What about the agency's plans to return to the moon by 2020?
A lot of people are fascinated by trying to set a goal and an objective. This kind of approach [by NASA] worked really well in the 1960s and 1970s. Having a race [to get back to the moon] is good for sound bites and the encapsulation of progress, but maybe not that good for the people involved. We want to see things done right without wastage, [and as such], I don't think we need a deadline. The question is less when than how, and will [NASA] handle things properly.
What about the proposed manned Mars missions, scheduled to take place by 2031?
Yes, it's not so much about when you get there but what you do when you're there. If you look at approaching Mars the way the Pilgrims came over on the Mayflower [to remain at their destination], that is much preferred to putting someone there who can't wait to get back home again. And if we don't have to pay for [these explorers] to come back, all the better.
It's important to realize it is not necessary to support a Mars program now. It is important to take steps based on a judicious review of the past. The past tells us that in the venture to get to the moon, we filled the gap [between the Mercury and Apollo programs] with the Gemini program. We were also flexible on our options, though we were not flexible after Apollo and did not define what was to follow Apollo. We will have a [multiyear] gap in capability when we retire the space shuttle [before] the next space vehicle, Orion, [is ready].
What should NASA emphasize—manned or robotic exploration?
I think NASA needs a mixture of manned flight and robotic missions. The agency needs to represent national interests in concert with the Department of Defense [DoD] and the Commerce Department. I don't think the management of that has matured as well as it could have over the years. [NASA] tried with the National Space Council, chaired by the vice president. The president has a science advisor now, but this person reports to the [White House] chief of staff, not the president directly. I think we need a cabinet level science position that can work with the DoD more appropriately, rather than [it and NASA] trying to absorb the other. We need to fund things on a long-term, sustainable basis, instead of during a one- to four-year political or budgetary time period.