The Big 10 with Jeff D'Alessio, July 27, 2014
With NASA set to turn 56 Tuesday, we asked four astronauts and many other astronomy aficionados with local ties: If anything were possible, where would be your first stop in the galaxy?
Champaign-born astronaut; flew 3 shuttle missions (1990-94)
"I'd like to examine the oceans on Europa for the possibility of life. If you think Earth's deep oceans contain some strange creatures, just think what might lurk under icy crust of a little moon orbiting the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter."
UI Class of '81; flew 4 shuttle missions as astronaut (1998-2009)
"I want to go to Mars. It is within our reach with current technology, although still quite challenging. Mars could be a model for what might happen to Earth with climate change — it evidently once had a different environment with liquid water on the surface. It still has an atmosphere — although quite thin — but there is oxygen and water as ice there that could be used to make breathing air and fuel for the return trip to Earth. At 4-6 months just to get there, it's quite a commitment once you start, and the equipment onboard needs to be reliable and repairable — concepts we are proving out on the International Space Station right now.
UI grad; transportation integration manager, International Space Station Program
"The destination would be Gliese 832 c, an extrasolar planet located about 16 light years away in the constellation of Grus. It's in the habitability zone of its nearby star and has high Earth similarity.
"Why there? To find life outside our solar system. That is what I'd want answered. If the answer we find is that there is nothing else out there, wouldn't that be a wakeup call to planet Earth?"
Earned master's at UI; special assistant, Mission Operations, NASA
"My No. 1 destination is a return to the moon — and this time to stay permanently. The moon is the first steppingstone to anywhere we want to go in the universe. If we can establish a permanent presence there, we will be on our way."
UI professor emeritus, aerospace engineering
"I would establish a small permanent international colony on our moon. This would be very useful in studying the solar system and deep space studies of the universe. The medical biological effects on the occupants is pretty much an unknown, but they appear to be challenging. There are also numerous potential known and unknown technical challenges, which would stretch the science and engineering.
"I think the logistics of supporting such a base would be expensive but the benefits would more than pay for the effort. Of course, this is not nearly as challenging as a trip to Mars — and strong political support would be needed."
UI Class of '11; structural engineer, NASA
"I'd like to know if we're alone. The universe is filled with other planets and galaxies much like our own, at least one of them must be harboring intelligent life. We owe it to Mulder to find them. The truth is out there."
UI Class of '69; flew 4 shuttle missions as astronaut (1985-93)
"I would like to fly to Jupiter and see the Galilean moons such as Io, which has the towering volcanos, and the other moons. Of course, you could not land and the intense radiation field around Jupiter makes this unsafe for humans unless we come up with a solution."
UI Class of '12; NASA engineer
"No question, it would be the Butterfly Nebula. I have a picture of this hanging up at home and I see it every day when I wake up to go to work. The delicate shape of a celestial butterfly emerges from the violent death of a huge star, about five times larger than our sun, at the center of the nebula. Being able to see this in person would be amazing."
Emeritus research professor of astronomy, Center for Astronomy Education
"I study old stars that eject their outer layers in complex patterns that look like butterflies or a series of bubbles, sometimes with jet-like structures also. I'd like a spacecraft to visit one of these to help figure out how a round-shaped star can manage to produce such complex shapes in the material it has lost."
UI Class of '99; NASA project engineer
"I would be most interested in visiting a planet in a distant solar system called Kepler-186f. This was the first Earth-sized planet discovered in what is thought to be a habitable zone.
"Unfortunately, it's a long, long way from Earth. Some of the programs we are working on currently — like the Space Launch System on which I work — will help us as we work toward the very long-term goal of finding other places in the universe that humans might live. Sending robotic missions or humans to this location is unlikely to occur during my career or even my lifetime, but it is the kind of vision that inspires hope for me personally."
Eastern Illinois Class of '79; former lead engineer, International Space Station
"Even if we had faster-than-light travel with the capability to visit any planet, star or galaxy in the universe, my No. 1 destination would be to return to our moon. The objective: to establish a permanent base there to be used as our launching point for human exploration of our solar system and beyond."
COO, IllinoisRocstar, Champaign
"I'd like to visit the edge of the expanding universe to take a look at what is beyond what we think we can see today. Is there an edge? Are we just one set of galaxies expanding into an infinite set of other expanding sets of galaxies?"
UI Class of '73; flew 4 shuttle missions as astronaut (1994-2006)
"The practical and intelligent exploration destination is to go back to the moon, to learn how to live there for an extended period of time. I think this could really engage the public interest, as with current communication technologies, we could all share the experience of those 'living' on the moon.
"My next destination, of course, is Mars. How exciting a human landing on Mars would be, as we set foot on another planet in our solar system."
UI Ph.D candidate at NASA on research grant
"The answer is always to follow the water. Water is the most important ingredient for any type of life that we have here on Earth, and we expect that any life that we do find will be relying on a source of it. Our best chances of finding living organisms — not fossils — is to go somewhere like Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons. Enceladus is comprised mainly of water ice and, of equal importance, is geologically active.
"The Cassini spacecraft, which has been studying the Saturnian system since 2004, has observed volcanoes of liquid water erupting on Enceladus and there is strong evidence of a liquid ocean with an energy source and organic molecules underneath its southern pole."
Earned UI degrees in astronautical engineering (1986) and journalism (1988); Risk communication coordinator, NASA
"If you ask me in 50 years, I might say that the place we must go is the nearest star with a possible Earth-like planet — or two.
"Today and for the near future, the destination must be Jupiter's icy fractured moon Europa. Sending a specially clean 'submarine' there to melt down through the ice shell and into the likely subsurface water ocean, to explore where the conditions should be right to support life, would be the ultimate extreme adventure."