Former NASA astronaut Ed Lu, who logged more than 206 days in space over his career, said there are a lot of interesting things going on in space exploration right now — they’re just not coming from the organization you would expect.
“It [NASA] is certainly not dead, but they are lost at the moment, especially on the manned side,” he said on stage at the GeekWire Summit on Friday.
Lu is still a big believer in manned space exploration, even as robots are becoming increasingly capable of doing the job with less costs and risk to human lives. But Lu argued there are certain things robots will never be able to do — namely colonize another planet.
“The debate about humans versus robots is beyond stupid,” he said. “Moving people outward is the whole reason for going. Otherwise, what are we doing? What is the purpose of going if not to live, go places, do things, spread humanity?”
Unmanned missions are easier because you can do them one at a time and find success through scientific breakthroughs. Lu said manned missions, on the other hand, have to be planned with a broader strategy or you’re just “doing random stuff.” And that’s the piece NASA is missing.
Asked if he thinks we’ll get back to manned missions, Lu said he’s counting on the private sector to get us there.
After his NASA career, Lu joined Google’s satellite imaging team for its maps applications. He was at the forefront of a trend that has since taken off as more private companies have gotten involved in space exploration.
Once an expensive endeavor reserved for government agencies, private companies — especially around the Seattle area — have recently taken a stab at creating profitable business models around exploring outer space. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Paul Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace are all standing at the forefront of the blossoming industry.
And that’s what has Lu excited about the future.
“Right now, I’m actually not hopeful about NASA doing it,” Lu said. “I probably shouldn’t say this as a former astronaut, but I think NASA lost its way. I think what’s going to push them forward is private companies doing some interesting things.”
Lu went on to tell a story from his days at NASA. Famous astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin once came to speak to the team, saying they’ve been given a gift that they wouldn’t appreciate until later: the ability to hold the attention of any school child for five minutes.
“There is something about doing big, grand things that gets people excited,” he said. “I think there is room for these big things. … That really does get people interested in learning.”