Alan Stern, NASA: Talking about planets with astronomers is like coming to a divorce lawyer with a question about real estate

Alan Stern - American engineer and planetary scientist, head of the directorate of scientific programs at NASA. Research

Stern focused on the study of the solar system, including the Kuiper belt and Oort clouds, comets, satellites of the outer planets, Pluto, search for planetary systems around other stars.

He is the principal investigator of the New Horizons program (missions to Pluto) and the chief researcher of the Moon Express program. Including is engaged in the program of the spacecraft "Juno" for the study of Jupiter.

In 2007, Time magazine named Stern among the 100 most influential people in the world. He participated in 24 projects of space and suborbital flights, in eight of them he was a leader.

Space exploration can be lethal

- Many people dream of space, but how did you get interested in Pluto?

- Pluto became interesting when I was a graduate student. Because it was a planet about which we knew almost nothing. It was a riddle and a challenge - the most difficult planet to explore, since it is the smallest and farthest. And all this attracted me - pure excitement of scientific discoveries.

- How have you kept your interest for decades?

- It was easy, because every time welooked at Pluto through a new telescope or another device, then they learned something fantastic. That he has an atmosphere, then - that there is a giant satellite, that, most likely, it formed just like the Earth satellite, the Moon. We learned about how complex the surface of Pluto is. With each new tool it became more and more interesting.

Photo: NASA. Alan Stern

- You built several instruments that were aboard the Challenger. Obviously, you saw an explosion ...

- I was there.

Shuttle crash "Challenger" occurred on January 28, 1986. The shuttle collapsed at launch as a result of an external fuel tank explosion that occurred on the 73rd second of the flight. This led to the death of all seven crew members.

The destruction of the aircraft was causeddamage to the sealing ring of the right solid fuel booster at the start. Damage to the ring caused a burnout in the side of the accelerator, from which a jet stream was beating toward the external fuel tank.

Contrary to common misconception, the shuttle doesn’texploded, and collapsed as a result of abnormal aerodynamic overloads. Instantaneous explosion of all fuel also did not occur: the burning of the components of the fuel continued for some time after the complete destruction of the tank and the shuttle itself. The side accelerators survived and continued their uncontrolled flight until they were accidentally destroyed by a team from Earth. The cockpit, which is airtight and more durable than the orbital module as a whole, also remained intact, but may have been depressurized. The wreckage of the shuttle fell into the Atlantic Ocean.

As a result of a search and rescue operation withthe bottom of the Atlantic raised many fragments of the shuttle, including the cockpit. Although the exact time of the death of the crew is unknown, it turned out that three of its members (Michael J. Smith, Allison S. Onizuka and Judith A. Resnick) survived the destruction of the shuttle and were conscious - they included personal air supply devices.

After the disaster, the shuttle program was curtailed for 32 months.

- How did this affect your attitude to space exploration by humans?

- It became clear that this could be lethal. But each type of transport can be lethal. People die in airplanes, boats, cars and trucks, bicycles and skis. There is no mode of transport that would not kill people. Spaceflight is no exception.

But I will tell the related story. Since the American space program had completely stopped for three years, I had the opportunity to slightly turn a bad situation. At this time I returned to study and received a PhD degree. And he became a scientist. So I would not be sitting here now and would not speak to you if the Challenger shuttle had not exploded. How terrible and tragic it may be. I was familiar with six of the seven astronauts who were on this shuttle.

Image: NASA.

We all grew up on Star Wars and Star Trek

- Even before the Challenger, after the space race1960, interest in space began to fade - and budgets, too. Now he is back, everyone is talking about space again, about flights to Mars. Why is this happening now?

- It seems to me that people are inspired. Look at the reaction to the study of Pluto - it was a global phenomenon. People love to see how the point of light turns into a planet before their eyes. And it seems to me that people will be delighted with space tourism.

Commercial space flights are now gainingturnovers, in addition to government programs. It seems that we all grew up on Star Wars and Star Trek. And the vision of the future for almost everyone includes ubiquitous journeys in space. Now people are inspired because they see how this future begins.

- When, in your opinion, will begin large-scale space tourism?

- It already exists in small volumes, but I think that in the 2020s, thousands, maybe tens of thousands will make suborbital flights.

- Space exploration moves science forward, but how do you explain to people why such money should be allocated to space programs like New Horizons?

- There are many answers. One is scientific knowledge. Another is the place of the United States as a world leader. Much of what we do in space significantly moves the economy forward. For example, satellite navigation systems. All this is very important. But the most important excuse for spending money on space - it captures the minds and imagination of schoolchildren. Some of them want to grow and become scientists and engineers. All our countries and economies in the 21st century need engineers and scientists. Cosmos is, sorry for the term, the hook. You can even call it a light drug, which leads to more serious things - to technical careers.

New Horizons, New Horizons - NASA automatic interplanetary station,launched as part of the New Frontiers program and intended to study Pluto and its natural satellite Charon. The launch was carried out on January 19, 2006. The device completed the passage of Jupiter in 2007, and he began a scientific program for studying Pluto in 2015. At the beginning of 2019, a study of Kuiper belt objects is planned. The full research program of New Horizons is designed for 15–17 years.

When I was a little boy, all my friendswanted to grow up and become astronauts. And none of them became. But many of them went to the technical field. Because they were passionate about space, they ended up in electrical engineering, computer science, and geology. And so it is - you can ask the people behind the revolution of the Internet. Time after time they say they are interested in technology because of space. I think this is the main benefit of space programs. They capture the imagination, bringing children to science.

Image: NASA. Pluto and Charon

Status Pluto already returned

“You are good at this, sometimes it even seems that most of the work is marketing for Pluto.” In the team, you conducted the so-called New York Times readiness tests - how was it?

- We discussed it and prepared it - just likespace mission itself. We planned how we will lure the audience, rehearse and make simulations. But most of my team really enjoyed it. The society will not read the complex mathematical articles that we write for the development of science. People will be closer to the visual part, the story.

Imagine a lone spacecraft traveling for 12 years, billions of miles from Earth. And this is not science fiction, but something real. And it explodes the brain.

Alan Stern, NASA

“The heart shaped crater probably helped a lot.”

- Exactly helped, no questions asked. It is good that we did not fly from the other side of the planet.

- What did you feel when Pluto was deprived of the status of the planet?

- I thought it was ridiculous. And so says the majority of planetologists. Unfortunately, few people in the press understand that planetologists laugh at this term. And do not use.

Pluto status

Since its discovery in 1930, Plutowas considered the ninth planet of the solar system. Back in the 1950s, Soviet scientists suggested that Pluto is only one of the dwarf planets that circulate in this region of outer space in close orbits. This hypothesis was brilliantly confirmed: at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century, many objects were discovered in the outer part of the solar system. Among them are noteworthy Kvavar, Sedna and especially Eris, which is 27% more massive than Pluto.

August 24, 2006 IAC (Internationalastronomical alliance - "High tech") for the first time defined the term "planet." Pluto did not fall under this definition and the IAS attributed it to a new category of dwarf planets along with Eris and Ceres. Some scientists continue to believe that Pluto should be reclassified back to the planet.

- Can Pluto return the status of the planet? Does it matter to you?

- Well, the status has already been returned. Because planetologists call Pluto a planet. And the other small planets are also planets. Just the press does not understand that she is talking to the wrong guys. Talking about planets with astronomers is like coming to a divorce lawyer with a question about real estate. Incorrect examination. The fact that astronomers study certain things in space does not make them experts on everything in space. People who study black holes, galaxies and stars should not try to classify planets they know so little about. As a planetologist, I should not try to classify galaxies.

Image: NASA. Pluto Mountains

"We are creating the future"

- Where will the attempts to colonize Mars lead?

- I think people will settle in the entire Solarsystem. Mars - most likely, the first place after the moon, where we will reach. But there are so many worlds in it. Such opportunities in terms of resources and energy. I would like to live up to a thousand years to see the solar system inhabited by people.

- Can the discoveries of New Horizons help us in the colonization of space?

- Everything we learned about Pluto says that weWrong: Earth is not the only ocean planet in the solar system. Earth is the only planet that "carries" its ocean on the surface. But now we know that there are dwarf planets, Pluto and some satellites - Europe, Enceladus, which have oceans under a layer of ice. This means that there may be dozens of places in the solar system where life has developed in these oceans.

“You think life could be under Pluto’s ice?”

- I am not an expert, but I know: when you find water, biologists are immediately interested. If Pluto actually has a liquid ocean, then just as in the cases with Europe and Enceladus, there will be astrobiological interest.

Image: NASA. How did Pluto change

- What would you advise people who dream of space?

- The most important tip is to find your passion andfollow her. There are so many careers in space if you are interested in science or engineering, or you want to work in a laboratory, or work in communications, or do finance. We need all these skills. If you want to be part of space exploration, find which aspect you like the most, become an expert and join us. We create the future.