The Big 10 with Jeff D'Alessio, July 29, 2018

The Big 10 with Jeff D'Alessio, July 29, 2018

Sixty years ago today, President Eisenhower signed the act that created NASA. Which got us thinking: What's in store for space exploration 60 years from now? For predictions, we turned to the experts.

Danville native, former Illini swimmer and NASA astronaut flew on four space shuttle missions

"I envision multiple Earth-orbiting, privately-owned space stations where normal people can vacation. They might be called space hotels.

"A less expensive and safer means of travel to and from low-earth orbit will need to be developed. It is too expensive with our current technologies. For the more adventurous, a trip to a moon orbiting station and even a lunar surface habitat are possible.

"I fully expect a multi-nation funded moon research station to already be in operation 60 years from now, as well as some sort of human presence on the surface of Mars and possible human visits to outer planet moons."

Former NASA chief scientist now directs Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

One sure bet: there will be life. We will find strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade, and definitive proof within three.

"We know where to look, and we know how. The technology is there, and we are implementing it to search for signs of life on Mars, and soon in the icy moons of the outer solar system.

"In the decades ahead, we will walk on Mars, and our robots will sail the polar seas of Saturn's moon, Titan. The Martian winds and Titanian tides will teach more about our climate here on Earth. There will be many answers, and so many more questions.

"Discoveries won't come like a bolt out of the blue; knowledge builds on the work of generations of scientists and engineers, on decades of discovery. And as the reach of our astronauts, instruments and observations increase, so too will our grasp of the universe and our place in it. And with it, a curiosity as relentless as gravity itself."

'Asteroid 3530 Hammel' was named after the executive vice president of AURA, one of Discover Magazine's 50 most important women in science

"Sixty years from now, we will have detected biosignatures — chemical imbalances that suggest life — on an Earth-sized planet around a sun-like star using a sophisticated, extremely large space telescope built by NASA.

"NASA will be in the process of building an even more complex space telescope in order to actually get an image of that planet, and will be crafting a robotic probe to fly through that star system.

"NASA will also have sent robotic craft under the icy pole at Mars, as well as beneath the icy crust of Jupiter's moon, Europa, to explore the watery brines beneath them. Planetary scientists will still, however, debate whether we actually detected life there, or whether we brought that life with us on the spacecraft."

NASA's former chief scientist serves on board of UI's Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology

"I must admit: I had a lot of fun doing this. I also worked closely with Dr. Ann B. Carlson, who served with me at NASA. I sent her my first draft for comments and she substantially enhanced it.

"Our obviously optimistic prediction: After the late 2018 detection of a large water-ocean near the south pole of Mars, renewed dreams of space colonization electrified the globe with an excitement not witnessed since NASA's Apollo era.

"Sixty years later, Mars will be known as one of the top 10 places to live in the galaxy. After terraforming the planet, tempering the climate and shielding the colony with cosmic ray deflectors, the quality of life on Mars will be something that Earth-bound populations have only dreamed of: free education, universal employment, flourishing arts and state of the art health care for all.

"And, venturing beyond Mars, intrepid galaxy explorers trust their health and well-being to the most complete and well-equipped in-space emergency rooms imaginable."

UI grad known for four shuttle missions, playing stunt double in 'Top Gun' (that's him flying upside down and giving one-finger salute to Russian plane)

"In 60 years, we will be looking back at today as the beginning of our space renaissance.

"Our early efforts to commercialize space have led to much greater access to space for regular citizens and we have a new perspective on our place in the universe after discovering life both within our solar system and on distant planets. Those planets are still too far from Earth for us to reach as humans, but discoverable and visitable through our new telescopes and instruments in space.

"Humans will have expanded to living and working on Mars and on our moon, with in-space manufacturing supplying energy and improved material properties enabling incredible new technology."

Named NASA's new chief scientist in May

"The exploration of the solar system by humans will have begun in earnest and human settlements will be on the moon and Mars."

Former U.S. Secretary of Navy ran NASA as administrator (2001-04)

"Over the last 60 years, we have relied on the same chemical propulsion principles used to power Alan Shepard, the first American in space. But the sheer mass and volume of fuel expended just to slip the bonds on Earth gravity, have rendered humans powerless to traverse space and dependent on Einstein's enduring laws of physics and the minimal maneuvering of basic principles of orbital mechanics.

"We will reach a time when we have developed the capacity to power vehicles to worlds unknown and destinations only imagined in a timely manner for humans to discover and explore.

"To date, we have transitioned from the equivalent of the age of sail to the age of steam-powered space machines. Tomorrow and over the next 60 years, we will be in the next age of hyper-speed only in evidence in Hollywood movies.

"At that time, colonies on Mars will seem like the next town over from where we live on this blue planet we call Earth."

Second woman in NASA history to command a shuttle mission, now Nova Systems' director of space technology and policy"

In 60 years, we will routinely be building space facilities robotically and nearly fully autonomously — in deep space, in orbit, on the surface of the moon and Mars, and who knows elsewhere.

"We will also have a dense network of logistics hubs to support transportation from all these destinations that will also operate largely autonomously. Space robotics is one of the most exciting areas of tech development that will really be a game changer."

Lunar scientist served on George W. Bush's Presidential Commission on the Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy

"Mining the moon for useful resources is a revolutionary — yet doable — idea that will permit permanent human access and presence in space.

"Water is one of the most useful substances found in space — it supports human life, it serves as a medium for energy storage. Water, broken into its component parts of hydrogen and oxygen, then recombined, is the most powerful chemical rocket propellant known. Located in the permanently dark regions of its poles, the moon contains billions of tons of water ice. These ice deposits, called cold traps, are found next to areas of near-constant sunshine.

"This combination of water and sunlight will permit the continuous harvesting of water from the moon. Humans will learn how to supply themselves with provisions found in space — away from Earth and out of its deep gravity well. These resources will support human habitation of space, along with fueling a permanent spacefaring system.

"This revolutionary idea of leaning how to mine and use off-planet lunar resources will open up our solar system to routine access and development, advancing science, the economy and security on Earth."

Senior research scientist, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech

"Two things come to mind.

"The first is a very parochial view, based on my interest in outer-planet atmospheres: routine interplanetary spacecraft missions to the icy giants.

"These are currently limited to one visit each by Voyager 2 to both Uranus and Neptune. They are both mysterious and, to some extent, represent the coldest end-members of a suite of planets of roughly the same size down to 'super-Earth' size that populate planetary systems around other stars.

"Current missions take up to decades to reach them with current propulsion systems, which is why each of them has been visited once, while Mars and Venus have been visited so many times I've lost count. Both hold secrets on how the solar system was formed, as well as how planets in other solar systems may have formed.

"Uranus was clearly influenced by a big collision during its formation, being tilted on its side and losing all of its internal heat, unlike Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune. They're both big enigmas.

"The second would be the discovery of life on Europa — second from the innermost Galilean satellite of Jupiter; Titan — largest satellite of Saturn; or Enceladus — a smaller satellite of Saturn venting water from its interior.

"There is circumstantial evidence that such a thing might be possible, with enough liquid water in the interiors of these bodies, but the details of organic chemistry have yet to be determined for Titan and Europa. Basic organics are indeed detected in the Enceladus vents."

Planetary scientist and NASA advisor led imaging science team on Cassini mission around Saturn from 2004-17

"NASA is so vulnerable to the political winds that blow through Washington, D.C., that it is not possible to predict what we might be doing 60 years from now in planetary exploration. I fear that whatever we will be doing then will be much less than we could be.

"But my fervent hope is that by then we will have landed on the Saturnian moon Enceladus, which is by far the most promising place in our solar system to search for life.

"Because of Cassini's 13 years of methodical exploration in the Saturn system, we know by leaps and bounds the most about Enceladus and its biological potential than any other candidate habitable zone in the solar system. And what we know is this: the extensive plume of water vapor and frozen mist that erupts from its south polar region is sourced in a global sub-iceshell water ocean that has a salinity comparable to that of Earth's oceans, is laced with organic compounds large enough to be of biological interest, even holds tantalizing hints of hydrothermal activity on its sea floor, and has a persistent source of tidal heat to power any biological activity.

"These are not speculations: we have evidence.

"Furthermore, the vast majority of the icy component in the plume falls back to the surface. Going back to Enceladus with instruments specifically designed to measure signatures of biological activity in the plume and to image any organisms that might be encased in ice, is the obvious next step to take in furthering our knowledge of the extent of life in the solar system and therefore in the cosmos.

"Any life that is found on Enceladus, because of its distance from Earth, is virtually certain to be independent of life on Earth and would represent a second genesis in our solar system — the holy grail in the search for life.

"At Enceladus, all you have to do is land on the surface, look up and stick your tongue out. If we could do that, we just might find that life is not a bug but a feature of the universe in which we live."

UI grad, NASA's chief scientist and chief technologist for space communications and navigation

"We will find life on another body either in our solar system, some other planetary system or elsewhere in the universe."