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Bill Nye wants NASA to take humans farther into space

The famed science guy has been a fan since the Apollo days, and as it turns 60, he thinks NASA's best days may still be ahead.

Bill Nye on the set of his Netflix show "Bill Nye Saves the World."

Bill Nye on the set of his Netflix show Bill Nye Saves the World.

Eddy Chen/Netflix

Bill Nye is just a few years older than NASA, which turns 60 Monday. That means he grew up along with the space agency as it first sent humans into orbit and to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s.

The mystique of the Apollo program helped inspire Nye to pursue a career in science and engineering, and later as an author, TV personality and famed "Science Guy."

Buzz Aldrin on the moon

Read more about NASA on its 60th anniversary.

NASA

Today Nye is still all of the above, but he's also now CEO of the Planetary Society, a nonprofit co-founded by Carl Sagan with the mission to empower people around the world to advance space science and exploration. 

I reached out to Nye to ask him what NASA has meant and continues to mean to him personally, as well as how the Planetary Society aims to work with the space agency in the years to come. Below is an abridged version of his responses.

How has NASA inspired you over the years?
I was on my knees watching black & white television when I witnessed Armstrong and Aldrin walk on Earth's moon. It was amazing. Like so many of my generation, it had a tremendous influence on me. I became a mechanical engineer (before we called it "mech-aero" engineering). My first job was at Boeing. I went on to work for a little over 20 years in aerospace in the Seattle and Washington, DC, areas.

I'd very much like NASA to lead the world in the search for life on Mars, Europa and Enceladus. The human explorations of Mars should grow from the [International Space Station], and work to extend human presence farther and farther into deep space.

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How important have NASA's Mars rovers and orbiters been for space exploration?
Whenever we talk about Mars, I like (love) to remind people that most of us take Mars for granted. Because of the landers, rovers, and orbiting cameras and ancillary instruments, everybody just accepts Mars as a planet. If I had the right spacesuit on, I could just go walk around, maybe play a round of Martian golf. Frisbees wouldn't fly very well, and there's nothing to drink, eat or breathe. But it is an intriguing amazing place, and we've all come to feel this way because of the spacecraft that we've sent there, which have in turn taken the pictures and collected the data sent back to us. 

What role do you see NASA playing in space exploration in the next 10 years? How about 60 years from now?
In the next 10 years, I hope NASA establishes a solid program with adequate funding to return rock and soil samples from Mars. I hope NASA focuses on the search for life on Mars by creating the right instruments aboard one or more spacecraft operating under the right protocols. I hope NASA has a well-designed follow-on mission to the Europa Clipper, which will explore Jupiter's icy moon Europa. I hope a program will be in place to explore Enceladus, the watery world orbiting Saturn.

In the next 60 years, I hope NASA has led the world in speeding air travel or even exoatmospheric spaceflight. I hope all transportation, spaceflight especially, is powered by renewable fuels and renewably produced electricity. And, I very much hope we will have discovered life on another world in our own Solar System. 

How would you change NASA's funding structure if you could? Should it have a significant, stable budget? Or is it already too big?
These are the most difficult questions any [NASA] Administrator must answer: Where does the money go? What will we accomplish in space and on Earth? The NASA budget could be bigger. Strong arguments can be made that the return on investment in NASA is extraordinary in dollar-for-dollar terms, in terms of the inspiration for young people, and the national pride brought forth in people of all ages.

A stable budget would be wonderful. For NASA especially, continual problems stem from the uncertain future of funding. If you're planning a mission that might take 20 years to build and fly, it's quite difficult if the mission planners have to account for funding going away in three or five or seven years. It can be a mess...

The politics are burdensome. But remember: citizen engagement matters. At The Planetary Society, we've created a free learning tool called Space Advocacy 101 that takes you through the process of advocating for NASA's budget, step by step. We want to turn space fans into space advocates.

A new National Academies of Science report said NASA should make direct imaging of exoplanets with high-powered new telescopes a priority, what do you think?
The more telescopes, the better. The bigger the better. The more space-based telescopes, the better. Every day I hope to inspire at least one more person to appreciate the profound nature of this kind of research. If we were to discover evidence of life on a distant world, either through chemical "signatures" or technical signatures, it would change the course of human history. Everyone everywhere would have a new appreciation for what it means to be a living thing in the cosmos. I can't emphasize enough the value of investments in telescopes and exoplanet research.

What else would you like to see in NASA's future?
I'd love for engineers working in and with NASA research programs to create aircraft designs that reduce or even eliminate sonic booms. I am hoping and hoping that NASA and the organizations and people it inspires will create renewably produced fuels and energy sources for atmospheric flight and spaceflight.

NASA turns 60: The space agency has taken humanity farther than anyone else, and it has plans to go further.

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