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Dr. Erik Conway, Monday, 4-13-15 April 14, 2015

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Dr. Erik Conway


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Guest:  Dr. Erik Conway.  Topics:  Dr. Conway’s book, “Exploration and Engineering: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Quest for Mars”  & more.  Please direct all comments and questions regarding Space Show programs/guest(s) to the Space Show blog, https://thespaceshow.wordpress.com.  Comments and questions should be relevant to the specific Space Show program. Written Transcripts of Space Show programs are a violation of our copyright and are not permitted without prior written consent, even if for your own use. We do not permit the commercial use of Space Show programs or any part thereof, nor do we permit editing, YouTube clips, or clips placed on other private channels & websites. Space Show programs can be quoted, but the quote must be cited or referenced using the proper citation format. Contact The Space Show for further information. In addition, please remember that your Amazon purchases can help support The Space Show/OGLF. See www.onegiantleapfoundation.org/amazon.htm.  For those listening to archives using live365.com and rating the programs, please email me as to why you assign a specific rating to the show. This will help me bring better programming to the audience.

We welcomed Dr. Erik Conway to the show to discuss his new book, “Exploration and Engineering: The Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Quest for Mars,” JPL history, engineering, Mars missions, and much more all from the historical perspective.  In the first segment of our 1 hour 28 minute discussion, I asked Dr. Conway how JPL engineers did things that led to major Mars exploration breakthroughs.  He cited the Mars Pathfinder mission as an example and the decision to use airbags for the landing.  Dr. Conway took us through the process, the cost benefit analysis of the decision and the role played by budgets, the engineers, policy makers, and others contributing to the mission.  Our guest provided us with other examples as well from other Mars projects and missions.  Listeners asked our guest about human missions.  Here, Dr. Conway had much to say throughout our discussion focusing on the fact that humans are dirty with bacteria, planetary protection is a priority, and there is zero risk or near zero risk for a human mission.  When asked if the Moon required the same planetary protection policies as Mars, he said no though in the early days of lunar exploration, it did.  I asked our guest about the roles played by policy makers and engineers and this resulted is a very interesting discussion. Don’t miss it.  Listener Barbara in Seattle asked our guest about Curiosity cost overruns and how that would be reported on in history.  This led to a discussion about the impact of management and others on the initial design and budgets.  Later, Dr. Conway was asked why JPL had a focus on Mars in the first place.  Doug called in to ask about the humans vs. robot debate for science.  Don’t miss the response to this question by our guest.  Doug also brought up the issue of finding past or present life on Mars and what that might mean for future  Mars missions.  Dr. Conway agreed that probably all sides in the argument of avoiding Mars to avoid contaminating and disturbing life to the opposite perspective will be arguing the issues for a long time to come.  Dr. Conway addressed commercialization and while supporting reduced launch costs said the cost reduction needed to be magnitudes lower than even the lower costs of today.  Dwayne called and addressed planetary protection, then he turned his attention toward asking about the research opportunities at JPL for outside historical researchers.  Erik explained why these opportunities were limited, partly holding ITAR responsible.

In the second segment, Erik talked about the risk versus return on the costs.  He talked about there being almost zero tolerance for accidents and losses with Mars missions and human missions.  He also said the zero risk tolerance for these missions has been a significant cost driver.  Our guest had much to say on this subject with regards to Mars so don’t miss it as it covered most of the second segment. Later in this segment, Jake inquired about the early JPL history and its founders and their impact on the JPL of today.  Penny wanted to know about the Cal Tech-JPL relationship.  Dwayne sent in an email asking about the Faster, Better, Cheaper programs and what happened with the JPL programs using this approach.  This was an interesting way to wind up the show. As we were ending we learned that Goddard has no historian so their programs are not being recorded or document.  I sked Erik the difference in JPL and the APL.  Note how he explained the difference between the two labs, their risk tolerance, and decision process.

Please post your comments/questions on TSS blog above.  You can reach Dr. Conway through JPL or me.


1. J Fincannon - April 23, 2015

During the show it was stated that the Moon had no current planetary protection concerns since there are likely no organisms at the surface. While this is most probably true, I do not think it has been “proven” that lunar organisms do not exist below the surface. Sagan had some interesting things to say about the possibility. Even with Apollo’s results, which took only a few core samples down to 3 m (Sagan had estimated that one would have to sample down to 10’s of meters to find organic molecules, others estimated 3-5 m), I have not seen anything to update his work. He suggests that large enough quantities of surface-deposited terrestrial organisms could, with non-negligible probabilities, penetrate down 10’s of meters. Apparently, at some time after 1960, we just gave up on the idea of organics or lunar life below the surface.

Here is the reference and relevant excerpt:

Sagan, Carl. “BIOLOGICAL CONTAMINATION OF THE MOON.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 46.4 (1960): 396–402.


“Because of its great potential importance, the admittedly very speculative possibility must be raised that life arose on the Moon before the secondary lunar atmosphere was lost to space. Conditions on the Moon 5 billion years ago were probably not very different from conditions on the Earth 5 billion years ago. Recent thinking on the origin of life on this planet is increasingly inclined toward a very rapid origin of the first self-reproducing system. If a similar event also occurred on the Moon, natural selection may be expected to have kept pace with the increasingly more severe lunar environment, at least for some period of time. If subsurface conditions exist similar to those described in the preceding paragraph, then the possibility of an extant lunar parabiology must not be dismissed in as cavalier a manner as it has been in the past.”

“Organisms shielded from solar illumination, perhaps in congealed dust matrix interstices, might survive cosmic radiation for 1 billion years or more; lunar subsurface temperatures are too low to impede survival.”

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