Heidi B. Hammel joined The Planetary Society's Board of Directors in 2005. A Senior Research Scientist with the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, Hammel herself lives in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
She received her undergraduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1982 and her Ph.D. in physics and astronomy from the University of Hawaii in 1988. After a post-doctoral position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Pasadena, California), Hammel returned to MIT, where she spent nearly nine years as a Principal Research Scientist in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences.
Hammel primarily studies outer planets and their satellites, with a focus on observational techniques. Hammel received the 2002 American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences (AAS/DPS) Sagan Medal for outstanding communication by an active planetary scientist to the general public .
Question: What is inhibiting space exploration today?
Heidi Hammel: It’s clear that the only thing that is inhibiting us from doing further human exploration of space is money and the will to do it. I mean, if we could do it 30, 40 years ago, 50 years ago, whatever, we could certainly do it now. It costs a lot of money, and you need to have a good reason to do it. And in the past our reasons were not science, and don’t let scientists tell you otherwise. That just means they haven’t read history. We were not doing moon landings to do geological exploration of the surface. In fact, when we got to that point, the program was canceled, so human spaceflight at this point is not about science. It really needs to be about economics or politics. So there’s nothing technological preventing us from doing it. We have the technology to live in space for years right now. Getting to Mars is a little more challenging. It’s a lot further than the moon, a lot further than the moon. People don’t really appreciate that, but it’s going to be a lot harder, and people worry about the sun and whether those solar flares will hurt the astronauts. But that’s just a technological problem. You could think of ways to get around it. It just costs money and costs the will power. So there’s people willing to go right now. Some of these astronauts, they want to go to space. They want. That’s what they want to do. I don’t want to go, but that’s just my own personal thing. I’m happy here on the surface of the earth. If space travel ever got to be as simple as jet travel today, yeah, I’d take a jet flight to the moon. But right now it’s too cramped and tiny, and I just don’t want to do that. My kids, if they want to, I mean, there’s nothing preventing it except it costs money. I wish that our resources in our country were devoted to things like exploration and expanding our boundaries rather than some of the other things that we’re spending 10 billion dollars on every two weeks. But that’s not my choice to make really, except as a citizen I vote all the time. Because exploration is not science driven, you’ve got to ask what is it driven by? And it’s driven by politics. And I gave a public lecture quite a few years ago now, where I was talking about the future of planetary exploration. And I said in this very public lecture, I said, you know, “I think the only way that the U.S. human spaceflight program is going to get really revitalized, really put sort of an Apollo level push on it, is if some other country, perhaps China, were to actually have a landed flight to the moon and brought back our American flag and put it in Tiananmen Square. Now I think that might be a provocative enough maneuver that the U.S. might stand up and say, oh, well, well, we can do that, too. We can go back to the moon. To me that’s the only kind of thing that will make our government turn around and start investing in human spaceflight. With that said, I think the world is changing. I think that the private industries are now starting to get interested enough in space that we may see a very different paradigm come up for human spaceflight. It may be the Branson’s, the Virgin Galactic Spaceship One, it may be those people, sort of like the Orville and Wilbur Wright’s of spaceflight, who actually with their small spacecraft make it more of a tourist industry, and they start to get enough money. And once you get enough money going, then other people throw money at it, and as I said earlier, money is all you need. There’s no technological barrier to space exploration. It’s money. The private part of our industry may overtake the government part. And we may see space, human spaceflight, coming at us from a very different direction than our current thinking has put it. A lot of science fiction writers have talked about that in the past, where you’ve got your asteroid mining companies, and that they are the ones that are really going to make space exploration happen. It may turn out to be something like that. I don’t see any reason that it can’t happen. We just need to find the money and the will to make it happen.