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Lori Garver at GeekWire Summit.
Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver chats with Alan Boyle on stage during the 2015 GeekWire Summit.

If we want to send astronauts to Mars, we better find a way to do it within 10 years. And if we want to discover a blue planet around an alien sun, there’s a good chance it could happen within five years.

That’s how former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver sized up the future of space travel and exploration at the GeekWire Summit on Thursday.

Today, Garver is general manager of the Air Line Pilots Association. But back in 2008, she helped set the space policy trajectory for the Obama administration, and then took the No. 2 spot at the space agency as Administrator Charles Bolden’s deputy. During her four years in that role, she played a key part in NASA’s shift from the space shuttle era to the commercial spaceflight era.

So what’s ahead? Here’s some of what Garver had to say during Thursday’s fireside chat, edited for length and clarity:

How will the discovery of liquid water on Mars affect future NASA missions to the Red Planet?

“If you look to the future, we’ll have more rovers, more orbiters, and ultimately we will be the ‘rovers.’ We people are a lot more efficient than rovers. … An astronaut, I’m told, can do in one day what a rover does in 100 days. Now, will people go soon? NASA would love to, but NASA’s a government agency, and we all know how well that works.”

NASA is talking about sending humans to Mars in the 2030s, Does it need to take that long?

“My view is, there’s a role for government in the investment and the research, and then there’s a role when the private sector and the markets take over. Is exploring Mars with people a government type of program? Likely. The first few times for sure. But how you get there doesn’t have to be just a government-funded program.

“The government takes a very long time to innovate. The plan they are on now would use engines that were developed in the 1970s. Sixty years later, I just don’t think that’s our best way to go to Mars. The key would be to get those costs down, to build things that we can afford to fly. … I think we’ve seen with some of the newer companies, that when you allow competition, you drive the cost down, you drive the time scale down.”

You’ve been involved in politics since John Glenn’s presidential campaign: What do you think will happen with space policy during the next administration?

“Clearly, the space program’s goals are set by the president. Kennedy is the obvious example, when he declared that we would go to the moon. But we did that to beat the Russians. We did it for a geopolitical purpose. My view is, no matter who is president, we have to have a geopolitical purpose to send humans to Mars, or go back to the moon, or go to an asteroid.

“What we need is the capability to do it in a time frame and at a cost that is achievable – and I think that’s within 10 years. We’re not there right now. What would it take for NASA to get there? Frankly, I think the next president will have a lot to say about that.”

What’s the big technological innovation to watch for in space in 2018?

“Getting the costs down to get to space. That’s key, that’s been a barrier, and that is happening. Certainly by 2018 you will have multiple launches for a lot less money. That opens up what you’re doing in space to new markets – whether that’s broadband communications or remote sensing, having the capability with new types of imaging to manage the resources on this planet better from space.

“Farther out, 2018 or 2019 is when we’re going to launch the James Webb Space Telescope. I have often asked the scientists behind that what we have most to look forward to. They believe we will, within the first six months of Webb being turned on, see a blue planet orbiting a distant star for the first time. That would change our perspective on our own blue planet.

“So, NASA’s best days are ahead of us, and those are all technologies which then can be utilized here on Earth – for new markets, and for all of you to get sick-rich off of and make the world a better place while doing it.”

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