Innovation the NASA Way Author Rod Pyle Q&A

Humans to Mars Summit 2015

Speaker Spotlight Sessions

Rod PyleRod has been a producer, writer and director of documentary programming for The History Channel and Discovery Communications. Notable works include “Modern Marvels: Apollo 11” for Hearst Communications and “In Their Own Words: The Space Race” for First Person Audio. Rod was formerly the Vice President of Communications for the World Space Foundation, a space-advocacy association based in Los Angeles and closely aligned with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. While there he was the senior editor and contributor to their two publications, “The Astronautics Journal” and “Foundation News.” Rod is a frequent contributor to many publications, including, LiveScience, NBCNews, The Telegraph, WIRED, The Huffington Post and The Daily Mail.

Rod spent two years as a visual effects consultant on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and was a visual effects producer for Joe Dante’s Warlords: Battle for the Galaxy for Paramount Studios. He co-produced and was the lead researcher for Patrick Stewart’s Nine Worlds, a CD-ROM released by Paramount Interactive, and was editor and webmaster of the product’s award-wining website for three years.

Rod was formerly employed at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, CA, where he served in various capacities for over 10 years. During his tenure, he produced Launchlink, a public celebration of NASA’s Space Shuttle in conjunction with NASA and FOX-TV, as well as authoring numerous handbooks.

BooksRecent book releases include the widely-praised “Innovation the NASA Way” (McGraw-Hill Education, 2014) and “Curiosity: An Inside Look at the Mars Rover Mission” (Random House, 2014). “Destination Mars” (Prometheus, 2012) was hailed as “The best recent history of Mars exploration” by The Washington Post.



Q: Based on your research for Innovation the NASA Way, how do you think human missions to Mars might stimulate innovation?

A: It is becoming clear that to land humans on (or nearby) Mars before 2040, NASA will need to incorporate the thoughts and work of many outside entities. While an international mission is not impossible, my hope is that American industry will rise to the challenge in a similar fashion to how SpaceX has tackled the orbital resupply mission, i.e. hybrid investment models. There are many challenges to overcome for a crewed flight to Mars, and while some will be met by NASA, it would require an improbable level of investment (akin to the height of the Apollo program, almost 5% of the federal budget) to accomplish the goal within a reasonable time frame. But with a hybrid approach, the best of NASA can combine with the strongest entrepreneurs and the finest minds in academia to accomplish great things. As Gene Kranz once said to me during an interview, “What America will dare, America will do.” We know what we can achieve… the question is, and I place it before NASA, Congress and private industry: what will America dare?

Q: We have been thinking of sending humans to Mars for over 50 years.  What would you say to people who say ‘Why the rush’?

A: As has been eloquently pointed out by many fine minds, Mars is the only near-term goal besides the moon worth considering for sustained, crewed deep-space missions. Mars has been transformed from a fabled place of canals and empires to a desert world, and more recently to a promising vault of water and useful resources. The possibility of life forms existing there seems more likely than ever, as demonstrated by recent announcements from the Mars Science Laboratory mission. But our understanding of the challenges of traveling and staying there – radiation, life support, long-duration physiological and psychological endurance, toxic soil and more – has multiplied as well, especially since the habitation of the ISS and the science returns from the Mars Phoenix and Curiosity rover missions. Overcoming these will be the ultimate challenge of our innovative abilities in the 21st century. No other near-term human spaceflight mission even comes close.

Q: You also wrote an impressive volume on Curiosity.  What are your hopes over the next 1-2 years for that Rover?

A: The Curiosity rover has just entered its extended mission. Two more years of funding and under the new science team leadership of Ashwin Vasavada, the rover can fully explore the foothills of Mount Sharp, where they are driving as I write this. Building on the amazing results from the primary mission under the leadership of John Grotzinger, MSL promises ever more exciting indications of a once habitable Mars. The recently announced results of more than a year of exhaustive sample analysis – soil scoops, drill samples and atmospheric samples – offer tantalizing possibilities of native organic compounds and biogenic methane. Both can come from non-biological sources, but if repeatedly found can offer hope of life on another world. With some luck the 2020 rover will bring us closer to an answer. I cannot imagine anything (short of encountering another intelligent species) more transformative to human thinking.

Q: What do you consider NASA’s greatest responsibility and how do you feel they’re living up to it?

A: To explore beyond LEO. The ISS is a remarkable achievement, and will continue to have value for its lifetime. Let’s expand its use for preparing for longer, greater journeys, and support it with an increased investment in commercial space. In my opinion NASA’s human space program should focus on a return to the moon and creation of infrastructure for the Mars adventure. What form either will take is not clear yet. While I don’t see true colonies in the next two decades, outposts are achievable. And I fully support a more robust robotic program, to do what they do so very well – scouting ahead where people cannot yet go. Mars (for now), Europa, Enceladus, Titan, asteroids. Let’s dare to do these things.

Q: What do you hope will be accomplished through the Humans to Mars Summit?

A: Two goals for me: 1) a continuing discussion focused on innovative ways to accomplish our shared goals regarding Mars and 2) a concentrated effort to reach the broader public, beyond the choir, with our important message: space and Mars matter, and are critical to maintaining our edge as an innovation powerhouse and leader in space.

About the author: M. Wade Holler