There are two things that Charles Bolden (Columbia, USA, 1946) has very clear: that the role of the private sector will be essential for the success of space exploration and that there is life outside the Earth. The second has no evidence; The first thing gives faith. He knows what he is talking about: he has looked at the stars for a good part of his life, first as an astronaut (1981-1994) and then as administrator of NASA (2009-2017). Never before had a black man run the largest space agency in the world. It was President Barack Obama who trusted him. Bolden resigned when Trump was elected, but not before presenting NASA's plans for a manned trip to the red planet, the great long-term project he worked on during his tenure.
Since he retired, he travels the world giving lectures and advising different organizations. He sits with EL PAÍS RETINA during a visit to Madrid to participate in a session dedicated to the commercialization of the Future Trends Forum space, a discussion forum organized by the Bankinter Foundation, of which Bolden is a patron.
Is the participation of private companies in space exploration good?
From NASA we promote it because we believe it is a great opportunity and a necessity. All the space agencies of the world agree on what the objectives are: to return to the Moon in the 1920s and reach Mars in the 30s. Someone has to continue operating in low Earth orbits, and not necessarily governments, because there are startups and companies that can do it. We need the private sector in this adventure. NASA no longer builds rockets. That has to be provided by a company.
Opening the cake to private companies will not pervert the objectives of space exploration?
No. There are certain conventions or guidelines that companies should follow. For example, there are certain standards necessary to operate in low orbits: no one can send to the space anything that does not have enough fuel to reach the ocean later or to raise it to a high orbit where it can be for a century or more. In the United States, the Department of Commerce is responsible for what we call Orbital traffic management. My intuition is that it will work with other institutions in the world, perhaps also with the UN, to produce norms or guidelines for operation in low orbits.
What kind of economic opportunities are there in space for the private sector?
Pharmaceutical development, materials processing, biomedical research ... Now that there are 3D printers We are even starting to think about orbital manufacturing. Will we see large-scale mass production in space? For future trips to the Moon or Mars, it would be better to make parts of rockets in low orbits than to produce them on Earth and then send them into space. Earth's gravity is quite strong, which is why we need big engines and rockets. On the other hand, once in orbit it is relatively easy to get the necessary propulsion to travel forever, until someone or something stops the vehicle. Ideally, as we mature, we will not want to return to the earth's surface. The question is to develop a reliable and sustainable suborbital infrastructure from which to operate. Private capital has a lot to contribute there.
What do we need to get to Mars?
The same as to go to the Moon, and we have already been there. It is enough to reestablish the necessary industrial capacity. There are commercial space companies that are already in it. For example, SpaceX, Boeing or Blue Origin, as well as other Japanese, Chinese and Russian companies that are becoming strong in what we call commercial space launches. [La entrevista se produjo antes de que China anunciase el éxito de su misión de alunizaje en la cara oculta del satélite.]
What do you think of the Elon Musk's plans to colonize Mars?
I'm a big fan of Elon. I think it exaggerates some things, but that's how it makes money and generates interest. Elon neither has responsibility nor thinks about how to help establish that suborbital infrastructure of which I speak. He thinks about his business, and what he cares about is making sure SpaceX is able to get to Mars, and maybe go back, even though he talks about one-way trips. That is unthinkable for a space agency: if we send someone we have to bring him back. I also know that Elon will not reach Mars by himself, not even he has enough money to do it. It will be done by academic, business, governmental partners, etc. In that we have to work.
Amazon announced a few weeks ago its entry into the business of terrestrial control of communications satellites. Do you think that the big technology companies will eventually launch into space?
Jeff Bezos controls both Amazon and Blue Origin, a company of orbital and suborbital flights. Jeff is very interested in controlling drone systems in the atmosphere. I think what he's trying to do is what will be a trend in the future. Some of the traditional deliverers, such as FedEx or DHL, already use autonomous systems to carry packages. The role of NASA there is to try to help the regulator to establish norms and standards that allow drones to integrate safely into the aerial ecosystem.
Do not doubt, then, that soon we will see drones populating the skies.
Well, it's already starting to happen. I think that in practice drone will be imposed because it is cheaper and simpler to fly from the factory to the destination than to go through all the intermediaries that there are now. As long as it's safe, of course. Here's the key: autonomous systems must have all the guarantees.
In space, however, autonomous vehicles are the norm.
Effectively. Almost anything that flies today in space is autonomous, very few are controlled beyond the moment of takeoff and when they approach, for example, the International Space Station (ISS). At that time, either the ISS team takes control and approaches it or seizes it with a remote manipulation system.
Some say that spending money on space exploration when there is so much poverty on Earth is little more than nonsense. What's your opinion about it?
That is not correct. Never a single dollar or euro has been spent in space: it is spent here on Earth and used to develop systems and technologies, to accelerate research. When we talk about getting people out of poverty we should think about how to generate employment and provide education. And one of the great interests of NASA and other space agencies is to encourage studies in science, physics, mathematics, etc. Just look at the era of the Apollo missions and the boom experienced by the registrations in these disciplines. When Curiosity arrived on Mars we saw the same thing: they began to show interest in areas that previously did not attract as much, as new ways of producing food. One of the great benefits that the space race has brought is to encourage this type of studies.
Is there life outside the Earth?
Oh, it exists.
As far as I know we still do not have any physical evidence to show that there is any kind of life form in the universe beyond Earth, but I really believe, like so many scientists, that there must be it in our solar system. We think that Mars probably had life at some point, at least in the form of vegetation, because there was a time when it was a temperate planet with an atmosphere, like Earth, until 2,000 million years ago everything changed. When we see the great icy oceans of the moons of the great planets we believe that it is probable that in some of them there is life, because under that layer of ice there are temperate temperatures. One of Saturn's moons, Enceladus, actually has active geysers. All the necessary elements to house life are there, be it a single cell or something else.
I do not believe that I live long enough to see how we find indications of the existence of intelligent life forms, but it is something that will happen at some point in the next decades. Personally, I find it hard to believe that, whoever the supreme being who put life on the face of the Earth, chose a single planet between billions and billions of them.
Maybe you have information about it and do not want to share it ...
Do not! [risas] If I knew, you would know, I assure you.
What would you think that a discovery would be made by a private company?
It is not important who makes the discovery, but what is done. I do not know how many people have won a Nobel Prize using information collected by the Hubble telescope, which was placed in space by NASA. Are your investigations worthy of us? Of course not, but we are better thanks to them.
What do you think of Trump's space policy?
Personally, in general I do not see a big difference between Trump and Obama, in the same way that I did not see her between Bush Jr. and Obama. In fact, if you look at the US space policy since 1959 or 1960, when the first one was written, you will see that it has been very consistent over the years. We want to explore the solar system and the universe, go to the Moon and Mars. This kind of thing has never changed. Many people say that Trump has broken the scheme because he wants to go to the Moon. But what it says is that it will help us go to Mars.
Charles Bolden began his career as a marine. He participated as an aviator in more than 100 missions in the Vietnam War. He then served as a test pilot for special projects and, later, became an astronaut (1981-1994): he was a pilot on two NASA missions, including one that put the Hubble telescope into orbit, and commander of two others. He later resumed his career as a senior officer, including the post of Commanding General in Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait (1998).
Barack Obama made him administrator of NASA in 2009. The colonization of Mars was the great long-term project he worked on during his tenure, arriving to present NASA's plans for a manned trip to the red planet in October 2015. Three years before, Bolden became the first person in history to have his voice transmitted to the Martian surface. A practicing Christian, he is convinced that there must be life outside the Earth. "When we find evidence of it, it will completely change our perspective on the universe and our position in it," he says without hiding his enthusiasm.