spaceSpace and Physics

We Asked The Head Of NASA 23 Of Your Questions About Warp Travel, Aliens, And More


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

4105 We Asked The Head Of NASA 23 Of Your Questions About Warp Travel, Aliens, And More
Charles Bolden, speaking to IFLScience

Two weeks ago, we asked you on Facebook to submit questions for our exclusive interview with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. You can read our own grilling of the NASA chief in Part 1 of our two-part video, but here we present his answers to a selection of the thousands of questions you supplied.

From the prospect of warp travel, his preference of "Star Trek" or "Star Wars," and the chances of finding alien life, Bolden tackled a huge range of questions. He even thinks the International Space Station (ISS) should win a Nobel Peace Prize.


You can watch him answer all 23 questions in the video below, but we’ve also provided abridged versions of some for you to peruse in this article.

So, the head of NASA is a Trekkie. Who knew?




Is NASA working on a warp drive? (Erick Hernandez)

To my knowledge, no – but that doesn’t mean anything. We have actually asked people to come to us with proposals on what I call game changing in-space propulsion. So that might be something like a warp drive, ion propulsion, VASIMR propulsion, so we’re not discounting anything.

Has NASA got any guidelines if they were to encounter aliens in space? (Michael Wittemore)

That’s a good question. I don’t know, but I will try to find out and get word to somebody. We probably don’t have guidelines because we don’t realistically think we’re going to encounter somebody like you or me.


We do have guidelines for dealing with microbial life if we find it. In fact, we have guidelines that prevent us from, for example, on Mars getting too close to a place that may be a source of living organisms, because we don’t want to contaminate that area.

Do you agree with Stephen Hawking when he said humanity needs to colonize other planets in our Solar System to survive? (Nathan Johns)

How can anyone disagree with Stephen Hawking! I am, like he, one who believes that the species that will survive forever maybe is a multi-planet species. So I agree with him that we need to get off this planet, or at least demonstrate the ability to go out and get off this planet, as does President Obama by the way.

Bolden, like Hawking, thinks we need to leave Earth one day to survive as a species. Danor Aharon/Shutterstock


What is one thing you want the average public citizen to know about NASA? (Krystal McCann)

I think the one thing I would like everyone to know is we spend every single minute of every single day trying to advance the cause of science, technology, and engineering, so that life here on this planet is better for every single one of you. That’s our focus.

Do you see NASA having a role in defending science and science education? (Quinntus Maximus)

I don’t think our role is to defend science. I think our role is to go out and pursue scientific excellence, to make our assets available, which includes the ISS and observatories around the world, laboratories and the like.


Star Wars or Star Trek? (Kevin Jackson)

I am actually a Star Trek fan, because I like the Federation. I think that’s what we’re about on the International Space Station. I’m a big advocate for peace in the world, not just on the planet but in everything, and I think the ISS is my favorite candidate for a Nobel Peace Prize because of what we’ve done on station considering everything else that’s going on down here on Earth. So I’m definitely a Trekkie.

Why do you keep sending Matt Damon into space? We’ve had to rescue him twice. (Jason Ryther)

I would pick him because he is such a great representative of the kind of innovative, devil-may-care people that we have in the astronaut office, as you saw in The Martian.


Matt Damon starred in 2015's "The Martian" (shown), and also had a role in last year's "Interstellar." 20th Century Fox

Who was your childhood hero? (Juliet Hunter)

My dad. He was my number one childhood hero. He was an incredible dad, he was my high school football coach, so I had two incredible men in one.

When you talk about science fiction kind of people, I love Buck Rodgers. I never dreamed of going to space myself, but I always admired the way he could walk out to a spaceship and just go to Mars. And then as I got older, I began to pick heroes like John Kennedy.


Do aliens exist? (Various)

I don’t know. I am one who believes that there is life elsewhere in the universe, so I guess the bottom line is I believe we’re going to find signs of microbial alien life in a number of candidate places. It could be the ocean of Europa, it could be Enceladus, hopefully it will be on the planet Mars as we do more and more work there, with robotic precursors and then eventually with humans in the 2030s.

In a percentage, how likely is it that manned NASA missions to Mars will occur this century? (Dan Miller)

I’m the eternal optimist, so I would say 100 percent. This century is really young, it’s 2015, so I think that unless humanity decides “forget it, we’re gonna stick with this planet no matter what,” we’ll be on Mars easily in the first half of this century.


Getting to Mars has been a key goal of Bolden's administration. NASA

What was the scariest moment you had in space as an astronaut? (Clinton Alexander Reel)

The scariest thing to me was on my second flight [in 1990], when we were deploying the Hubble Space Telescope, and one of the solar arrays didn’t go out, and I was told to go and prepare Bruce McCandless and Cathy Sullivan for a spacewalk. They ended up not having to do it, but as the intravehicular crewman who had to dress them and make sure that their suits were all tight and everything else, that was scary to me, to realize that their lives depended on me doing my job.

Should we be allowed to mine asteroids? (Jacob Blanton)


I think within the bounds of some system of governance, whether it’s the United Nations or some international body that comes up with rules for mining, I think it’s essential.

What is one astronomical achievement you wish to see in your lifetime? (Gabriel Serrano)

The big thing that I want to see achieved is the James Webb Space Telescope being safely put in its position at Lagrange Point 2 about a million miles away from Earth [in 2018].

The James Webb Space Telescope (artist's impression shown) is scheduled to launch in 2018. NASA


What is NASA’s plan for a large solar storm? (Haben Petros)

The biggest thing you want to know is forecasting and prediction, so that you can harden spacecraft, you can turn them, in a direction that might enable them to withstand the storm. There’s no way to prevent nature from occurring, so we’re going to be the victims of massive solar storms in the years ahead, we just want to be able to better forecast them, so we can be able to better harden the satellites that will have to withstand their penetration and the like.

What is the biggest challenge facing interstellar travel? (Harvir Bhattal)

Speed. The thing that will prevent humans from engaging in interstellar travel for the foreseeable future is the lack of speed. Warp drive [for example], as fanciful as that may be, that’s what it’s going to take. It’s not out of the realms of possibility, but we’re not there yet.


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