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NASA Ames' director talks Yuri's Night, Google, and more

At the annual celebration of the first human exploration of space, the director of NASA's Silicon Valley research center opens up about the facility's plans.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF.--In April 2006, NASA announced that it was bringing in University of Arizona astronomy professor and former brigadier general Simon "Pete" Worden to be the director of its NASA Ames Research Center here.

NASA Ames director Pete Worden has brought a fresh perspective to the facility since his arrival in 2006. At the Yuri's Night celebration on Saturday, he demonstrated his sense of humor and history by wearing a Soviet-era general's uniform in recognition of the first-ever space flight by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Since then, Worden has brought a fresh perspective to the helm of one of NASA's most important research facilities, demonstrated through initiatives such as giving a keynote address to the International Space Development Conference from the virtual world Second Life. (Note: My wife works at Second Life publisher Linden Lab).

But along with administrators at several other NASA facilities, Worden has been a leader in hosting Yuri's Night celebrations, something that might not have been possible even just a few years ago.

An evening of art, music, dancing, fire, and science, Yuri's Night has become a much anticipated event for many people, especially the version held annually here at NASA Ames.

On Saturday, as the party throbbed just feet away, and as Worden sat drenched in sweat from having participated in a fashion contest wearing a Soviet-era general's outfit, he sat for an open-ended, if short, interview with CNET

Q: Why is NASA hosting this event?
Worden: Tonight, there are at least four NASA centers doing it. The fundamental issue facing NASA is that we're embarking on the most significant step that has ever been done in space. The next step is settling the solar system. The U.S. space exploration program is a key part of that, as well as efforts around the world. NASA has always played a key role in other critical issues that face us as well, such as aeronautics, all the way up to understanding the secrets of the universe and addressing climate change. Those are all NASA jobs. But to do that we need the next generation excited about space and the other things that NASA does. But we are a technology agency, and it's a lot of science and math and engineering. Sometimes that's not considered quite as cool as other things. We think it is. And Yuri's Night is an opportunity to bring the next generation in and show them how cool it is. This is an opportunity to reflect on the past, such as the first humans in space, such as Yuri Gagarin in 1961. Our first Space Shuttle flight in 1981. And to the future, where the future means expanding into the solar system. But we're not just expanding as machines and science. We're expanding as humans. There's art, culture, music, and dancing. So it's about all those things as well and to link that with the technical aspects will be maybe the most inspiring thing we can do.

NASA Ames director Pete Worden sitting in his facility during Yuri's Night celebrations on Saturday. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Talk a little about NASA's role in addressing climate change?
It's basically NASA data that has enabled us to understand climate change and that changes are occurring, and that human activities are a significant part of that. Here at NASA Ames, we specialize in measurements of climate change. Second, NASA Ames houses the agency's supercomputer, the Columbia supercomputer, and one of its primary purposes is to run these very significant climate models and to support research from climate researchers around the world. We do the detail work, and we run airborne sensors, and we run the really sophisticated computer models here.

Can NASA Ames be a center of research into peace?
I think we are a center of research into peace. I can't think of anything more peaceful than working with the rest of world to expand humanity into the solar system, or to address some of the pressing issues like climate change that are facing the Earth or researching new green energy solutions. Peace in its fullest and most positive sense is bringing everybody together. Probably the most significant thing NASA did in the 1960s was to take that famous picture of Earth from space. That made people realize we have a lot more in common than differences. I believe that it was that one image that has led to the end of the Cold War, and to growing global linkages.

Please talk a little about NASA's repositioning of astrobiology?
It is one of the most significant areas, and an interdisciplinary field. We're trying to invent a new area based on the fusion of biology, astronomy, physics, and engineering. And there are three key questions: One, where did we come from, and where did life come from; two, Where else is it in the universe; and, three, what is the future of life in the universe. That is a very exciting area. There were some cuts in our astrobiology program, but we're seeing those have been largely restored, and we have a very optimistic program. We're expanding the program.

What's the period, like this one, leading up to a change in presidential administration like for NASA?
Every election is both an opportunity and a potential problem. After awhile you grow comfortable in what your current leadership, both congressional and presidential, tells you to do. But there's going to be new leadership, and I'm pretty optimistic that though there will be some changes, the fundamental direction of NASA is not going to change. The NASA Authorization Act of 2005 passed by huge majorities. There was bipartisan support for it. All of the potential candidates voted for that.

Why was the deal to allow Google's co-founders to keep their airplanes at Ames good for the facility?
The key point is that this is a research center, and it has a lot of facilities that are expensive to maintain. We have very limited usage of the airfield, and we're fortunate enough to have 1,800 acres of Silicon Valley real estate, which is very valuable. Congress and the White House have pushed us to form new relationships with private corporations, and there are 55 corporate tenants on Moffett Field. We also have research partnerships, including one with Google. In addition, we are building public/private partnerships with other people who have airplanes, and we lease those facilities. The use they put it to is some benefit to NASA. In this case, the Google co-founders' airplanes are available for some NASA research use, and we've used those a number of times. Plus they pay us for the hangar, and this is a real win/win, and it's good government. We're defraying government costs. And it's not really a sweetheart deal. The use of the facility is pretty expensive.

Is Google building a facility at NASA Ames?
We're in discussions with Google to lease tens of acres that they would use to build new facilities, offices, research facilities and housing. I would expect in a few months to have some agreement on that. We're also in discussions with a consortium of universities to build a university campus here. Right now, it's the University of California, which is the lead university, and Santa Clara University, Foothill College, and De Anza College, and Carnegie Mellon University. The idea is to have a campus devoted to some of the specific expertise that's needed to power Silicon Valley. And this is an ideal location for it.