And as a scientist, that the answer must be, I don't know. And by the way, that's not a cop out. It's the answer to most questions that we ask in science. I don't know or I don't yet know. So for me, you know that question, we actually are making a ton a ton of progress towards I mean, frankly, during my professional lifetime, it's probably a question that we've made most groundbreaking discoveries. I don't know if I when I started my kind of master's degree in astrophysics, we had no planets elsewhere other than the ones in our solar system.
In the meantime, we have thousands of those planets and some of them look awfully like, you know, like our own kind of relative to the data we have, which are really, really, really sparse. So we're on that track towards, you know, I believe are going to find it. I sense that. Yeah, you know, life just like planetary systems. Life could also be very much distributed in the universe.
Hide. Hello and welcome to the Knowledge Project, I'm your host, Shane Parrish, as podcast sharpens your mind by helping you master the best, what other people have already figured out. If you're listening to this, you're not currently a supporting member. If you'd like a special member, only episodes access before anyone else searchable transcripts and other member only content. You can join the F-stop blog podcast. Check out the show notes for Link. Today I'm speaking with Thomas Zirkin, also known as Dr Z.
Dr. Z is the head of science at NASA, running a seven billion dollar a year science program covering multiple disciplines, including the world's top research program and Earth science, planetary science, astrophysics and heliophysics. This episode is incredible. We talk about things we've learned from running experiments on the International Space Station, our missions to Mars, and whether we'll ever colonizing how space is governed and decision making. In fact, this episode is a master class in decision making from someone who routinely makes billion dollar decisions.
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Thomas, welcome to the show.
I'm so glad to be here. Shane, thanks so much.
Can you tell us in your own words how you got interested in astrophysics?
You know, I grew up in the mountains in Switzerland and frankly, quite isolated. I grew up in a quasi Amish community with a father who was a religious leader. And so I didn't have a lot in my life.
You know, that other people have the only book I really read was the Bible. And, you know, so so what I did have, though, is an amazing environment. And that little village where I grew up, I saw the sky kind of in a way that, frankly, I rarely ever seen since my youth and I was outside a lot at night on my back, frankly, on the roof and looking at the stars over time, I bought a map, I star map, and I started looking at it.
And so for me, the stars were always both a goal, but also in an escape. For me it was just amazing. So I started, of course, asking questions just like we all do. That was to start for astrophysics for me.
Do you remember what some of those first questions were?
The most important question really is about is somebody else watching the other way? I mean, for me, it's just what is there just a whole point drive going growing up and that religious environment? I thought a lot about bigger purpose and bigger things like, you know, with the name the Lord perhaps, or with the name creation for me. For me, really looking at the stars, the patterns of them, the fact that they're there the next day also kind of made me really ask, what is that?
How does it actually look? Right. And what can you know, what's the relationship of that amazing sky to us here, to my little self on my back, on the roof in that little village? You know what? This that big thing, you start opening up books, you know, my God, Father gave me the first book. It's still in my office, by the way. And that's really about the possibility of exploring those stars.
And, you know, it just keeps on going and that question becomes more intense.
Do you feel what is your take on that?
Do you think that there's somebody out there watching us
That's got to first of all, I believe it's very likely, right? I mean, as a scientist the answer must be, I don't know. And by the way, that's not a cop out. It's the answer to most questions that we ask in science. I don't know or I don't yet know. So for me, you know that question, we actually are making a ton a ton of progress towards I mean, frankly, during my professional lifetime, it's probably the question that we've made most groundbreaking discoveries or know if I when I started my kind of master's degree in astrophysics, we had no planets elsewhere other than the ones in our solar system.
In the meantime, we have thousands of those planets and some of them look awfully like, you know, like our own kind of relative to the data we have, which are really, really, really sparse. So we're on that track towards, you know, I believe are going to find a sense that, yeah, you know, life just like planetary systems, life could also be very much distributed in the universe.
I have a million questions of its faith. I was so excited when you agreed to come on.
It's one of the first questions I wanted to ask is my kids actually propose this, which is what's the most interesting things we've learned from running experiments on the International Space Station?
It's a really good question. I do believe, and it depends a little bit who's asking, right? So for me, I'll give two answers depending on who's who's asking. I think the the most important one is really kind of a series of of answers that relate to one question. And that is, how is the human body or even life itself going to evolve or change without gravity? And there's important, very, very important work that has happened relative to our bone structure, relative to our visual system, but also now relative to our just genetic expression, like we have with with the twin study, that one of an identical twin went on the space station for a long time.
The other one stayed on the ground with that twin study and kind of generosity of those individuals to make the kind of the DNA public. There's an abundance of research that really talks about how gene expressions are changing in space. So for me, dad is super exciting party, you know, and a question we can't really answer on the ground. At the other one, I just want to say the space station has been the site of much research and and and there's a lot of experiments hanging on the outside of the space.
And for me, probably the most exciting one relates to neutron stars, you know, they're these kind of high energy, high density stars that that were frankly right now measuring kind of the ingredients of and we're doing that from the outside of the space station, using a telescope that's taking advantage of that unique orbit and the enhanced radar rate. So that would be the second the second answer.
How do experiments work on the space station? Are they coordinated across countries or is the data shared as each country do their own experiments for most of the data?
Let me just talk about NASA first. For all of our experiments, we have a policy of sharing all data. And I love that because frankly, so much of the work we do, whether it's about astrophysics and especially about our science, we're all better off if we share all the data because it's kind of a common good, right? That's what the taxpayers are paying for it. Let's make it as useful as possible. And it's incredible what people figure out with those data.
So what we have done in the space station work is we have actually created partnerships in which multiple countries are participating and they have their own channels up there. And there's an immigration board that kind of make sure that, you know, are not doing twice the same thing that we partner when we can. But we encourage and empower both, you know, government agencies, but also companies to put work on the space station and then coordinate that. Knowing what we have done, especially for companies, we have kind of adopted IP laws in a way that does not undercut the ability of of of actually commercializing some of the results that are data that's deliberately.
But for us, for the science work, it basically is public data where we're trying to enhance kind of, you know, rice, all boats, all boats right off in science, that that's a principle we really, really deeply believe in. And I think it's exactly the right principle. It wasn't that long before I came to Nassau. It's something that we went through in the last 20 years and it made us all much better.
Are there specific examples of things we've learned about the immune system or sleep from space that we can apply on Earth?
There are lessons about sleep, about the immune system. I'm not sure what are any of them facing the knock at farm and which I could just basically say, well, this is you know, this is what we know. We know, for example, the various levels of sleep like of the astronauts, just like here, are kind of being observed constantly. They're wired. You know, the way it's in the movies is the way it happens. Right.
Kind of our we make sure that the astronauts are healthy and we are, you know, like how we they're sleeping, you know, kind of the depth of sleep, you know, I mean, I talk to a number of the astronauts very easy to do. Just recognize, hey, this is a really different life. And it's hard. It's you know, I mean, if you want an example, you close your eyes, you see flashes going through your eyes wide because cosmic rays, you know, that come from the deep galaxy, from exploding stars that are out there.
Most of them never come to the ground because between you know, if you take a square centimeter and go all the way through space, there's a kilogram of air per square centimeter that shields us. Right. So so we're very radiation shield that. Well, if you're in the space station, that is not the case. Right, because you're on top of the air. So basically what now happens is that radiation goes through your body. And, you know, if you close your eyes, you see these flashes that are going through your eyes.
And, you know, many of the astronauts are some of my friends have told me, like how kind of tough it is to try to ignore that when you want to fall asleep first. Right. Kind of these kind of flashes that occur in your eye. Just one tiny example.
So cool. Can we talk about the Earth's magnetic field and how it shields us from debris? Am I getting that right?
The Earth's magnetic field know, by the way, it's it's one of those things. If you really ask in detail, we still don't fully understand why it occurs. And the more we know about it, the more it kind of makes us learn. For example, Mercury has a magnetic field, the Earth's magnetic field. Jupiter has a magnetic field. Mars does not have a global scale magnetic field that neither does Venus. And so so you basically we learn from that.
OK, so what does the Earth's magnetic field do? So what that what it does, it stands there, you know, like a dipole from north or south. And what it does is the very particles I just talked about, but especially lower energy particles, the ones that come from the sun that come into the magnetic field and and they hit the magnetic field. And whenever they hit the magnetic field, think at the equator, right. When the magnetic fields look like a dipole, it's kind of right over the magnetic field.
It turns the particle. Around, so it it if you want it shields the magnetic field, shields the the inside of the earth, including all the way down here, but also in the space station, shields us from energetic particles, debris, you know, which are dust pieces and kind of, you know, some of them human made kind of spacecraft that blew up or are, you know, that are no longer used or are, you know, upper stages that we're used, of course, to propel spacecraft up.
There are way heavier. So the magnetic field doesn't really have a huge impact on them.
And that's also how we get the northern lights. Right. So it's the reflection off of that debris that sort of refracts the light differently or so so so we think of that particle I just described at the equator.
So the particle at the equator, it goes away because remember, the magnetic field force is always perpendicular to the magnetic field itself. Now let's go at the polar region, at the polar region, the magnetic fields are coming in right and off. Just look at Google, magnetic field of a dipole. You see the the magnetic fields are coming in. So up there, the particles are like a funnel that coming down. They're not deflected. They're like funnel coming in and they come in and they hit the atmospheric oxygen and whatever is there.
And it makes them light like a neon light or whatever, you know, a light that you have in which kind of high energy particles are exciting them and they radiate. That's so the northern lights are are energetic particles, both from the sun but also from the back of the earth magnetic field kind of funneled into the top into the polar regions and igniting, if you want, the spectacle of light you mentioned sort of like satellites and a new spacecraft.
I guess what happens to them after they're done? I mean, they just float around, they get sent on course to the sun as we put more and more satellites into the air, does it become a problem for launching rockets or so if I was organising the kind of whole space flight according to its challenges, this would be a top five challenge that you're mentioning.
It may be even a top two or three challenge. So so basically the issue is these particles, especially North or but most spacecraft that we have are in low earth orbit. The second most site, this in geostationary or but that's where your, you know, spacecraft are attached to both weather observations. But also, you know, the TV satellites, you know, the antenna on the roof points towards geostationary orbit. That's why I can point one place.
It doesn't have to move at low earth orbit. You know, there's a lot of spacecraft, thousands of spacecraft that are operating and and tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of debris. So what happens is, depending on where you are and how height that debris stays there for decades. And so basically what actually is one of the biggest challenges we have is as we launch into that space because of our history, but also because of new things, that debris is frankly becoming a real challenge.
And I just imagine the speed by which these spacecraft move are kilometers per second. That's also the speed by which the debris moves. So what we have is we have an observation program both by the Department of Defense, but also other places, international places with telescopes, and we try to catalogue all the debris. So on an average month, we have one sometimes multiple almost hit. So sometimes we have to fly a spacecraft away. You know, I have tens of spacecraft that are they are operating.
We have to move it away to make sure the debris can pass. Those are fine, the ones that really worry me are the ones that we don't see, like if you if you took a sugar cube worth of metal and you shot at, you know, at at 10 kilometers per second, you shot it against the spacecraft. If it hits it at the right place, that spacecraft is over. Right. So so we if it's tiny, you know, it may take a solar cell out.
If it's you know, you see the size really matters. So so we have a problem as an international community that especially low earth orbit is clogged with debris. And it's really one of those things, I think in the next 10 years we have to solve it. We have to, in fact, clean that garbage. And also what's important, you know, the rule number one in digging holes is stop digging. Right. So so kind of.
So we have to make sure that everything we launch, we eat or fly out or we create such a short timeline that within years it's gone. Right. So it's out of the space, you know, the upper atmosphere. And I've had that drag force and it falls onto the earth like a meteor or an artificial meteorite that disappears. So that's that's really critical problem.
You mentioned that was one of the top maybe five challenges. What would be other contenders for the top challenges?
Well, I do believe that that one of the things we really want to be careful about is to keep space peaceful. And I think that's something we've been watching with trepidation. We've signed treaties both in the US and otherwise, you know, and we see that has been discussed. We see some countries, nation states that are out there that are, you know, really putting in question whether they're serious about the peaceful utilization of space. And it is it is really worrisome because, of course, you know, it is you know, they can use space like other countries use that can put telescopes to observe whoever they want to their own people or other people.
Right. That they can do that, but they can by law. All right. But they cannot, for example, weaponize space. So so so for me, if you ask me kind of my kind of in low earth orbit, what is my biggest worry right now? It is state that we take the common good of space that we you know, over decades. We use that way, you know, in a noninterference basis with international community that we take that and move it into a place where this becomes the domain of war almost or a domain of potential war.
And that, you know, I mean and frankly, we're moving at a larger speed than we would like in that direction, unfortunately. And it's not, you know, because we want that. But, you know, of course, we observe what what is happening.
Do you think that's inevitable, that it becomes another frontier for, say, war, for example?
God, I hope not. Right. I mean, that we've seen in in history, we've seen cycles in which we know armed ourselves to the teeth. And we said, this is insane. Let's let's step back and let's get rid of all these nukes. You know, and we have done that with people at times. You know, we were in a Cold War with, you know, and so for me, my hope is we get to a place in which we kind of really say, look, we're going to create lines and we're going to accept those lines.
You know, the fact that people say, oh, we're going to do this and that, you know, that's one thing that's the important thing is that we you know, if you look at the Cold War, we went and checked each other. Right. And made sure that we followed the rules. So so so for me, I think, you know, there's a fork in the road and the next decade or so and in which we do die.
Needless to say, the United States put a space force together, in part because of that challenge is that space deserves a lot of attention and we can still use space as a domain from which to support kind of the U.S. or our allies and so forth without crossing that line. But I worry really is that I mean, that discussion is one of the discussions in the next decade that's really serious.
Other other things that come to mind is like big challenges over the next decade.
Well, I mean, I think the the big challenge now in this case, I don't know whether it's a challenge or an opportunity. I mean, I think we're at the verge of really opening space for four commoner's. Right. Kind of for my family. Your family. Right. Kind of to do a trip to space and kind of utilize it both as a commercial entity by imaging earth, for example, and selling those images, those data, that information, or also as a tourist destination and so forth.
And so for me, we can do that. Right. That creates a very different dynamic and this whole thing. Right. And so for me, you know. That's also decided, I would argue, in the next 10 years, right? It's got of I mean, frankly, it's incredible what has happened in the last 20 years. The question is, where are we in the next 20 years? It's tough for me. For me, it just I mean, that's another big question.
And, you know, if we're if that is failing right. To get off, that space is solely the domain of of governments. Right out of the question. We just had about one of my worries. Right. It's a totally different discussion than when others are there also. Right. Then which we basically say, hey, look, this is, you know, just like we do a trip to Paris, let's do our anniversary trip to space.
Right. I mean, and you say, well, that's crazy. No, it is not. That is precisely what five companies are working on right now. And for all I see, they're successful. I mean, it's looking really promising. It's moving into the domain of entrepreneurship. So in other words, it's no longer a technology. The question is just the business model close. So, so. So that's what that one is.
How is space governed by can can I just start a company and, like, shoot stuff into space so each, you know, space a you know, the United Nations Office for Outer Space got office, you know, with its signatories of the code of of the relevant, you know, acts that that came internationally. You know, for example, it says, we will use space as a common good. We will not weaponize it. We will we will be not act on a noninterference basis.
So those things are kind of the international the international framework, then the national framework. Each country is now responsible for access to space. So, for example, if we wanted to launch and, you know, you're in Canada, you would work with your you know, your country on how, in fact, you know, the access to space. Are you, for example, compliant with the orbital debris guidelines? Right. Are you compliant with our frequency interference stuff?
You know, that way, how are you going to communicate? Those checks are done by your nation state and then you can launch based on that. So so it's really that's both national and international community that works together on those things. We know, of course, whenever there's a launch somewhere. So it's not like you can't hide if there's a launch window, it's almost you know, I mean, everybody knows whether it's a launch. That's why we actually tell everybody there is a launch.
There may be you know, we're look, we may be launching or I'll just call it the Russians may be launching a top secret asset, but they're saying we're launching they're just not talking about the payload, but they're just telling you that they're launching and they'll give you the trajectory and everything, I would imagine.
So that's how it's wrong. It's regulated. Yeah.
How does how does that work in the future in the sense of we'll see more and more private corporations innovating in space. And I want to come to SpaceX later specifically. But how does that regulatory body work? I mean, ultimately, you'll be able to there'll be countries with less regulation and more regulation and you could locate your business in any of those countries.
I do believe, you know, back to my top five. This is one of those also, you know, I saw this. The speed of innovation is the relevant speed on this one. Right. And the speed of regulation, like so many places, it's just not matching the speed of innovation. Right. And so so it's because of that that I worry, right. It is because of that that that, you know, you believe I mean, it needs to be.
It needs to be. It can't be. A leaky bucket, right? Can't be that kind of certain countries just pollute the space by whatever means, right? Whether it's the frequency communication piece or whether it's the orbital debris piece or whether it's how they're setting their orbits. They need to be part of a common kind of community that actually enforces those standards and holds them. And I think that kind of commercial that, by the way, the commercialization of this, is that a great story?
So for me, especially from the U.S. perspective, that is the goal, right? Our goal is not that in 50 years the government does the same stuff that we did 50 years ago. That's crazy, especially when it's a research entity like NASA. We want to kind of attack the next frontier. We want to we want to go beyond what's possible today, kind of increase the box of what's possible, you know, you know, and then let the commercial entities deal with that.
So for me, that's what I call a good problem, but it's a problem nonetheless.
So is something like Sterling, did they just need U.S. approval or do they need to go around the entire world and get everybody's approval to launch those into space? Like, how does that work?
It was a US approval. So the the data relevant to US entities both focused on launch, on the frequency, you know, all this stuff was approved and in the process that is agreed upon in the United States. So they they went up there, of course. What happened, you know, as you know, the element of surprise is always there when when you're working with innovation, you know, so there were a lot more bright. And, you know, everybody looked at there like I imagined myself and Switzerland on top of that.
On top of that roof, I would see Starlink right, I mean, it's like that you can't miss that. And and that that raises questions that are beyond the regulatory right. It's going to a right to a dark sky. Right. So it's questions like that, especially as a as an astrophysicist, like how does that affect the future observation? I just want to tell you, SpaceX and the Starlink dame, I've been nothing but collaborative that went and face the astrophysics community that are actively darkening their bodies.
Right. And if their spacecraft frankly, most people didn't want to do this. Right. That's not that don't like I don't care. Right. They it it's really hard to do some of these calculations the right way. And frankly, sometimes you don't know what the question is you're supposed to ask. Right. I mean, who would have guessed that that's going to be the big discussion and Starlink right. Of course, having Internet everywhere is a great equalizer.
I mean, I worked on this when I was a university professor with my I mean, I work with Google on this problem. Right. And they do diligence of a company. I can offer investments with them. And so for me, that's a good thing. And SpaceX is really pushing the envelope. But, yes, this is an important part.
Well, let's come to SpaceX a little bit later. I want to one of the coolest things I think you're working on is a Mars sample return, which would be humanity's first round trip ever to another planet. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Yeah, I'm so excited about it. So, first of all, in this summer, we did launch a mission called Mars 2020 Perseverance. And it's basically a sampler. That was in July, right? It was in July, yes. And July the 30th of July. I remember it exactly how it took off. And it was incredible. It was named by a schoolboy is called Perseverance. And it's like the best name ever, especially for the time we're in today.
And it's on the way to Mars. It's beyond halfway to Mars, and it's going to land in February 21. It's going to land on Mars. And then it will has one task and it really has to prioritize on and that is to collect samples, identify and collect samples. So we're going to land into a crater, a former crater that that was a lake, used to be a lake, we know from our remote observation. So we're going to collect samples kind of in places where on earth we would go find fossils.
Right. So that's where you would go. And so basically that that we're going to collect those samples and twenty six or twenty seven, our next two spacecraft will take off one in twenty six, one in twenty seven. We think today the first one will go up there and it, it will, its job is to fly to Mars. And you saying, you know, a propulsion method in propulsion, electric propulsion, moving into Mars and waiting.
So it's kind of the carrier ship. So it's there with Camron. Com and the other one comes and it puts a rocket down on the surface of Mars. It's it's the it's a total functional rocket. It lands a rocket. Then a rover that we have. We'll go and drop off drop off samples, by the way, just because we don't know whether that was for work. We have a sample fetch rover that actually is done by Canada.
And it may actually turn out to be the most important part of that entire piece kind of to go pick up kind of deposits of the sample and a flasks that we have super clean things that put him on the spacecraft at that launch vehicle, go up and then drop kind of an orbiting sample satellite, put it there. Remember the thing that's in orbit and waiting? It's going to put it up. You know that Austin Powers movie. It's that, right?
Kind of just to scoop up that kind of e Iraq. Right. That's out there kind of with the with the sample and then come back to Earth and drop it onto the Earth. So I will be the first round trip. It's international and science driven, just like we should do those kind of big leaps.
Do you think we'll ever live on Mars? I believe so. I don't think it's me or it may be the generation of my children about, but it's not my generation. I think we will go to Mars with humans in my lifetime for sure. I think we can colonize it. I think over or at a time scale of multiple generations, I think it's very much possible that we could stay there for a long time. It's not clear how. Right.
We don't know enough and it has everything to do with the resources that are there. And so for me, the question is, is the way we're going to live there like we live in the Antarctic research station. Right. There are people living there, but it's kind of a tough life, right? It's a middle of, you know, airplanes come and drop them off. They stay there for the summer, you know, and then that means the southern summer and then they take off.
There's kind of the only people who are there are just, you know, that go through winter are very healthy individuals who, you know, just keep the thing afloat so it doesn't you know, it's still ready for the next summer. So that's one version of laughing right at that. And then the other version of laughing is like, I like to be half here on Earth. Right. Go to an island and build houses and live there with our families and on the whole spectrum.
Right. I don't know where we're going to end up. You know, if I had the hypothesis right now and I know many people, I mean, depending on who you are, some people think there's thousands of people or their life on Mars. That's like that may very well be. So that's more on the island side of things, you know? You know, instead of Hawaii, an island in Hawaii, you know, go to Mars, find resources, do that, perhaps even terraform Mars.
That's what people talk about. Make it a different planet so we can live there. One good way of counting is just number of of miracles you need. Right. This is a 10 20 miracle type of scenario. The other one got off. The Antarctic research station is maybe only a five miracle thing. So so it kind of the path to that certainly goes through the Antarctic research station. Right. I just I mean, first we need to do that.
That's what I'm focused on. And, you know, I understand Elon Musk and many others are talking about that other world. I don't think so. I mean, again, I don't know. Never underestimate the power of innovation that it's kind of that's really important. Right. But what I want to do is just break down these kind of take the first few miracles down right there because it's good for all of humanity. Just take them down, put them in the pocket of from the miracle bucket into the pocket of that's possible now.
So that's what I'm going to do.
I'm curious as to like what we'll find on Mars when we find materials that are I mean, obviously exceedingly rare, but maybe they're useful, in which case does Mars become almost a mining colony? And then we have another race to see who can get there first and who can extract these, because we're eventually going to run out of these rare earth materials. And if we find substitutes on other planets, how do you see that playing out? Or am I just way too far in sci fi right now?
No, I think this is our lifetime kind of issue. The mining colony. I'll give you, I think about what you said about Mars, entirely appropriate kind of resources relate to living. They are living off the land, but it also is creating business models that are going to make it viable. It's feasible and viability. Right. Both both matter. I want to talk to you about another celestial body, just to amplify your point. It's called psyche.
It's like psyche, like the psyche. And me, you know why it's so it's an asteroid. We think it's a failed a failed planet. So it's a planet that has a poor that, you know, a metal core and kind of enormous like Brashers, if it's true. Right. Kind of the side. We know the size. We know its orbit. We're building a mission. We're going to launch in twenty two to go to go there and go, go orbit it and learn about it.
But assume this is really a fail car. That body has more value than any other body we currently know because frankly we cannot get that from the earth. Get to digging a hole into the earth to where we need to go is actually harder than just going out there and collecting that. And so for me, I think the kind of mining world that the mining approach to the world is in space is inevitable. It's something that will matter for both purposes, again, to survive, but also to to, you know, to to build new new commercial entities.
And that's why it's so important that be regulated up front in a way that actually protects those environments. I mean, for me, I mean, I think Mars is beautiful in its own right. Look at these images. It's incredible. We don't want to destroy it. Right. Then we know how to. We've learned a lot on Earth how to do that. Right. Then we should include those lessons there and not going to get into down the road so far that we say, oops, you know, we're back to where we were are on earth and which we have an environment.
So so again, deregulation and innovation speech need to adjust. Right.
Most people live in cities so they don't get to look up and sort of see all these thousands of stars. I remember the first time I ever went to Columbia and I was in the middle of a rainforest and I looked up and there was like thousands and thousands of stars. And it was just the most incredible experience. And then you see the Hubble and you see these low, low orbiting satellites. And it was kind of it was really interesting and startling to see the sky with such clarity when we think of an asteroid and landing on the asteroid and like extracting materials.
Do you think of that as we're landing on it, we're going to extract it and bring it back? Or do you think of it as we're going to redirect the asteroid back to Earth and. Bring the whole thing back somehow. It depends on the size of the asteroid, right, kind of the energy that it takes to redirect us depending on the size and the orbit that ISIS is almost infinity right now relative to what we have. If you look that psyche.
It will be the former model, like landing and extracting and bringing back. And, of course, that that puts into the value chain everything from launch to extraction to, you know, to the whole risk you have to offset from the uncertainty and all the way down to, you know, the investors wanting to make money from it. So it's a it's a really tough business model. You could do an experiment right now and basically say, suppose I took one of those big rockets, you know, take, you know, the biggest rocket we have and expose by whatever miracle, I go to that asteroid and I feel I mean, I can go there, I pay for the rocket and forget the physics.
I just go there and I fill the whole thing full of gold and I bring it back and I land. Do I make or lose money, you know? And then the answer is we're starting to make money because launch is so much cheaper now than it was, you know, that just in part because of that commercial force. But it's not by enough yet. Right. So kind of so kind of you want to you want to make sure that your rare earth metals, by the way, are actually worth more, you know, gold.
Right. Kind of. And in many of these, you know, applications that really depend on them. And and so we want to do that. Right. So we need to learn more. Right. It's kind of we're just scratching that surface, but that's where we're going.
I think you manage one of the largest budgets in the world, let alone science budgets. I think you're seven a billion dollars a year. I mean, that tops most S&P. Five hundred companies, most Dow companies. You're you're allocating more money into science than probably anybody in the world. I'm curious as to what's the hardest part of that job and why.
I think the hardest part of research is always to find that edge. Right. So kind of, you know, kind of if you really look at the best research, you know, I think of it like I'm a mountain guy. I think of it as like walking in the mountains on that ridge on the one side. Is the irrelevant before already proven that it's easy to do research there, it's safe, you know, you get tenure and every professor is fine doing it kind of twiddling around and you can make a lot of money there.
The other side is the impossible. Like and if there is any kind of research, questions don't only need. Frankly, the right question at the right time for that question and the hardest part is, is to build programs that are programs that have that. Push that edge at the maximum speed viable that requires that you learn how to fail, you're going to every once in a while, drop down this way and drop down that way into, you know, what you really have to do, especially the ones that failed because they went to Worli, that you want to protect them.
You want to protect your innovators. Right. Get off. Because because that's important. So for me, the hardest part is really to set the program at the right speed of innovation and allow for experimentation, for iteration, as opposed to kind of being that colossal kind of that kind of slow organization that just wants to make everything safe, which, of course, we want to be safe. Right. That has to live in our brain, too, because when we make an investment of three billion dollars like that, March 20, 20 perseverence, right.
We're right. If we make that investment, we want to do what we can. Right. But know to do that. So that's the hardest part, I would argue.
I'm curious internally as to how you balance that and how you think about, OK, well, we're investing three billion and we need to eventually ship this. But on the same token, the money at stake and in in a public way to it's not even a private company losing three billion. It's the public that would be losing. How do you think about those decisions and how do you make them?
So first of all, you recognize that the launch is irreversible decision of the moment. I say go, it's done. You don't get it back. It is over. Right. So it's irreversible. So so basically, when you ever you make a decision like that and many people do that in the business world to. Right. Kind of these kind of One-Way doors, I think as others call, I've got a you you only go through it once.
The way you do it. I believe it's as you recognize that you want to make the decision well-informed. And with all the scrutiny up front, so is all the way I make that decision is first of all, I don't make it alone. I put in the room the people, the best people that I know kind of from the engineers, but also the policy people. And, you know, and I actually have people who are don't report to each other like I have an engineer organization, just the way we build NASA over decades, that we have an engineer organization that talks about just engineering without any outer encumbrances.
Right. That the question just ask, will it work? What's the likelihood for it to work? There's one that talks about safety just that way. Is it going to be safe? And no other. No other, if that's if that's their focus. And so you basically, the way you make the decision is you you bring together that, of course, you work. You'd recognize, by the way, the most important thing is to empower the team.
And I mean, frankly, I'm not the most important guy in this. I'm just making the decision to live with it, you know, and I'm the guy in the congressional hearing. Right. If something goes wrong. So everybody knows that. Right. So I will make the decision that it's one it's not a vote. It's one decision by one signature. The only signature that matters there for most of these missions is mine. Right. Because I take the accountability.
Right. But I will be a fool to not listen to the orders. So for me, you you really got to know with big decisions. I actually spent a lot of time meeting the teams. I want to the I build space hardware. I can sense how good a I listen to the team, I listen to the things that are not sad. I listen do I basically figure out whether they're scrutinizing each other, whether we have a lead that squashes opposition?
You know, those are all warning signs you want to see whether I look at mistakes. People are making art, by the way, I don't care if they make a mistake, but are already making stupid mistakes. And over and over again, are they disciplined? Right. So so all that stuff kind of it's it's two years of work that come together to that decision. When I said, yes, relaunch, where are you?
And you make that decision. Are you in a room with other people? Are you alone or are you walking or are you running? What are you doing when you actually make that call?
In many cases, I'm in a room with other people, but if I'm not sure, I will take a break. And I think, well, when I run, I think while in the shower in the morning. So, I mean, there are kind of points of clarity. If I'm not sure, I will never push into a decision. I mean, I the way I always go, always I go backwards. I suppose I'm sitting in the congressional hearing and I just blew up X and Y.
Can I explain how I made the decision in a way that it made sense? Their space is hard. And by the way, every once in a while we will fail. And I remind everybody of that. If you want to not fail, you're in that safe space over here. That's irrelevant. That's not how I got to where it is. It's not because people played it safe. It's because we do take risks. We do leave the launch pad, even though we know it's dangerous, you know, with one point five to three percent likelihood, it will not make it out of out of the Earth's gravity, statistically speaking.
So so we take that risk. Right. So just that itself, I will never but one of the things I really believe in is don't don't get pushed. I if I'm not sure, I don't mind being the only guy who is not comfortable, you know, and I will I will back off. I basically said, thanks, we're stopping the meeting. I appreciate that. If anybody has anything that does not being said, I will not make a decision for twenty four hours, send it to me by email and I will go back.
And if I, if I find that there's more information I can gain that really is relevant, I'll do that. If I find, you know, like you get into a place where more information actually doesn't help you because it adds ambiguity to the team. I make the decision right on the spot because frankly, I'm I'm ready for it because I did the work. So it's not because I came in unprepared. I did the work for years in advance.
I know. Going to have all these data points and I've discussed them with my my group of diverse leaders who look at them from different perspectives.
Is there examples where you've made that call and it's turned out to be wrong, but you've got a good outcome?
Yeah, so so I'll talk about two decisions. The first one, as I was one of the first decisions I made as a billion dollar assets, it's the our mission. I was in orbit or is in orbit around Jupiter. And so we were in an orbit of fifty day orbit and we wanted to drop the fire the engine and drop it down to our fifteen day orbit. What that does and I may have to date slightly wrong, but you get the point.
I want it to look at over one hundred missions. So sometimes I mix up. I did not want to think we're going to talk about this, but but anyway, I wanted to kind of increase the frequency of encounters by a factor of three. That's what I wanted to do. The question was, do we want to do that? So the entire team look at them from their point of view, they're frankly perfectly fine in a slow war.
But they say we need 20 flybys. It cost the taxpayer 50 more million dollars to just stay where you are the principal investigator. Everybody's like, let's just leave it where we are. That's a risk. We want the minimum risk. And I'm like, well, what's the opportunity cost? You're spending 50 more million dollars to do the science. And so what I had to do is untangle that kind of natural inclination, which I understand because I was in Israel before from the actual technical question, is it is it is it important?
So in that room, there were very few people who wanted to fire the engine. But I took the decision to fire the engine and then we prepared for it. And as we prepared for it, all of a sudden we realized that the engine had a problem, it had a leak, and it was something was wrong with it. And and frankly, what we needed to do is basically look at it as we prepared for this. But what I believe is the exact right decision, we actually realized that that we couldn't do because now we would have to fire the engine.
So I made a second decision. We would have to fire the engine in a state that it had never been tested. Now I have a billion dollar asset that's basically working and I need to take a risk. Is it worth that risk? So so actually, the second decision I had to reverse that, the first decision to fire, I actually decided not to fire because of the because of that kind of enhanced and unknown risk. We thought the Ganeshan people said we could probably do that.
We just have never done it. And that has never been a burn that long in that configuration in any test environment. OK, that's crazy, right? You don't I mean, of course, I'm boiling it down to the quintessential 30 seconds of the meeting, right? Once you learn, I just like you don't fire. So ultimately, we ended up not firing because we did the scrutiny in the first and the second decision. We set ourselves up in a way that actually made the science way better, because we actually we actually had I had asked them to bring, you know, yes, there's opportunity cost, but tell me what you can do, extra science that you were unable to do.
So we actually moved it up. So so by failing in my first decision, we enhanced the mission significantly.
I appreciate you sharing the details of that. You said there was two decisions that you recalled. What was the other one?
So the first one was, let's fire, even though everybody opposed it. The second was let's not fire, because even though some of the technical people said we could do it, but we put enough scrutiny together, that basically basically, again, I was wrong on the first decision. I kind of you could say, well, you know, I'm sure somebody said like, well, you could have just not fired. And we're exactly where we are.
Like, No, that's exactly the right scrutiny. Because in a congressional hearing, I could actually now explain to you how I cautious I cautiously spent that extra fifty million dollars. It's not because I just I'm not handling the pressure. Well, we actually learn something that really matters. Learning is an important part of innovation.
How do you disseminate what you learn within the organization? Like how do you share that knowledge? That's not a really good question, and I struggle with it and basically what happens to me on a given day, I make multiple decisions. Right. And and for me, what I've started to do is sit down and talk people through the discussion. It's almost like, see what I'm seeing? This is what, you know, and really create that recur in the organization and then kind of show where how did the session pass goes.
Right. I asking questions out loud and talking through with and and so that's what I'm sharing in the leadership team. I worry sometimes just because Nassar is so hierarchical, Reichental, because of the fact that only one signature matters in my schedule is always subscribed by a factor of 10 every every week. Right. So so I say no, a lot more than yes relative to my time. That's my most impressionable, most important. Good. Right. So so for me, the question I'm asking, I'm I'm spending enough time to actually disseminate things into the organizations because I'm you know, it will be helpful for them to actually know this is the scrutiny we're putting on it.
I try to do it and I ask people to do it. But I just want to tell you, it's a question on my mind that I'm currently thinking about. You know, I just I'm not. And that reason I'm saying that's like I see some of the same mistakes over and over again. It's like, no, no, I don't want like for me what I really hate. If you really want to take me off, come show up and tell me everything is low risk.
That makes me believe you haven't understood your job, right? Don't make me laugh, don't make me feel good, make me feel scared, and then make me feel comfortable because you're dealing with all the risks. Don't come and say it's all wrong or risk it. It's not low risk. It's rocket science. And so for me, it's like, you know, and at the beginning, everybody came with us because, you know, you know, these organizations have their histories, their leaders, you know, like some leaders don't sleep well if they have problems, you know, so they have pain aversion.
It's a big leadership weakness, you know, to not be able to carry worries with them, you know, and those worries pulling them down. So, you know that the whole organization behaves in a way that they never bring a worry to you. You still have them, but you don't know him. Right. So you get surprised, you know, and and I'm like, no, no, no. I want I need you to be worried more than me.
Then I'm feeling comfortable. I don't want you to be calm. I need you to be worried. That's what I want.
What it sounds like you're really looking for, if I'm paraphrasing correctly here, is you're wanting to know that they've thought about it in a level of detail that's appropriate and accounted for those. And if if they're coming to you and saying, you know, I don't really have any concerns, then it begs to it sort of makes you question whether they've thought about it enough and deeply. And that's a red flag for you that you need to, like, dive in and evaluate.
Exactly right. So I look at those red flags and I look really I listen really carefully to what's not being talked about. I listen really carefully. I have done that. So so I go into a meeting. I actually have a chart. I'm not sharing with people, generally speaking, but I'm not Charter's technical Stachel cost team thing, you know, like key topics. And I listen carefully. Are you talking about technical, but are there things that you're dealing with we just talked about that.
Are you worrying about it? Are you moving that forward? And, you know, what are you what are your top worries? I want to know what they are. Then I want to know about your team. I want to know, what do you talk about your team, how is your team doing under pressure as they are? Are they making mistakes? Are there almost mistakes you can't like you know, like how are you making sure your team is cohesive, motivated, excited?
You know, that the relevant unit of innovation as a team, it's not an individual. Right. So for me, I want to hear you talk about the team. I want to hear you talk about cost. You've thought about that. You flink those things together. I want to hear you talk about schedules so often for planetary missions, schedule is the most important variable because the planets need to be in the right place in the sky. So I can take longer.
I can only either go this year or two years from now to Mars, for example. Right. So because just marched us in line up with the Earth the right way so I can go there. So for me, I listen carefully for the white spaces on my chart or in my mental image of the entire collection of the mission. What are you not talking about? And that's where I'm going to go. Right. So I sit there, I prepare, I look at every chart deck, every information I had.
Frankly, I blocked my schedule to do that in a very aggressive fashion. I take I take a lot of preparation time and I come in and now I listen really carefully and I tick off the jar. Are you talking about this? Are you really comprehensively doing that? And I may take one of those things and I drive like five question, then do that. And, you know, I want to see what you can go, go, go, go, go.
Until you're finally, you know, and there's some people I've never missed. I've never got to the end. There's some people to question stap I got them right. And it's like, OK, there are two question kind of person. You know, there's, there's the other one that I've never found the end. After six questions, he's still going right. It's like, like, you know, I'm and I'm like, OK, don't worry about him, you know.
Or her, by the way, you know that same is true with with our managers. The same is true with our money people. Now, tell me how, you know, I go after and again, I want to know what you are not focusing on and, you know, as a team. And so that's that's where I'm so again, be dishonest. Red flag No. One or kind of over over exaggerate your your comfort. And the second one is blind.
Like you're not seeing that part of your trade space kind of overfocusing, I would argue is my biggest challenge. So everybody focuses on schedule, schedule, schedule, schedule, schedule. And it took me a long time and I could tell you a story about the James Webb telescope. It's that story I knew when I joined the job a month and where the problem's going to be.
Tell me that story. Well, James Brown telescopes telescope. For twenty years we've been working on it. It's it's one of the most difficult stories that we have. And I saw the international community and it upheld an instrument on that. So that Europeans. Right. That's basically a ten billion dollar investment. It's a it's the most complex mission ever done. It's basically a telescope, six and a half metre. They're protected by five tennis court sizes, kind of some protection shields.
It's really hard. The hardest thing to do is the telescope and the instruments. When I came in, that was an integration and test and everybody focused on that. Well, there are two more swim lanes, one of them is the software operations space. And the second one is the spacecraft bus, the spacecraft passage, you, the power communication, it goes behind the telescope and just attach it. And it's also that, you know, Sun Shield deployment.
OK, so when I came in, kind of, you know, like like a good amba, you know, you look at it, the critical path goes through the telescope and all these other things are off the critical path by month's. And I'm like, OK. I listened for a couple of weeks to the updates and I said, you're never talking about the bus and I ask you about the schedule performance on the bus. You know, and I'm I'm learning, right, I feel very in inadequate right there, all much better than me, which is I feel like you have to get used to in my job.
You know, I'm not the smartest guy in the room by a long shot many times, but I'm there listening. Right. It's like, well, tell me about the bus. And I look at the schedule performance and their losing schedule. And you basically take that scheduled before, and it's like, oh, we're doing fine, we're doing fine. You know, I never so far off the critical path. I go talk to the director. He does the same kind of evasive maneuver.
And I did not know yet how to do that.
It's one of those things I learned in the last five years. I knew after a month this is going to be my problem, but I didn't know it's one of the biggest lessons of my life. During that time, as well as the year before, this team also had such challenges that it was making mistakes that cost the taxpayer of the United States eight hundred million dollars, that the mistakes themselves cost six hundred million dollars because of lack of focus, because of lack of cohesion in the team, stupid mistakes of the type that, frankly, I would have kicked out undergrads out of my university lab if they made, for example, they did not tighten bolts the right way.
It's like, how can you have a 10 million, a ten billion dollar asset and not tighten bolts in a way that the faster catches? Of course, it's a long story that tried to solve another problem, you know, and I'm one hundred percent sure that there was a technician who, by the way, thousands of those bolts, there's a technician up there who stimming. It's like these things are now catching. Is that the right thing to do, and I'm sure that was being said, because it always is said the technician knows well, but the team was broken enough that in that state that that information did not lead to action.
We went to accoustic, testable, start flying off. It's one of the most embarrassing things. They the engines that are there, 12 engines were flushed out with the wrong chemical. Instead of actually checking the person who flushes it out, they tried to clean it. That's exactly what they should do. They need to use the right chemical instead of checking with the supplier. A small company in upstate New York who did nothing wrong. Instead of checking with them, they flashed with the wrong chemical.
Now the problem is they didn't talk to anybody about it. So the engine's got added, the engines got added to the bus. Now, I have 12 of those engines to that that I now have to cut out. I have to replenish the kind of valves that are kind of seals that were etched away by the wrong solvent. And all that happened aside, nobody is focusing on it. And so for me, Overfocus identity is that we're focusing on this because it's on the critical path at such a horrible mistake that people are making, you know?
I mean, and I was like, you know, don't look at a chart like an MBA, and I know you have an MBA. So no offense to MBAs. We need to be Laffan, but kind of look at them as a leader. Right. And of course, they shouldn't be that shouldn't be in contradiction. But just go with the with the kind of don't look at the chart and say I'm fine because my critical path moves. And that's what I learned in some book is OK, everything off the critical path is what you're going to lose sleep over one year from now if you're not watching it.
And it's not that you're divert attention from the critical path, but you also need to focus off the critical path and pattern match. Go figure out get to know about this team. I only focused on that a year later. I basically asked I basically gave up off their soccer, off the red flag version of space. You you ask for an independent review team. I basically put the flag down and says I lost trust. I did an independent review team that basically came back and says we need a ton more million dollars to fix those mistakes and bring it together.
And and we had a horrible time on the Capitol Hill kind of explaining that I disappointed science community that we did. And it and it was because of my mistake as a leader, not following my gut. I have in my notebooks that I had a mistake packed. I just did not know how to how to get after it. In the meantime, of course, I stay connected with all parts of it. Right. Kind of find that, frankly, I have the best team I've ever had.
And as we're as we're getting ready for the launch next year, right now, we're going to do so because the team got a chance to actually fix itself. But I could have given that that chance a year and a half years earlier.
Talk to me about that. That's sort of the team fixing itself and go into detail about how you change the how you rebuild the confidence, how you change the trust level, how you go forward with that, because I'm assuming the answer is not more bureaucracy.
That's exactly right. So so for me, remember, I'm the guy who sits in Washington. Right. I am not going to solve this problem. But what my job is. To create the environment in which the problem is solved and to hold the leaders accountable for solving it. So what is absolutely critical is all the relevant leaders, all the way to the CEO of the company, agree on what the key priorities are. For example, the first priority is mission success.
Yes, we want to launch as soon as possible. The first priority is mission success. We will not rush and make stupid mistakes because every one of these mistakes in that environment costs us hundreds of millions of dollars. So saving a day and having six months to fix a mistake is just a bad thing. So it's it's really aligning that getting together. Also recognizing is there needs to be a stride. We find there's the right speed at doing something.
So in other words, if you you know, like it's like biking, you teach your kid biking. It's like, you know, they're set the right speed of doing it. You can't do it any slower. It's not safer to go slower. You need to find kind of the speed of attention to speed, of learning the speed of find that right to be kind of allowed the team to get there. But they insist on the right mechanisms being in place.
For example, what was really important, you know, I mean, one of the reasons our air borne travel is so safe is because of the mechanisms that were put in place. Any pilot can say, we almost made a mistake for me that almost made a mistake. Mechanism is so important for big projects. Talk about the almost mistakes because they surely will be mistakes if you don't fix them. What can we learn from almost mistakes? Also talk about the mistakes.
And so for me the question was how do we do that? I actually met up with the leaders, met with the team to say, we got your back. We know we need to get better. I frankly, I we had a team I basically replaced in my in my reporting structure, everybody. And the simple reason for that is I wanted to basically create a before and after. I wanted to make sure that the after is one that we are together and we are one we are locking arms.
And frankly I upstair I do that often in reviews. I push against one person and see what the other one comes to rescue them. I want to know, like do not let them sink. I mean frankly I put more atch against one person. Sometimes I apologize at the end. Sometimes it's exactly the appropriate thing to do. But I want to see what that partner helps right of our day. Helping each other not against me, but together as a team to to come to that is for me.
Also staying in touch was important for I mean, I cannot stay in touch with all missions. In most cases I delegate small missions. I delegate. I don't I don't need to be in touch for the highest missions. I meet with them. I meet with the leadership team. I'm the leader on speed dial. I know problems before it comes to me because we're transparent about it. So that's what that's what I do. So it's really, again, replaced a creator before and after.
If you're in that much trouble, replace that, but then really recognize you're not going to solve the problem, create the environment for that.
I really appreciate that answer and the detail you gave there. I'm curious as to how the variance and presidential leadership affects your ability to build consistent programs.
It's actually a really interesting question. And kind of I just want to tell you, of all agencies and United States, NASA is perhaps the one that's the least partisan.
So so basically, it's kind of interesting that if you look, I came in under the Obama administration, I worked in the Trump administration. And if you really looked at the priorities that did not, for example, in the science program, substantially change. Right. We are, of course, part of a human exploration campaign to the moon and then to Mars, of which science is part. But if you look at take out the Mars sample return kind of the mission, the mission, they are there.
And the reason for that is that actually the person who is in charge of collecting, kind of choosing the highest priority signs is actually not me. And I'm really glad for that. The process that we have built in the United States and other countries have different processes, but it's we use our national academies, the thought leaders in that domains, to say what is the most urgent question that we should address right now, not what.
So what's the best, most important question, but what's the most urgent question? And that sets the priority. So so I actually don't go argue with them. Should we go to Europe? You know, the moon there? Should we go to Mars? Should we go to Uranus? We haven't been there in a while. I asked the science leaders with that collective, diverse kind of community to come up with that prioritization in a decadal plan every ten years we got that plan.
And so I follow that and. That has created stability, basically, both parties agree that that's the way to organize and then the question really is what's the money available? That that is that's the political side, right. Of how does it how does it go up and down? And, you know, of course, there's other priorities in the world. Then the science program.
I understand that it sounds like that would be an almost. Is there an equivalent for for doctors and medicine? Because it sounds like that would almost be an ideal approach to directing some of that funding as well from a government perspective, not from a private sector perspective.
If there are some elements of kind of NIH research that have a similar National Institute of Health Research that have similar type of prioritization scheme, I would argue that especially with NASA and the space research, we have a better and better kind of consensus building process that many of the other disciplines and it has really served us because it creates a constancy of purpose. So it's not so much like I know if somebody comes in and says, hey, look, we want to focus on our science, what are the next missions?
They are not questions I buchel. Let me start thinking about this. I already know what they are because for the last decade, frankly, I've built that strategy and we're working on it, which is the only lever here is speed. Right. So so how fast are we doing that? Because we know that Earth is a connected system. We need to focus on it. Right. And we know about global change. Now, the question is, how do we bring that data to to the community so it helps them thrive on this changing planet?
We already know that. Right. So the question is, how are we going? So for me, that is really a useful tool.
Two decades ago, the idea of Space X and its ambitions were sort of laughed at by the space community writ large. How do we ensure the biases of today are not slowing or blocking the ambitious goals of private sector? It is true that I remember I wrote an editorial something like 20 years ago or so in which I basically made a single point then that said, hey, the top talent right now works at SpaceX. And if they have enough runway financial runway, that will be successful because they have the top talent right now.
And I remember how much I got attacked over that, I was a university professor and frankly, the way I got to that assertion is by just tracking students, right. Where are the three Sigma performers? Right. And and then I called MIT and I called other universities. They said that the same for them. And I'm like, that's a pattern. Right? And so so, yes. I mean, of course, that time has come and gone right.
SpaceX is a force to be reckoned with. I think Blue Origin, you know, Jeff Bezos, his company is right behind them. There's many Otter's Rocket Labs, a company out of New Zealand, I think is incredible innovation story for small launch systems. And it is true that in the government. Right, that's where I work right now. It's a very difficult time in the following sense. Right. And we need to make sure that we're not putting hurdles into the way.
So it's in the following sense. So what happens is if I walk into a room at any place at night and I basically look at the leaders, a significant fraction of those very good people grew up in one specific environment. Right. And they grow up in a place where, you know, after Apollo in which kind of NASA was the only game in town, together with some contractors that also worked on with other agencies on big systems. But, you know, in a contracting relationship, using a specific set of contracting mechanisms and so forth.
OK, so where we are now is we have that other vehicle, kind of a much more accurate iteration focusing with failures. Right. The first you know, the first two space X Falcon ones blew up. Right. You know, and frankly, you know, Elon tells the story that he was on the final money. Right? The one that worked. It needed to work because it was the end of the company. If it didn't. Right.
That's what he says. I don't I don't know. So the question really is how do we move forward with that? And it kind of of course, of course, the answer needs to be that we actually bring people who speak that other language on the inside of the government to see diversity of thought is a really important criterion of team, whether it's a NASA or any other entity. Right. And and so for me, that's something I focused on.
I've been I've worked in a venture fund of as an adviser. I've kind of invested and in venture things before. Right. I've been on boards of companies and and so, you know, so I'm not the best that I know that I'm not that I know what I don't know, but I know kind of network over there. And so what's really critical to me is that I'm not the best in a room and not so. And if they're not in the room, others are in a room who speak that language.
Now, the good news as we're making progress and we're learning how to go forward. And of course, the proof of that is the crude private vehicles that are operating now that basically there were a lot of papers that said that can never happen. It's impossible. And it's not just because of SpaceX making enormous leaps forward. It's also the government making leaps forward. So I think it's going to be a struggle as we go forward. And it's a struggle that we need to recognize that such and basically make sure that we all do our work in a way to advance that.
It is a strength for us to ask commercial entities. It's not in any way threatening. This is the future. We want that. No question about it. It's for us. The question is, how do we enable that? We mistakes we can make in the government that are really horrible, like if a precede company pitch of sorts for one hundred million dollars, we shouldn't just say yes because it's a perfect company. See the venture capital community, because if it's a Brissy company only invested one million dollars on it.
Why? Because they see a lot of issues that are there on team market faith and so forth. So we need to bring that knowledge to bear to kind of supporting of commercial entities. Doesn't mean that we say yes all the time. It means that we our reaction is appropriate to what these companies are. And we've become customers. We we learn how to utilize these companies without owning them. I do not want to own these companies. I want to be a customer.
And so for me, that's really the goal I'm after.
How is that affected your ability to recruit the best people and your internal culture motivation with the rise of SpaceX and Blue Origin?
I think in general, actually there's more excitement in space because of those partners. And I actually don't believe that that that somehow sucked the energy out of it. You know, the NASA brand remains one of the top brands in the world. And frankly, SpaceX added to that. They didn't subtract to it. And so for me, it has increased it. But what's also important, especially as we go to the leadership level, that we recognize that we need more arrows in the quiver and our leadership tools.
Right. We need to learn how to handle these environments and learn how to be agile, react to it, be learning organizations. And for me, what I've done in my job is really broad. The. A much more diversity in the leadership team in all dimensions, but especially to kind of kind of reflect that environment. So we we need, of course, a very experienced internal and as a people who, frankly, know more about this agency and what's possible on the inside of the agency.
But we at the same time also need the others who have worked in Space X and then frankly, are our in related industries and that are helping us make good decisions.
Do you think it changes NASA's role at all in terms of risk taking, where you can start to take more risks now and when things work out, you can pass that technology to the private sector?
That's exactly what I want to do. Exactly right. That's exactly what I want to do. I want to focus on the things that a company cannot do it because it's too crazy. It's too risky. So we have done things so far. Right, kind of the James Webb Space Telescope that just talked about. It's one of those things it's not possible to do in a private setting, but at this moment in time. But as we go forward, it may be better.
Also, I have a new program, the commercial lunar payload services program to the moon.
And I basically said, I'm Bill. I'm buying at firm fixed price delivery services to the moon. Who wants to play? I did that after I came into NASA and I saw these Google X Prize companies that have been being funded by by venture capital and other sources, not government sources. So it's like, OK, if you have a company that could do that, I want to be a customer, by the way. I don't want to be the only customer not interested whatsoever to own that industry, but I want to be an anchor customer.
And by the way, I'm going to take the risk. So what I did is I talked to every stakeholder, including those on the Hill, and say, look, the likelihood of that is not a hundred percent. You should think of it as a 50 50 shot on goal. So we need to like hockey. We need to take shots on goal to score. So so for us, it's kind of being regular. Doing that is really important.
So so we have a team that is running that that kind of learning to dance on that stage. It's a very different thing than what we're doing to Mars or to the moon in the past. Right. It's a very different, different company. And frankly, you know it. You know it. This has lifted that. So it's both leaning forward on kind of new things, but also kind of learning how to hand off even in places where we're not 100 percent sure yet that it works.
How do you think about giving these companies not only sort of those contracts, but also valuable information that makes their product better versus opening that information up to the world so that the next Elon or the next Jeff Bezos gets a head start and you're not you're not solidifying one or two companies as the only option going forward and creating effectively a monopoly that just acquires more and more information from NASA gets harder and harder to replace as time goes on. How do you foster competition in that space?
So we try wherever we can to make the information public. I mean, whether it's the science data, how we do it, or we actually encourage people to write publications. That said, how did you do it? You know, we just picked up a sample at Bennu. You know, this asteroid are using a new technology. It's a can. How did we do it? Go read the publication. We wrote it right. There are there are some elements that could offer that that we want to respect.
Right. Kind of. The first one is intellectual property of individuals and of companies. Kind of if you with your company, develop a new technology. I mean, frankly, I don't want to go stomp you out. I want you to be able to lift you start to lift your company. Right. That's good. Innovation needs to be supportive in that way. So for me, I need to learn standing back. Of course, as I as a government person, I'm basically looking at you through the eyes of a taxpayer.
Is it worth my money to pay for that license? I think the other one is that, of course, the laws that relate to export loss. Right. That we have legal boundaries on some things, you know, certain technologies. We just can't we don't want to you know, there's a legal boundary we're not going to cross. But within those boundaries, we are, you know, trying to stimulate innovation by driving for a guy, making information public.
We also it's very common that we create the kind of agreements with companies to help them. Right. So our goal is, you know, I mean, Elon himself has talked about a lot of stuff we learned from NASSI in the crew. The thing that, frankly, we our great experts taught him, it's not that's what we want to do. And the next company can get the same service just the same way. Right. So for us, for us, we want to hand off what we can.
So like you said, we can focus on the edge of innovation because companies cannot afford.
Not yet the government's. And take risks that private companies can, I think that's a great place to end this conversation, Tom. Thank you so much for your time. This has been fascinating.
Thanks for your time and thanks for all you do. I listen to your show many, many times. Tough on Iran every day. So, so often during my year when Iran.
I appreciate that. Thank you. Thank you. Hey, one more thing before we say goodbye, the knowledge project is produced by the team at Farnam Street. I want to make this the best podcast you listen to, and I'd love to get your feedback.
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