If we go back to the Moon, which is what’s been proposed by the NASA administrators, I think we’re going to continue to grow, because they’re going to need people to analyze what’s going on. It’s going to be an exciting time. In fact, if we can afford it—that’s what everyone’s worried about—if we can afford it, it will take me back to when I was a kid and we were landing on the Moon. That was exciting stuff. We all were inspired to become planetary scientists from that.
I really, frankly, want people to go back to the Moon. I want there to be people there; I want to go myself. Every mission that we send to Mars or anyplace else has implicit in it the promise that someday people will be going and doing and seeing what the robots are doing now. That’s the dream that motivated all of us to get into the field in the first place.
But I know how expensive it’s going to be, I know how risky it’s going to be, I know the political pressures that could derail it. What I really see happening is private space tourism being what eventually gets people out there.
In the long run, the next step after the Moon, actually, is not Mars. Mars is so far away compared to the Moon. People who don’t understand this make these grandiose [plans]—“first person on Mars”—not going to happen, in a hundred years. I wouldn’t want that to happen, because human beings leak E. coli. I want to find out does Mars has life; I don’t want to find out if the first person on Mars had life.
But I do think that the next step after the Moon is an asteroid, because it can be exploited for minerals, and again it’s a way you can make money. But it’s also a way that you can get resources for Earth without digging the Earth up, which is a nice thing to do.
So I think those are the next two stages, and I’d love it to happen within my lifetime. But, you know, when did Christopher Columbus land? 1492. When did the Pilgrims land? 1620. That’s a hundred and thirty years. It may take that long before we get back.