Interview: Robert Zimmerman Responds

1. Private space stations?

Apparently Bigelow Aerospace is planning to put up a privately
financed inflatable space station prototype (they’re calling it
“Genesis Pathfinder”) late next year, using Elon Musk’s “Falcon 5”
rocket. They seem to believe they can greatly reduce the costs of
building and orbiting space station modules. Some of the ISS modules
cost over $1 billion. Can you explain why the government space
components are so expensive, and why the private efforts think they
can do so much better?

I could probably write about 200,000 words trying to answer this
question. In fact, I have written 200,000 words, since it
was one of the main questions I addressed in writing Leaving
Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for
Interplanetary Travel

In looking at the history of manned space travel since Apollo and
comparing what the Soviet Union/Russia and United States have
achieved, I noticed a very distinct pattern. While the U.S. has
increasingly depended on centralized bureaucracies and government
programs to try and fuel its manned space program, the Russians
have increasingly done the opposite, depending instead on freedom,
capitalism, private initiative, and profit to fuel theirs.
And they have been more successful.

Government programs by their very nature tend to grow and become
unwieldy. There are no incentives to keep costs down. Employees
focus not on improving the product for less cost but on building
office empires and taking as few risks as possible. It is also
difficult if not impossible to fire anyone because of political
concerns. And since the program’s financing comes from coercive
taxes rather than voluntary purchase, funding is almost always
guaranteed. There is no direct connection between funding and

In the end, all the money is spent on salaries, and there is nothing
left for construction and hardware. Note for example the many
failed attempts by NASA to replace the shuttle in the last two
decades, as well as their slow and difficult efforts to build the
space station. In both cases, they spent billions on blueprints and
prototypes, and built comparatively little. (See my September 23, 2003 op-ed for USA Today.)

With a private company, everything depends on success. If the company
cannot produce an efficient, well-designed product that fulfills
the needs of its customers at a reasonable cost, no one will pay
them for it and everyone will lose their jobs. Thus, private companies
have a built-in incentive to keep costs down, build efficiently,
and get the job done quickly.

Our country and its citizens once understood these facts and followed
them proudly and with courage. This was why the United States became
the most wealthy nation ever in the history of the human race. This
was why the United States won the Cold War.

That we seem to have forgotten these lessons bodes ill for our
future, both in space and on the ground.

Russia meanwhile has spent the last fifty years learning these
facts, and their economy today is booming because of it. In 1990
they decided to abandon their dependence on their centralized
government and instead look to freedom and private initiative. For
this reason, it is not surprising that the Russians believe they
can double their economy in the next decade.

Nor is it surprising that they have been able to sustain a growing
space industry that actually leads the world in launch services and
manned exploration.

2. Human vs. Robotic Exploration

Robotics technology is improving at a steady pace, we have robots
that can walk on two legs now, and AI technology is also steadily,
although slowly, improving. Who knows what we’ll be capable of in
the coming decades? Given the difficulties, limitations and dangers
inherent in sending humans to Mars, do you think that it will be
manned or robotic missions that will play a major role in the future?

I consider the question of “Human vs Robots” to be a strawman
argument. It is like asking: should we swim the Atlantic, or depend
on ships?

Why should robots have all the fun? The exploration of space is a
human endeavor. Though we will unquestionably require robot scout
ships during the initial stages of any future space exploration,
we will always want to follow up with manned missions. To
think that the adventure belongs solely to one or the other is

3. Terraforming

What’s your opinion on the idea of terraforming Mars? Is it do-able,
and if so, is it ethical? And what about Venus? Its atmosphere and
temperature are horrible, of course, so nobody give much thought
to terraforming it, but if we could figure out a way to change its
atmosphere (perhaps using nanotechnology), its gravity would be
much more preferable to humans. Is terraforming of the planets and
moons in our solar system inevitable?

I get this question from Americans all the time, and find myself
repeatedly irritated and frustrated by it. Please note: at this
moment in time (and for about a year at least into the future) the
United States does not even have the capability of putting humans
into orbit
. Moreover, we abandoned the ability to travel to
other worlds more than three decades ago, and won’t be able to
regain that ability (even if everything goes right) for at least
another decade.

It is ridiculous to dwell on questions of terraforming Mars or
Venus. I have no doubt that it will someday be doable, but no
living today or probably for the next century has any idea
how it will be done.

In a sense, asking this question today is as if someone had come
up to Columbus immediately after his first voyage in 1492 and asked
him if it was possible to build giant cathedrals like the Vatican
and big cities like Madrid in either Cuba or the Caribbean. Of
course such things were possible (as the United States proves today),
but to Columbus in 1492 there were far more immediate problems that
he and the future colonists of the New World needed to focus on

That same lesson should apply to us today. Rather than fantasize
about unachievable possibilities (at this time), let’s focus our
minds on the problem of getting back into space today.

In a few decades, when we have prosperous, functioning colonies in
orbit and on the moon, then we can start thinking about the engineering
necessary for terraforming Mars or Venus. And by then, we will have
the experience and hands-on knowledge that will make it possible!

4. In another SciScoop article…

… “Space Advocates Unite for Exploration”, dated
Saturday, May 8th, thirteen grass-roots and industrial space
organizations announced they were forming the Space Exploration

As president of the New York Chapter of the National Space Society,
you must have had an idea this was being formed, Mr. Zimmerman.
Were you involved in the Alliance’s formation? Do you think it will
be successful promoting space travel? Can you see significant changes
in attitudes, industry, or funding coming out of this grass-roots
movement? If there were only ONE thing the Space Exploration Alliance
could accomplish, what should it be?

jxliv7 misunderstood my biography. I was president of the New York
Chapter of the NSS in 1988, and have not been involved in space
activism since then. Thus, I was not involved in the Alliance’s

I will make one comment though. I fear that the Alliance is making
the same mistake of too many modern Americans by looking to the
government to provide us a thriving and successful space program.
Lobbying Congress and the President for larger government space
programs is not the way to build a space-faring civilization.

Instead, the Alliance should be backing private initiatives (such
as the Ansari X-Prize), which
encourage innovation and will certainly get us in space quicker,
cheaper, and without having to ask the taxpayers to pay for it.

5. I have always felt …

… that the ultimate success of the human race would be determined by
its scientific advances, the continuing exploration, and its expansion
into space. It will be this urge to expand and move on, plus our
curiosity that will move us from orbital missisons to the moon and
the other planets. Perhaps it’s my early introduction to science-fiction
(50’s, 60’s, all those good old authors like Asimov, Del Ray,
Heinlein, Clarke, etc.) where the theme was man’s triumphs. Perhaps
it’s my recognition that until the mid-20th century, the world was
still coming off an national expansion and colonization drive that
started around the time of Columbus. You can even factor in the
greatest sci-fi theme of the last third of the millenium, “to go
where no man has gone before”. I also recognize there are advocates
among us who insist we explore inner space first — whether that
be uniting all the nations under one banner or solving the social
problems that plague our cultures or developing the ability to use
the sea (on or under) as another frontier. However, today’s climate
seems to be more of a “sit on our accomplishments” and “live the
good life we’ve created” style. The consumer is king, most products
have short, planned obsolesence built in, and weapons of war have
higher priority than ever. Space exploration has been put on the
back burner. If mankind is to get back on track and aim for the
stars again, what do you see that must happen in the next 5, 10,
20, 50, or even 100 years?

I agree that too many Americans today seem unwilling to take risks.
I sometimes think that what was once a nation of pioneers has become
a nation of couch potatoes.

At the same time, I do not agree that consumerism per se is an evil
thing. The profit motive drives most human endeavor. Let the consumer
be king in space (rather than government bureauracies and
politicians), and they will gladly pay for its development and
exploration. See my answer to question 7 below.

6. favorites?

You’ve interviewed many astronauts and cosmonauts – if you can name
names, who’s your favorite? Or perhaps a most memorable anecdote?

Each person is different. For example, I was fascinated speaking
to Frank Borman of Apollo 8 fame, who had absolutely no interest
in space exploration but wanted to help the United States win the
Cold War and so became an astronaut.

I found Bill Anders, also of Apollo 8, to be one of the more intellectually-minded astronauts. Our conversations wandered from getting nauseous in space to why he could no longer be a practicing Catholic after his one space flight.

In Russia, Sergei Krikalev was probably the most compelling cosmonaut.
He was the first Russian to fly on the shuttle, the first Russian
to enter the International Space Station, and a member of the first
crew to occupy the station. Furthermore, he was also the “last
Soviet citizen” since he was the guy stranded on Mir for six extra
months in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. We talked for
more than three days about his life, both in space and on the ground.
I must admit I was continuously jealous that he has been able to
do so much in space in such a short time.

I also found both Valeri Polyakov and Alexander Serebrov to be
intriguing individuals. Polyakov currently holds the record for the
longest spaceflight (fourteen and a half months) and has dedicated
his life to space medicine. Serebrov was an engineer and cosmonaut
who helped design the various Salyut stations as well as Mir. Both
men have a wonderful sense of humor, as well as an honest sense of

Concerning your question about my most memorable interview andecdote,
I have two tales to tell.

First, when I was in Russia doing research for Leaving Earth,
I was repeatedly astonished at how the cultural differences between
the U.S. and Russia kept reasserting themselves. After each interview
I would ask the cosmonaut if I could take his picture. They always
agreed, but when I asked them to smile for the camera, none did. I
finally asked Krikalev why, and he explained that Russians only
smile if they have a reason to. “You Americans seem superficial to
us, since you are always smiling.”

To me, however, as a good-natured American, the Russians’ unwillingness
to smile made them seem sullen and unfriendly. Finding out about
this very minor but significantly different expectation about
laughter helped explain the tension I had often experienced in my
past dealings with Russians.

The second anecdote occurred when I was writing my first book,
Genesis, the Story of Apollo 8. One of my main goals in
writing the book was to describe the family story behind the mission.
I wanted to know what was it like to be the wife of a man who was
going to be one of the first humans to travel to another world.
This meant, however, that I needed to spend as much time interviewing
the wives as the astronauts.

I had no trouble reaching Frank and Susan Borman and Bill and Valerie
Anders. However, though Jim Lovell was very willing to talk to me,
Marilyn Lovell had had enough of reporters and had been refusing
all interviews.

I went to Illinois and Jim Lovell’s home to inteview him. After
spending about three hours in his office, I once again asked if
there was any way I could interview his wife. By this time he
realized that I wasn’t some uneducated television pretty boy who
knew nothing about the subject. He said, “Well, come with me to the
kitchen. I’ll introduce you, but after that it’s up to her.”

When we got to the kitchen I could tell that, though she was polite
and courteous, Marilyn was more than a little annoyed with a husband
for bringing me to her. I in turn practically got on my knees,
begging her for some interview time. She sighed, and agreed to give
me one hour the next day.

That one hour interview lasted almost four hours, followed by several
subsequent phone conversations.

In our conversations, she eventually explained why she had become
so reluctant to talk to reporters. “They ask stupid questions, and
don’t research their subject,” she complained. “I felt like I was
just wasting my time.” She also pointed out how the only question
most modern reporters ask is “How did it feel?”

Well, I never asked her that question, because I consider it an
incredibly dumb question to ask. Instead, I wanted to find out
specific details about specific events, trying to fill in some gaps
in the story that had not been covered by newspapers or any previous
written sources (all of which I had thoroughly reviewed before
showing up at her door).

In the end, by knowledgably asking her what had happened, I found
out exactly how she felt about it, and could therefore tell her
story accurately and with emotion. For this reason, she and everyone
else I have ever interviewed has been glad to speak to me again and

7. The X Prize and other prizes

Anonymous Hero
What is your opinion of the X-Prize and suborbital tourism in
general? Also in Robert Zubrin’s first book, “The Case for Mars”,
he suggested a series of Government funded Mars Prizes, would this
be a good idea for the government to get involved with? What are
the best ways for the Government to help private space interest &

I think you have probably already gathered from my previous answers
that I think the Ansari X-Prize is exactly the right way to
go. However, I would love to take the idea one step further.

Instead of giving NASA the job of sending us back to the moon and
then to Mars, I would rather fire everyone in NASA’s entire
manned space program, put the $12 billion the government would save
over the next five years in a kitty, and offer it as a prize to the
first company that develops a cheap reusable vessel to ferry crews
and supplies the International Space Station. All those unemployed
NASA engineers would very quickly get financing, form companies,
and use their considerable and brilliant engineering talents to
build it. Not only would we get a shuttle replacement in half the
time for probably a third the cost, the resulting competition would
produce dozens of cheap launch companies, all able to put payloads
into orbit at truly affordable prices.

The result: We would have all the space exploration we could imagine,
for centuries to come.

8. Caving and space

Do you feel crawling in confined spaces underground gives you some
special sympathy for astronauts, and the cramped quarters they
usually have to put up with? On the surface the two interests seem
almost completely opposite in nature!

Caving is not all tiny spaces. For example, one of my cave projects
involves a newly discovered cave with a mile-long passage never
smaller than thirty feet wide with ceiling heights between 30 and
100 feet. The cave (discovered only two years ago and now almost
five miles long) is so extensive that it takes us five to eight
hours just to get to the beginning of exploration. Thus, to get
anything done during a day trip is impossible. Instead, we have set
up a base camp. We go in Friday night, survey and explore all day
Saturday, and come out on Sunday.

Having said this, the physical challenges of caving are in many
ways similar to those experienced by astronauts. We both have to
deal with many physical discomforts and to adapt to a strange (albeit
different) environments.

However, what makes caving most similar to space exploration is how
both are the hunt for the unknown. In the last six months I have
personally explored more than a half mile of virgin cave, actually
going where no one has gone before. Other than astronauts, how many
modern Americans have had that pleasure?

9. Where???

Mr. Zimmerman, If you did have the necessary tools and supplies,
and assuming you could get back to good ol’ Mother Earth just as
healthy as you left, where in space do you think you would want to
go? Maybe, if it helps you to answer the question, maybe you would
want to witness a particular event take place at a particular time
or something like that. Then if you could, tell me why you want to
go there. Thanks.

On the moon, I would love to walk along the rims of the craters
Copernicus, Aristarchus, and Tycho. The central peaks in Copernicus
look particularly spectacular in Lunar Orbiter pictures, while
Aristarchus is where amateur astronomers periodically see what
appear to be puffs of cloud (some even believe that volocanic
activity still occurs there). Tycho meanwhile is one of the moon’s
youngest large craters. The scenery at all three places must be

On Mars, to hike along the rim of Valles Marineris would be worth
the price of the ticket. Here is a canyon so large it makes the
Grand Canyon look like a ditch. Similarly, I’d love to climb to the
top of Olympus Mons and take in the view of the vast surrounding
Martian plains.

And of course, who wouldn’t want to visit Saturn and gaze close up
at those incomprehensible rings? Even now, when I go to the Cassini website, I find
myself speechless by their delicate and promethean beauty.

Going even farther, I’d love a close up look at the Crab nebula,
where waves of energy radiate out from the central pulsar daily,
twisting and shaking the nebula cloud so that is almost looks like
a bowl of jello. Similarly, I’d jump at the chance to journey to
the center of the Milky Way and get a bird’s eye view of the fireworks
surrounding Sagittarius A* (pronounced A-Star), the supermassive
black hole at the galaxy’s core. Periodically, a star comes too
close to this black hole and gets torn to shreds. Yow! Wouldn’t
that be a sight to see?

In all the above cases, my interest is not merely a desire to see
magnificent scenery. At each place, our view from Earth is insufficient
to really tell us what is going on. To unravel the mystery, we need
to go, touch the ground, and see for ourselves. And I would give
my eyeteeth to be the one to do it.

10. Working with co-authors

Bob – what I’ve read of yours has been written pretty much entirely
by yourself. Have you done anything major in collaboration with
other authors? Would you consider doing so? Why or why not?

I guess I am an old-fashioned individualist. I have my particular
ideas about history, science, and the future, and like to express
them. To collaborate would automatically force me to compromise my

Moreover, I like to get credit for my work (for good or ill). When
I worked in the movie business, I found that often my creative
efforts were lost in the collective effort to make the movie. When
I write a book, however, my name goes on it and everyone knows it
is my work.

Having said this, I should note that I have never been offered a
writing project in collaboration with someone else. If the right
project with the right person came along, I still might do it. Such
an opportunity has yet to present itself.

11. Who will take the lead?

We seem to be in a transition period for human spaceflight, with
China’s Shenzhou launch last year, new private space ventures
starting up, the shuttle going away, etc. Who do you see taking or
keeping the lead in human spaceflight over the next decade – NASA,
ESA, China, Russia, private companies, ? What advantage do you think
it will give the leader?

Actually, I think the situation is so fluid right now that I am
completely unsure who is going to take the lead. Bush is pushing
for a new American space program, the X-Prize is about to be won,
China has a burdgeoning space program with the most sophisticated
manned capsule in use today, and Russia has no intention of being
left in the dust.

In the end, the nation or culture that grabs the bull by the horns
and gets the job done will be the one that reaps the rewards. I
hope (and suspect) that it will be the engine of freedom and private
enterprise that will eventually win the race. Consider for example
the New World. Spain and Portugal, using what was a government
financed system, dominated exploration in the western hemisphere
for more than a hundred years before the British arrived in Virginia.
Yet it was the private, freedom-oriented British culture that has
harvested the most wealth from the New World, not Spanish galleons.

The circumstances in space will be similar. And the rewards will
be considerably more, far more than we can imagine today.

12. Space Elevator

What is your opinion on the efforts being made to build a space
elevator here on Earth using nanotubes? Do you think it will happen
in as soon a timeframe as they predict? How do you think its existence
would change the scape of space exploration?

I am sorry, Drog, but you keep asking me the wrong questions. Since
I am not an engineer, I have no opinion, one way or the other,
whether space elevators can work. I am totally in favor of people
trying to build them, however, especially if they think such
technology can reduce the cost of getting into orbit.

13. 5 minutes with…..

scenario 1: you meet Donald Trump on a golf course at the 18th hole.
You have just 5 minutes to talk to him before he has to hop in his
helicoptor and fly off. What do you say?

scenario 2: Same as above, but it’s a rock star who’s known to have
more more than 2 functioning brain cells.

scenario 3: You’re at a wedding/bat mitzvah/funeral and run into a
distant cousin who is a Florida Senator. After he finishes his story
about bringing his daughter backstage to see Brittney Spears, what
do you say?

Since I watch almost no television, and am completely out of touch
with today’s modern pop culture, I really would have very little
to say to any of these three people. However, as a courtesy to
jayrtfm, I’ll describe what I might do:

Donald Trump: I would compliment him for the wonderful way he got
the skating rink finished in Central Park, NY, several decades ago
(when it had languished unfinished in the hands of government
agencies for years). I would also ask him why he hasn’t invested
any money in space, like Paul Allen and Elon Musk.

The rock star: I haven’t the faintest idea what I’d say. It depends
on the kind of music he has written, and what he believes in.

The Florida senator: I’d ask him why he thinks Brittney Spears is
the proper influence for his daughter. To put it more bluntly: Why
does he want to teach his daughter to dress and act like a prostitute
rather than a decent and civilized human being?

6 thoughts on “Interview: Robert Zimmerman Responds”

  1. Well, here are my thoughts on the matter. I completely agree that private industry is the way to go for space exploration. And private industry will be interested in one thing–profit. Private companies may spend a lot of money trying to overcome the difficulties involved in sending humans on long voyages, say, to Mars for the sake of the exposure it gives them. But, in the end, if robotics and AI reach the point that automonous robots can travel to the distant asteroids, moons and planets, explore them, conduct quality scientific experiments, perhaps mine them, and in the distant future perhaps even begin to terraform them, then human exploration will be put on a backburner for quite awhile because it is cheaper, faster and safer to send robots than humans. So it’s not a question of why should robots have all the fun? It’s a question of which is more profitable. I think it would be sad if humans do not stand on the rim of Valles Marineris on Mars, but I fear that humans may just not play as big a role in exploring our solar system as we have always expected. Will human colonies in orbit or on the Moon be profitable? How? A fully (or near) automated mining facility on the Moon, however–that I can see being extremely profitable, especially if we could build a space elevator on the Moon and on Earth for cheap transportation of ore.

    As for terraforming Mars, I don’t think it will happen anytime soon either, but I think that it would eventually become a major driving force behind private enterprise venturing into space–spending money to make Mars habitable to humans is a long-term investment, but one that would pay off. We do not lack the ideas for making it possible. What we lack is the sheer manpower for it. Which is why I think it will be accomplished via armies of robots, working autonomously for generations.

  2. I guess I was hoping for a response along the lines of, if they can build a space elevator that can get payloads into space as cheaply as they predict, then that will effectively end all research into new, cheap launch technologies. And all of the money currently being spent on launch technologies (or money that could be spent) would instead most likely be spent on the in-orbit construction of orbital colonies and heavy spacecraft for voyaging to Mars and elsewhere. And building another space elevator on the Moon would enable a mining colony to become much more feasible and profitable. Effectively, the construction of a space elevator would accelerate the human exporation and colonization of space by decades or more.

  3. I think one strike against a space elevator (as far as having private companies build one) is that you can’t transport humans in them. Well, maybe that’s not correct, but people complain enough as it is about slow elevators. Private research on launch vehicles would be directly applicable towards privatly building an infrastructure for faster travel and taking humans to space.

  4. I hadn’t thought of that. Humans could definitely go up a space elevator, which would take days/weeks. But if you needed to get humans or cargo up rapidly, a rocket would be the only way. I would imagine though, that with careful planning, you would never need to go up fast unless it’s an emergency.

  5. .
    …to have been hosed a little. But, hey, me too.

    I tend to think that Zimmerman is fixated on the traditional “noisy plume of flame rocketship” concept. But, if progress on nanotechnology keeps rolling like it is, we might see some equitorial strings stretching skyward sooner than anyone thinks.

    I’m not real current on the space elevator concept, but it looks like with trips to 21,700 miles — the geosynchronous orbit height — would take 3 days (about 300+ miles per hour). I’m sure it starts out slow and speeds up, but does it just pop off the end of the cable into some orbit or is it wrestled into some other orbit by space tugs? I’m going to watching the developments over the next few years closely.

    The other things I’m going to be watching are the nonconventional aspects of space travel. Will quantum physics point the way to making Star Trek style transporters? Are there ways to make anti-gravity plates? What next great scientific invention will propel vessels in space? Doesn’t Zimmerman realize that some extraterrestrials could be among us (Elvis, Dennis Rodman, maybe Brittany Spears)?


  6. Thanks for the response to my question Mr. Zimmerman. I just thought it would be pretty interesting just to see where you might go. Also, thanks for the link to the Cassini website. Truly marvelous stuff. Thanks again!!

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