Les Johnson freely admits science fiction inspired his interest in space science. He is Manager of NASA's In-Space Propulsion technology projects and Principal Investigator for a tether experiment which uses the earth's magnetic field for propulsion instead of conventional fuel. In the early 1990s he worked on the design of the IMAGE spacecraft and for NASA's Office of Space Science. A two-time recipient of NASA's Exceptional Achievement Medal, he also has patents on space propulsion techniques and served as technical consultant for the movie Lost in Space.
Before joining NASA, Les worked for General Research Corporation where he helped develop and design Directed Energy Systems as part of the Strategic Defense Initiative.
I first met Dr. Les Johnson at MidSouthCon in Memphis where he served as Science Guest of Honor. There was a buzz regarding his presence among the fans because Les has a winning and easy-going personality that makes him easily approachable. His ability to explain scientific concepts in layman's language and his enthusiasm and comprehensive knowledge of his field -- space propulsion -- made his science panels and kaffee klatsch memorable events for all who attended.
The following interview was conducted during the kaffee klatsch and via e-mail.
Kenneth Mark Hoover: Les, how has the recent shuttle disaster affected morale and project development in NASA?
Les Johnson: We're saddened by the loss but morale remains high. I believe the exploration of space is vital for America and all of humanity. The sacrifice these astronauts made must not be in vain. We need to find out what went wrong, fix the problem(s) as best we can, and return to the exploration of our solar system as soon as possible.
KMH: Is it time to retire the shuttle? What is going to take its place in the future?
LJ: This is an area where it would be inappropriate for me to comment. I'm not an expert on the Space Shuttle nor the potential replacement options.
KMH: A tragedy like this always heats up the debate between Human vs. Robotic exploration. Where do you come down on this? If robots can do the job, why send humans?
LJ: I believe there are missions that do not require humans and those that do. For example, we don't need to send humans to the outer planets until we have done initial exploration robotically. Robots and humans should be partners in exploration, with robots generally preceding humans along the way.
KMH: What is the most popular misconception the general public has about NASA?
LJ: That we have a budget comparable to that of the Department of Defense. In fact, our budget is less than half of one percent of the total US government budget. I wish we could talk about what we do in relative terms rather than absolute dollars. To the general public, $1 million is about the same as $10 million and not too far different from $1 billion -- everyone's eyes glaze over when budgets are discussed.
KMH: Keeping that in mind, what are NASA's long-range goals regarding space exploration?
LJ: They are very clearly stated in our Strategic Plan. First, to understand and protect our home planet. Second, explore the universe and search for life. We also want to develop interest among the next generation of space explorers. There are other goals and I encourage everyone to read them on the NASA website.
KMH: Let's talk a bit about your particular area of expertise. What types of propulsion methods is NASA developing for future spacecraft?
LJ: We're working to develop solar sails, the next generation of ion propulsion, and aerocapture to the point where they can be flown and validated in space by 2006. Solar thermal propulsion, tethers and plasma sails are targeted for similar development by the end of the decade. All are receiving funding as part of the Space Propulsion Program. Anyone can learn more about these by visiting our website.
KMH: Will any of these propulsion methods be in operation within the decade?
LJ: Yes. The next generation of solar electric, or ion propulsion, aerocapture and solar sails should be ready for flight within the decade.
KMH: Is international cooperation the future for the space program? Aren't many of these space exploration projects simply too big for any one country to handle anymore?
LJ: No doubt international partnerships make exploration more affordable. They are also desirable from other perspectives such as international cooperation and trade. Ultimately, it's up to the people through their elected representatives to decide whether such exploration is affordable and desirable.
KMH: Could you be more specific?
LJ: Well, the total projected cost for a human mission to Mars is in the tens of billions of dollars. This is a lot of money. However, the US Government budget is well over $1.5 trillion annually. We could easily afford to undertake the effort without the help of any other nation -- if we deemed it a priority to do so.
KMH: Some people today express disappointment in the space program. They argue it's not doing much compared to the glory days when we went to the moon. What's your counter argument?
LJ: In the Apollo era, NASA received 3-5% of the federal budget annually. Today we receive less than 0.5%. With a comparable "share of the pie" we would be able to do more -- a lot more! Also, space is not as exciting as it used to be. We've had over 100 shuttle launches. It's no longer a novelty. Unless there is a problem we are not "news." During Apollo it was all new and newsworthy.
KMH: What's the biggest problem you have in NASA, bureaucracy or funding?
LJ: Why do you assume they are "problems?" Bureaucracy was invented by the Chinese to keep the government running as political leadership changed. Without some level of bureaucracy, I could not do my job. Do I love it? No. Do I need it? Yes. I strive to balance the two and have learned to "work within the system" to get things done. In my field, funding for advanced propulsion research hasn't been this good since the 1960s. We have a chance to do something new and make an impact in how NASA does space exploration. NASA leadership sees the benefit of our work and is providing resources to help make it happen. I can handle these problems. Now if someone would only help me figure out how to engineer an affordable method for making antimatter. . . .
KMH: Les, what are the chances that life exists in some form, even bacterial, on any other world of our Solar System?
LJ: Your guess is as good as mine.
KMH: <laughs> Okay, let's approach the problem from another angle. Humans have only just begun to listen for extraterrestrial signals. Are we too impatient for results or is the absence of alien signals indicative of sentient life?
LJ: I could write a book on this one. I believe that any intelligent, tool-using species that might have preceded us in the Milky Way would have left unmistakable signs of their presence everywhere. We are only a hundred years away from mounting our first interstellar voyage with self-replicating robots. If another species such as us exists or existed, they could (probably would) have had their emissaries spread all over the galaxy and we would know it. We've seen no such evidence. I can conclude only two things from this: 1.) We are alone or the first to be both intelligent and tool-using or 2.) Intelligence is self-limiting and destroys itself before it can spread throughout the galaxy. I am personally open to other ideas -- both of these are intellectually unsatisfying.
KMH: At MidSouthCon you stated "It appears intelligence has no survival value." Could you elaborate on this a bit?"
LJ: I hope I didn't say that! What I probably meant to say is that evolution has no direction. There is no arrow pointing to intelligence in the day-to-day, year-to-year, century-to-century process of natural selection. Cockroaches have been very successful from an evolutionary point of view and they had no need to develop intelligence to do so. Sharks are another example. They've been around a lot longer than humans. I can easily imagine an Earth with multiple evolutionary successful species and intelligent life. Personally, I am glad we are here. We now have a chance to spread life beyond the home planet and assure its survival.
KMH: Do you often attend SF conventions throughout the year?
LJ: I'm a "regular" at LibertyCon in Chattanooga. It was this convention that brought me back into fandom. I began attending SF conventions when I was in high school. My first convention was the 1979 RiverCon in Louisville, Kentucky. I all but stopped going in the mid-1980s until I attended the second LibertyCon. Now I attend two or three a year. I was especially impressed with MidSouthCon last spring. It was my first time and I definitely plan to return!
KMH: Were you interested in space exploration as a boy?
LJ: I became interested at around age 6. There is no single defining moment, but I can identify several events that all came together to shape my interest in space and science.
KMH: Like what?
LJ: Apollo. Watching Neil Armstrong walk on the surface of the moon is something I will never forget. My older sister, now an attorney, kept a scrapbook of all news clippings associated with space exploration. I fondly recall reading the articles, gingerly turning every page so as not to tear any clipped paper. I would stay up with my sisters on Friday night and watch the starship Enterprise "go where no man has gone before." Finally, I read my first SF book, Realm of the Tri-planets, part of the Perry Rhodan series, at around age 10. From then on I was hooked -- on SF and science.
KMH: Have there been any movies in your opinion that got the "feel" of spaceflight correct?
KMH: What SF stories or movies captured your imagination as a child?
LJ: The Thunderbirds. Wow! These puppets had a space station, rocket ships and every futuristic gadget you could imagine. I still love the show and have recorded several episodes from Tech TV to share with my kids. 2001: A Space Odyssey is still the most awe-inspiring SF film ever made. It may not be as slick as Star Wars nor as riveting as Alien but it is certainly thought-provoking and portrays a universe filled with mystery waiting to be explored.
KMH: Any books?
LJ: In quick succession, I read every Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and Silverberg book I could get my hands on. In retrospect, the book that really grabbed me was Inherit the Stars by Jim Hogan. I read it in high school, reread it in college, reread it again a couple of years ago and plan to do so yet again in the future.
KMH: What kind of SF do you like to read today?
LJ: I like books that posit a possible human future, are based on some sense of physical reality, and have a good plot and plausible characters. A tall order! I especially enjoy books by Stephen Baxter, Greg Bear, Tim Zahn, and David Weber.
KMH: Have you ever written any stories yourself?
LJ: No. I have always preferred to read science fiction. I am very satisfied with having a job that may make a contribution to the future I like to read about.
KMH: What are your plans for the future?
LJ: I plan to keep on doing what I am doing. I love my job! How many people get the chance to be part of the greatest endeavor ever attempted by the human species -- to explore the universe! How could I not be excited about it? I also plan to continue attending SF conventions. SF fans share the dream and the vision. They want to live it. Speaking and interacting with fans is rewarding because they understand why space exploration is important and want to be a part of it.
KMH: Let's return to that last point. Overall, what is the state of America's space program?
LJ: I think you have to look at what is flying successfully to answer this one. The Hubble and Chandra space telescopes are returning astonishing pictures (and science) of our universe and revolutionizing astronomy. We have probes orbiting Mars, studying its climate, and two landers on the way. The Galileo spacecraft has been in Jovian orbit for a couple of years returning mountains of data about Jupiter and its moons, including ice-covered Europa. The Cassini mission is nearing Saturn's orbit where it will drop a probe into the organic rich atmosphere of the moon, Titan. The International Space Station is in Earth orbit and there are dozens of spacecraft launches planned over the next decade.
KMH: That's superb.
LJ: We are providing the American taxpayer with incredible returns. "Incredible" is the best term to use. Could we do more? Yes! The exploration of the solar system is only beginning. . . .
Copyright © 2003 Kenneth Mark Hoover
Kenneth Mark Hoover is a writer living and working in Mississippi. He is also the contest administrator for the Moonlight & Magnolia Fiction Writing Contest. He has published about a dozen short stories and articles in professional and semi-professional magazines; his previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. He has a wife and three children. To contact him, email email@example.com.