With the Space Shuttle Program winding down, a lot of people are wondering what is next for NASA and North American space exploration. Naturally there is plenty of speculation, but I figured it would be nice to hear the story from the Men and Women currently working at the agency.

All staff at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are welcome (and invited) to participate in questions they are qualified to answer. JPL has a pretty decent sized presence on Reddit, so I am sure there will be many contributors with a wide range of experience to share.

Even if the local group isn't up for answering questions, us folks at Educated Earth have found at least a couple of engineers who would be happy to answer your questions.

The credentials and proof for EducatedEarth's contacts are coming shortly, they are just starting their day at the office and need to get settled in. There will be a comment below for any additional contributors to prove themselves.

Edit: Great to see so many professionals, NASA and otherwise, joining in on the comments to fill in for the lull in responses from my friends.

It is great to see so much interest in the sciences and astronomy on Reddit, I never expected this to make front page. I have contacts at a couple of other agencies, I will see what I can do about making future group posts like this. After the delay in getting confirmation this time, I now know to get the proof from them beforehand for the next one :)

Edit 2: A lot of people have been asking about employment at either NASA or JPL. I highly recommend you check out this post.

Edit 3: For the record, this is not an official posting by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and does not reflect the direct views of the agency or its partners - just the views of some ol-timers who have had the pleasure and fortune to be a part of the agency at one point or another in their lives. We in no way intended to cast the opinion we are any administrative or marketing body at NASA, and were not even aware (until this morning) that such a thought had been raised.

Comments: 2058 • Responses: 36  • Date: 

Averusblack598 karma

If NASA had the same kind of budget as the US Dept. of Defense, what do you think would be done with it? What projects might suddenly come to the fore, with such resources at NASA's disposal?

hubblemedia940 karma

With that much money US$664 billion (est. 2010), things would be seriously different. We could probably do a reddit poll and take the top 10 (non lolcat) suggestions and just run with them all.

What I would like to see done with that budget is as follows:

  1. Moon based telescope - Why not build a few kilometer diameter telescope on the far side of the moon? It would be very well sheltered from the Earths pollution and at that scale it would provide unparalleled resolution.

  2. Mass produced spacecraft - There is a reason a Lamborghini is more expensive than a Toyota Corolla. When you build something by hand, the cost is significantly higher than when you can run an automated assembly line and pump out thousands a day. SpaceX is hoping to tackle this, but I can never put too much weight behind corporate promises of space exploration. If we could bring down the cost of launches to $1000 a pound or less, it could change the accessibility of space for the entire world.

  3. A serious space colony- While most people dont recognize them as such, space stations are literally our first space colonies. While they may not be self-reliant, neither were many of the early outposts around the world. I would urge for the establishment of a larger scientific outpost, one with at least basic manufacturing capabilities. I would ideally love to have a giant spaceship building factory in orbit, but realistically we have plenty to learn before we are ready for that. I would just have us build the sandbox so we have a chance to learn.

scgtrp408 karma

non lolcat

I am extremely disappointed that you will not be sending lolcats into space.

hubblemedia472 karma

Sorry, only advice dogs and Confucius. I have no doubt they would have saved the day during Apollo 13.

ProbablyHittingOnYou56 karma

but I can never put too much weight behind corporate promises of space exploration


hubblemedia159 karma

If every dream a CEO had came true, there would be dozens of space hotels and private launch companies all over the world. Most startup businesses fail in general, the odds definitely dont improve when your goal is pioneering new technologies, advancing the sciences, and (often) doing large scale orbital work..

M3taphysical62 karma

Correct me if I'm wrong (say, if NASA engineers are moving to a different project rather than possibly downsizing somewhat), but doesn't NASA's current situation imply the space industry should expert a huge increase in well-educated, experienced rocket engineers and "space experts" who will soon be looking for new job openings in which to apply their expertise? Will this affect the space-faring corporations significantly, perhaps making their ambitions more realistic with NASA-experienced engineers and scientists behind them?

hubblemedia104 karma

Actually, I intend to partake somewhat in the corporate space industry in the coming years. Imo this is the best time to be into commercial space, rarely will there be so many qualified employees looking for work.

spp4140 karma

Do you think NASA is falling behind Russia in terms of future plans? They are underway with their MARS-500 project and have a plan set for a mission already (if I'm not mistaken)

hubblemedia243 karma

A lot of nations are talking about putting a man on Mars. These are the same agencies that are having trouble affording reaching the Moon, so I dont expect to see a Russian flag on Olympus Mons any time soon.

That isn't to write off their progress, any research and development that goes into space exploration and astronomy can only strengthen our position as a spacefaring species.

TheOuts1der22 karma

In regards to your #2...i get that automation would greatly improve cost and efficiency, but isn't the technology and actual materials just expensive for each space craft? For example, Platinum wedding rings are expensive, sure.... But mass-produced platinum rings can't be that much cheaper. (?)

*I'm just asking and I have no idea what I'm actually talking about. I make books for a living.

EDIT: Also, the man-power and resources needed to make an automatic spacecraft building machine must be astronomical...And there really wouldn't be enough demand for spaceflight to even make your money back in 50 years, let alone make a profit. And finally, think of all that petroleum for rocket fuel?

I guess related question would be: what sort of alternative fuel resources do you think we could use in this endeavor.

(Sorry if these questions seem kind of scattered. I'm super excited to hear your thoughts!! :D )

hubblemedia44 karma

I do agree, the ability to mass produce rockets would require a shift in everything from design to some of the materials used.

There are certain costs you can never really get around (materials, manual labour to build certain components, etc), but there is little reason why the lift vehicle would have to significantly differ between launches (excluding weight limitations). It wouldn't be easy, but with that kind of budget it would not be impossible.

Rocket fuel isn't petrol, thankfully. Then again, rockets use so much propellant to launch, if the oil industry was involved I am sure they would be footing the R&D bills ;)

bawng15 karma

On the topic of space colonies, how far are we technologically, regardless of cost, from a self-reliant colony?

I'm thinking of something along the line of a giant greenhouse on a planet somewhere.

I do realize that JPL probably does not deal with space colonies, but you guys might know something.

hubblemedia50 karma

The one phrase that dooms you there is self-reliant. We can't even make a self-reliant biodome on Earth, let alone with the added difficulties of zero (or artificial or reduced) gravity.

Realistically we have a lot of learning ahead of us before any space colony can hope to live off the land anywhere but Earth. We don't even run a self-sustaining operation here.

karmanaut430 karma

Hey guys, thank you for doing an IAmA. Please either post your proof in the thread or (if, for some reason) you want it to be private, message the moderators, and we'd be happy to confirm this.

hubblemedia117 karma

Mod has been contacted :) Things are in progress.

hubblemedia390 karma

Here is a fun question Ill throw out there.

What is the coolest space mission youve ever seen cancelled?

For me it was the JIMO mission (Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter). It was powered by a fission reactor and used ion propulsion. The main target was Europa but would have gotten a good look at several of Jupiter's moons. For more info, just click on that link!

bastion721057 karma


hubblemedia349 karma

You deserve to be upvoted for this. Repeatedly.

Middens182 karma

Can I have a job?

Honestly. I have a degree in robotics from MIT. I am not far from CalTech. Even something as small as an internship or something would be appreciated.

hubblemedia213 karma

If it were up to me, anyone who had interest in helping Humanity's space endeavors would be allowed on.

Sadly, that is probably why they leave the hiring to people other than me ;)

This is a good place to start for a career at NASA.

jspmartin133 karma

How likely is it that the projects to send people to Mars will come to fruition in the next 10-15 years?

hubblemedia207 karma

Technologically speaking, that timeline is actually fair. While this would be a whole different ballgame than a moon launch, with proper funding there is no reason why we couldn't set foot on Mars within the next decade or two.

The catch is proper funding.

While setting foot on Mars has been on the minds of many people since even before the Apollo days, since we achieved the technological prowess to pull this mission off, we have never had the political backing to even seriously look at it.

Well, there was one instance a couple decades ago where the government asked for an estimate but the agency submitted its dreams and not a practical reality. Numbers were way too high, the government got spooked and backed out. Now they dont seem to take any proposal seriously.

There is an amazing documentary on the aspirations to set foot on Mars that covers this in great lengths. I will try to recall the name and dig it up for you.

MorganLF64 karma

What do you think of Robert Zubrin's plans for getting to Mars?

hubblemedia109 karma

Thank you for bringing him up! He was the main person in the Mars documentary I was just mentioning. He has some great ideas, I would love to meet him in person! Maybe we should post an AMA request for him ;)

cdemps6249 karma

I know that we've found liquid water on mars, but how much are we talkin? For instance, given our best estimates of how much there is, if it was melted down, how big of a lake/sea/ocean would it fill? Also, speaking of water out in space, how close are we to determining what lies beneath the icy surface of Europa? I imagine vast oceans...

hubblemedia157 karma

Mars has a lot water. My estimate is that there are still vast oceans worth of it, frozen beneath the surface. Digging down a few inches, and even just landing, has exposed ice.

Keep in mind, this world used to look very similar to Earth and has a lot of the same geological principals in place.

Despite having satellites in orbit and a couple of eyes on the ground, we really cant keep track of most of the planets surface. That being said, we are regularly catching iceflows in our photos. Despite having a fraction of the air pressure and a negligible atmosphere, warming (both above and below ground) is still liquifying water and continuing erosion.

My bet is that if you were to heat Mars up you could have a lovely canoe trip down Valles Marinerus.

DrAusum54 karma

Have you ever read "Red Mars" by Kim Stanley Robinson?

hubblemedia71 karma

Definitely. Everyone else should check it out as well!

kralrick25 karma

What would you say is sufficient funding to get us to Mars (and do you mean there and back or a one way trip)? What are the known technological advances that would be required for a successful mission?

hubblemedia210 karma

Realistically, we wont be seeing any intentionally one-way trips into space, at least from democratic nations. Way too much negative publicity, even if every person Ive ever met would be happy to make that journey.

TBH it is very hard to estimate the cost without specifics. It wont be cheap, but building a Mars base would still have cost less than rebuilding Iraq. Go figure.

SgtBanana183 karma

Well, we have but one option. Convince our government that Al-Qaeda has successfully claimed Mars as a terrorist staging area, and invade.

hubblemedia77 karma

I think you are on to something here...

hubblemedia126 karma

If anyone at the agency would like to contribute, please do! Reddit would love to hear from you!

Post any proof or credentials you may have as a reply to this comment!

VeryStrangeHat117 karma

What's your view on the Chinese space program?

hubblemedia166 karma

I foresee China being a major power in terms of space access and tech. So does the US (finally). They never even formally acknowledged the first Chinese astronaut or spacewalk (a pretty harsh move diplomatically), but now talks are finally open with them when it comes to space policy.

willfe114 karma

No question, just a comment. Thank you all for your amazing contributions to our understanding of the universe, our exploration of space, and our advancements in science and technology. I hope America changes its mind about the importance of space exploration and puts it back on the priority list before we fall too far behind the rest of the world.

hubblemedia75 karma

I completely agree and am proud of everyone (everywhere) who has spent any time benefiting Humanity and its space adventures.

Here's an upvote!

huyvanbin102 karma

Are the Voyager probes the best we will ever be able to do as far as interstellar space travel?

hubblemedia219 karma

Thankfully not. Even if our civilization withers and dies before we grow a pair and launch a manned mission to another star, it is not hard to reach another star with a probe (nor that costly).

You just have to be willing to wait a century or so for it to arrive, and people rarely give a crap about the budget after the 4 years they are in office, let alone a hundred years down the road. The only thing stopping us is funding (which goes back to the government giving a crap).

It took Humanity much longer to cross the Bering straight and colonize down to South America than it would to get an advanced probe to another star.

huyvanbin45 karma

Can you explain further? I have read about this subject and it was not encouraging. I recently read about something called Project Icarus which would require ridiculous things like mining Uranus for Helium-3 (cue Uranus joke).

Also, there was a recent discussion on Reddit about interstellar communication, and I was forced to reach the conclusion that it would be impossible to even communicate with another star-system, at least without having dozens of relay stations in between.

hubblemedia97 karma

You would definitely require relay stations, or at least strong space-based receivers and one heck of a broadcast system from the probe. If it were solar powered, then it could just harness the energy to release strong pulses of data back.

It would not be impossible to communicate with another star-system at all, just two way conversations would have different generations of people taking the call each time. Even if it takes 100 years to receive data back, it would still be pretty neat to have a probe circling another star!

BTW, may as well get the Helium from the moon. I have little doubt that resource exploitation will be one of the decisive factors contributing to our regular presence above the atmosphere.

ReneG867 karma

I know this isn't exactly your field of work (quite the opposite actually), but space elevator. Am I gonna see that in my lifetime? How far are we on that one? Is it even possible?

hubblemedia83 karma

I would love to see the construction of a space elevator, but realistically I do not see one being built (or even starting to be built) for at least several decades.

This is a great idea, but requires a lot of international cooperation, some serious advances in materials (perhaps the newly discovered graphene would involved), and a massive financial investment.

I do not see this even being seriously attempted without a serious price reduction (and quality improvement) in the materials Humanity can currently create.

jplatwork64 karma

I see a lot of unanswered requests for job advice and it's flattering to see so much interest in working for NASA and space exploration so here we go:

Personally, I came from the commercial aerospace industry, and left to join JPL mainly because I wanted to be devoted towards space exploration and remove myself from commercial and defense funding motivations. It is extremely humbling to work with people who design and send spacecraft to every planet in the solar system and be along for the ride.

With that said, JPL does hire some of the best and brightest. Are we hiring? Yes. Are we selective? You betcha! So here is what I would recommend:

  • Be diligent in your studies - Although there is no real minimum GPA required, when you're competing with others, the higher the number, the better.
  • Be passionate about your interests - If there is a specific field of expertise, highlight it in your resume* (school projects & side projects), and in your interview. If your resume still has "babysitting" or "worked at my local japanese restaurant", it's time to get more experience (related to your field of work). When we are hiring, the worst thing we hear or read is that you're "good at everything" or "willing to do whatever work". That is a lie and we both know it. Be specific and tell us exactly what you want to do and if we can't provide it, we'll refer to someone who can.
  • Be promiscuous - http://findyourplace.jpl.nasa.gov - There are hundreds of groups at JPL and elsewhere at NASA. Find the groups that interest you and apply to all of them. There is a job here for almost everyone.
  • Be persistant - Don't give up after one group turns you down (see above). If you don't get a summer internship this year, get more experience, and try again next year.

A few notes about the work environment:

The HR department (specifically compensation) has an extremely challenging job of not only offering competitive salaries (compared to others in the aerospace industry), but abiding by the limitations of our NASA publicly funded budget. I think it's safe to say that with a healthier budget (currently $0.005 on the dollar), we could not only fund way cooler missions, but compete (compensation-wise) comfortably in the public domain as well (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, etc.). In short, working here will get you paid, but we don't do it for the money.

So why do we do it? The relaxing work environment, the talented individuals, and the out of the world missions of course. But there's something more. We are not (that much) smarter than the rest of the working force, but I believe that we have a brilliant goal. We're making dreams come true. Someone asked what the coolest thing we've seen working here. I've seen shuttle launches and landings, worked on missions to Mars and beyond, and saw images beamed down to our operations centers in real time (minus time delay). But the greatest thing is to see the inspiration in the eyes of people like you. And that's what keeps me coming back to work every single day.

* I work in a fantastic advanced R&D software team at JPL focused on HCI work and we are always seeking talented individuals. If you have experience working in a software team in any of the major languages and platforms, send me a PM with your resume and we'll see if there's a fit.

hubblemedia14 karma

Thank you for this wonderful post!

atthecoast33 karma

If NASA wants to go back to the moon, why don't you just build a Saturn V rocket and lunar lander according to the 1969 plans and launch it? Why should it take ten years again?

hubblemedia60 karma

Primarily because we have different priorities now than we did back then.

It was originally a race, cut corners, do whatever you gotta do to get Humans onto the moon without racking up a deathtoll while everyone is watching.

If we go back to the moon, we dont plan on leaving this time. Even if left unmanned, we would like to see a permanent outpost on Luna. We are also much more about the future resource exploitation of this world.

Basically, we have a lot more luggage this trip around and our priorities on the moon are not what they used to be.

avsa31 karma

Hey send a big hug and a thanks to Veronica and everyone on the JPL team for me!

Now my question: I'm very excited for the prospects of finding microbial life in Europa, Titan and Enceladus, and every so often I hear about someone speculating sending a robotic boat to Titan or a drilling probe to Europa or enceladus, but nothing beneath concepts.

What's the status on those projects? Does NASA or ESA has any realistic project to put a robot on those moons anywhere in the assembly line?

hubblemedia43 karma

There are plenty of concepts and robots in the design stages, including oceanic exploration vehicles for Europa. Whether or not these missions will ever receive funding will come down to politics.

I personally foresee the discovery of microbial life throughout our solar system. There have been up to 3 planets that have been habitable throughout history (Venus, Earth and Mars). If Earth is perpetually leaking atmosphere (and microbes) into space, there should be something of an organic/gaseous trail behind our world. This trail has likely been intersected by other bodies in our solar system. Who is to say a couple of spores haven't landed elsewhere and called it home?

Seeing as we leak a bit of life with our light dissipation of the atmosphere, perhaps Mars shed significantly more when its atmosphere whittled away.

We may never know where life originated in our solar system but, knowing the tenacity of Life, I am sure it has spread.

avsa11 karma

If Earth is perpetually leaking atmosphere (and microbes) into space, there should be something of an organic/gaseous trail behind our world.

I've read many times about panspermia but I never heard about the idea of detectable gases of life leaking accross planetary systems. What a fantastic concept: is this just a pet idea of yours or is there any research on that currently? Can microbial life on our planet escape our gravity valley? Could it escape the solar system? Can it be possible to detect organic matter in the interstellar medium?

hubblemedia4 karma

This is something of a pet project, but I would love to work for SETI one day. Sadly, this is not something the average person can make their living doing (if you think NASA's budget is tight, google their figures).

I have no doubts that the high atmosphere is a functional ecosystem, like every other square inch of the planet. When faced with trace atmosphere and higher levels of radiation as a selective pressure, why wouldn't life push into this region after billions of years? There are comparatively hostile ecosystems elsewhere.

Accepting this to be true, why not on Mars? The loss of Martian atmosphere was likely gradual, creating a selective pressure that would have exerted itself across a multi-generational timeframe. Plenty of time to gradually adapt a tolerance to the extremes of space.

jayohhh26 karma

What's your opinion on using nuclear power for spacecraft?

Perhaps http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioisotope_Thermoelectric_Generator or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NERVA

hubblemedia41 karma

I am all for it. It makes life a lot easier when you are too far for solar panels ;)

TareXmd25 karma

Do you think there'll be a generation of "flying machines" capable of going into orbit without the need for fuel tanks and boosters? Like a plane of some sort?

hubblemedia63 karma

Anything that takes off is bound to need fuel of some sort.

Orbital space planes are definitely an option for our future (and unmanned ones have already made it up). Feel free to read more here.

While the technique of ferrying a spacecraft to the high atmosphere does work, you are also faced with weight limitations imposed by your carrier craft. For heavy lift, rocketry is cheaper.

PapaKraken24 karma

How do you intend to keep the dream alive for the kids that are in school now?

hubblemedia60 karma

In 2015 the Pluto system will receive its first robotic visitor, which will serve as quite a landmark occasion for our species and will hopefully provide some inspiration.

To me, the real importance of the manned space program is in its inspirational value. The Apollo missions did more than collect a few rocks and give astronauts a chance to play golf on another world - they changed how Humanity itself thought and felt about space. It was no longer an abstract concept, it was a place, somewhere you could actually get to and experience.

There are talks of a manned mission to an asteroid. I have a feeling that too will awaken the hearts of the masses to the adventure and allure of space exploration.

qwazar21 karma

Which cafeteria do you go to? 303 or 167?

hubblemedia10 karma

You guys should join in the AMA, plenty of questions to be answered! Just post some credentials should you feel so inclined.

WiglyWorm20 karma

It seems as though space exploration will be the domain of robots and private companaies for the forseeable future. Do you feel that it is in good hands?

hubblemedia86 karma

A lot of people are kinda iffy on the idea of private companies stepping up to be the leaders in space access. Myself included.

While I have full faith in the corporate space industry and their necessity to make us a truly spacefaring civilization, we have to look at the priorities here. NASA is a science institution, corporations are profit institutions.

Should we put too much reliance on corporations we will find they are legally obligated to make as much money for their shareholders as possible, not obligated to expand the horizons of our knowledge.

EagleOfMay18 karma

Do you think NASA should engage in a big project like the Apollo or the space shuttle? If so what should that next big project be? I've heard proposals that we should be trying to build a space station at one of the Lagrange points instead of trying to get to Mars or back to the Moon. NASA has had great success at smaller unmanned projects, less risk, not putting all of the money into one project, etc...do you think that is a better way to go?

hubblemedia55 karma

There is something romantic about manned space flight (nohomo), that is lost with robotic exploration. While our robots can scour the neatest places of the neatest worlds, it is hard to empathize with a machine. When you see the images of a man, standing on the surface of the Moon you cant help but think that could be me.

While these 'smaller' missions are critical to space exploration, we do need the occasional blockbuster project to keep the nation (and world) interested in the cosmos.

Umbrius12 karma

What type of engines will probably be used in future missions? Ion? Also is there any weight to the idea of solar sails?

hubblemedia15 karma

Ion engines are great, but I do see an impending need for nuclear (fission, etc) engines in our future. Lots of political hurdles on that one, but it was a key component in the Jupiter Orbiter mission.

Edit: Solar sails are a fun idea, coupled with a ramscoop and a push from artificial sources you may have yourself a sailboat to the stars.

Hepcat1011 karma

How do you factor for orbiting space junk that cannot be detected? I'm thinking of things like nuts+bolts, and bits of junk. I was thinking about it and if it's not in the exact same orbit, they're like flying bullets, aren't they? how do you shield an exhaust aperture from the randomness?

hubblemedia4 karma

Short answer: You have a good escape plan.

All you can do is avoid what you can see. There's little you can do about micrometeroites and other high velocity debris but get out a repair kit (or medical kit) as needed.

Thus far we've been lucky, but the odds are getting worse and not better.

CrazyClockMaker6 karma

Before I ask this, I want to preface it with the fact that studying space has been a dream of mine as long as I can remember (not saying this to suck up, only to ensure I don't set the wrong tone); I study physics, and try to immerse myself in the field, and I believe wholeheartedly that we need to be in space, even if just for the natural technological jumps we'll make as a result.

But there's one thing that was posited to me by a professor a few years ago that has nagged at my mind for quite a while, and I've never gotten a satisfactory answer: the Earth has finite resources, and going to space takes a very large amount. What happens if we deplete (or at least use up to enough degree) our fuel to such a degree that we become land-locked, before we find other extraterrestrial sources? If we continue the status quo, with no real improvements to humanity's spacefaring capabilities, is there not a risk of burning out and trapping ourselves here? I feel that this argument needs to be presented in favor of dramatic progress; it seems like we NEED to find these fuel sources, before they are forever out of our reach.

hubblemedia12 karma

We are seriously at risk of burning ourselves out, but not due to space travel. Our world is in danger due to our constant neglect.