as they both passed their second year of operation, what tools and/or science packages would you like to see designed into possible versions of their lunar cousins?

PDS: The lunar robotic missions will be outfitted with the instruments they need for very specific tasks. For example, if you want to determine the nature of the polar ice, you need to acquire a sample (probably by drilling a meter or two down), heat that sample with a laser or in a small oven, and measure the gases that come off of it. A mass spectrometer will tell us the species and abundances of the elements and compounds in the ice. You also need to physically disturb the soils in these dark cold traps to ascertain their physical properties, such as shear strength and density. We need this information to design the processes and machines needed to mine polar water ice and use it for a variety of purposes.

OotC: Last March, (2005) it was announced, that India had accepted an instrument package designed by your group at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). Can you tell us about the instrument and the science you plan to do with it? How is the process of getting export approval going? Are we talking ITAR in this case and does APL have to deal with that often?

PDS: We’ve teamed with the U.S. Navy to design and fly a miniature imaging radar (mini-SAR) that has been selected for flight on the Indian Chandrayaan 1 mission. Its principal objective is to make synthetic aperture radar (SAR) images of the lunar polar regions. Since radar provides its own illumination, we can map the terrain that’s in permanent darkness. Moreover, ice has very unusual signature to radar and we hope to map the locations and concentrations of water ice deposits in the polar dark areas. These radar maps are critical if we want to land near the poles and sample the ice in the cold traps.

We worked on getting export approval from the State Department all last year and our application was approved and signed in December of last year, so we are definitely on the Chandrayaan mission. NASA and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) have just signed an agreement to cooperate on this mission and hopefully, future missions to the Moon as well. We just had a very successful instrument design review and we are on track to deliver the mini-SAR and launch between September 2007 and March 2008.

OotC: How would you contrast the progress NASA has made so far implementing the VSE, with what was envisioned in the Aldridge Commission report?

PDS: It’s a mixed bag. Some things are going very well. Last year’s ESAS lunar architecture study was a move forward. The derived plan has a lot to commend it. Some aspects of it are not what I wanted, but it’s a workable plan and should give us considerable capability. The Centennial Challenges idea is a good one and needs to be pursued. But in general, I don’t think we’re doing enough to engage the commercial sector in the Vision. If we are to be successful in all that the Vision calls for, we simply have to broaden its scope beyond being just another government program. I think that our involvement in the Indian Chandrayaan mission is an excellent start towards fostering more international participation in the VSE.

OotC: Do you think that the current climate of budget constraints affecting NASA will hinder the VSE goals of completing the ISS and returning to the Moon?

PDS: We’ve always had budget constraints in the space program, even during Apollo. The real question is “Can NASA come up with clever ways of doing things such that it can make progress on implementing the Vision, regardless of the variability of the annual federal budget?” I look upon the VSE fundamentally as a question to NASA: “You get over $16 billion per year – can you do anything with that?” The basic idea was to take small, incremental steps, but ones that are cumulative and additive, instead of the undirected and fragmented program that we had previously. Whether NASA can pull this off remains to be seen.

OotC: Any chance you will become the next Harrison Schmitt — “Paul Spudis, lunar geologist” on the moon?

PDS: I doubt it. Jack was in his thirties when he applied to become a scientist-astronaut. Then he waited 7 years to fly, and because of the curtailment of the last few Apollo missions, almost didn’t make it even then. I’m 53 now and we won’t be going to the Moon for at least another 10 years. I’ll be content to do my part to simply help get the implementation of the Vision off on the right foot, if I can.
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In part-two of our conversation with Paul Spudis he talks about his new book he co-wrote with his wife Anne. It is a fictional account of…well you’ll just have to tune in and find out more.

One thought on “Part-One of: A conversation with Dr. Paul Spudis

  1. We are most impressed. Keep up the good work.

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