Bill Nye, Executive Director, The Planetary Society

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Rumors of Bill Nye’s death have been greatly exaggerated. The popular educational television show host did not, as the satirical newspaper The Onion reported in 2000, die “in a massive vinegar/baking soda explosion” while demonstrating how to inflate a weather balloon using everyday household items. The former Boeing engineer-turned-science celebrity takes the attention in stride but quibbles with the article’s technical merits.

“In general you would not use vinegar and baking soda to inflate a balloon on Earth because it would sink,” Nye said. “Weather balloons, we generally want them to float.”

This past September, the Emmy-award-winning writer, performer and producer signed on as the executive director of the Planetary Society, a Pasadena, Calif.-based advocacy organization founded 30 years ago by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray and Lou Friedman. Nye — a charter member of the Planetary Society and longtime board member — replaced Friedman to become only the second executive director in the organization’s history.

“We are at a turning point in space exploration once again,” the Washington native said. “It’s analogous to the winter of 1979-80 when Carl, Lou and Bruce decided to found the organization. There was a dearth, a lack, an exiguity of space missions and Carl, Lou and Bruce found that there was enthusiasm for space exploration all around the world. They had 100,000 members in barely two years. I feel strongly that people around the world support space exploration.”

Nye spoke recently with Space News Deputy Editor Brian Berger.

Does the Planetary Society deserve its reputation for valuing robotic space exploration above human exploration?

I’m kooky for robots. I actually had a very, very small role on Mars Spirit and Opportunity. The people who really encouraged me to take this job are Spirit and Opportunity scientists.

People always say we have to have robots and humans going forth together. It’s easy to say but, at least in the United States, it’s not so easy to do because of the political issues.

What are the primary barriers to a balanced human-robotic exploration program?

People want to arrange the building of hardware based on congressional districts rather than solid engineering or science decisions. It’s popular to say NASA shouldn’t be a jobs program, but that’s what we’re doing — creating jobs for the sake of jobs. What the public wants is for NASA to send people and spacecraft to new and exciting places at a reasonable cost.

The Planetary Society was a key player in the 2008 Stanford University workshop that laid the foundation for an alternative to NASA’s Constellation program.

Yes, what we called the Flexible Path became the recommendation of the Augustine commission. The people who wrote the “Beyond the Moon” roadmap for human space exploration were very thoughtful. I don’t meant to be critical of the congressmen and senators, but the people who proposed the Flexible Path have given space exploration a lot more thought than most lawmakers. So they came up with a better idea than what the U.S. space community is doing now, which is telling manufacturers where they are going to build specific parts of a rocket.

Are you referring to the congressionally directed heavy-lift rocket?

The 100-ton gorilla in the room. You can’t have Congress designing a heavy-lift vehicle. It’s not that they’re not smart; it’s just not what they do all day. So you’re headed for trouble.

Will the Planetary Society try to topple the heavy-lift rocket the way it helped topple Constellation?

Let’s call it redirect. We’d like to redirect it so it’s in everybody’s best interest.

So far, NASA’s transition from Constellation to Flexible Path has been anything but smooth. Do you see a way out of the current stalemate?

The way to get out of it is through leadership. There are a couple of things I would do if I were king of the forest. First of all, I would remind everyone of the value of space exploration.

If you were the head of an $18.7 billion corporation and you wanted to move 2,500 jobs from Florida to Utah, or vice versa, you’d just do it. But the problem is much harder than that. You’ve got to get lawmakers to agree it’s in everybody’s best interest not to direct space exploration based on where the manufacturing plants are. This takes leadership, inspirational guidance from above.

Isn’t that what U.S. President Barack Obama tried to do at Kennedy Space Center last April?

I was there and shook hands with him. He looked at me and goes, “You’re Bill Nye. My kids love your show.” That was cool.

The impasse over the future direction of NASA’s human spaceflight program appears likely to last another year or more. How is this affecting the planetary community?

In the worst case, there will be no flagship mission at all to another planet. The decadal survey committee did a very good job of picking small, medium and large missions for the next 10 years. But then the rug was pulled out from under them because we are cutting the budget.

Should the planetary community devote its energy to trying to get more money for space science, or adjust its 10-year plan to fit a shrinking budget?

You have to work the problem at both ends.

We have to propose missions that are affordable. When the Aerospace Corp. evaluated the decadal’s Europa mission concept, the cost came in at $4.7 billion. That’s too high. It ain’t gonna happen. The scientists and engineers involved with that proposal bit off more than anybody was willing to chew, so they have to descope it.

At the same time, we have to inspire members around the world — tens of thousands of people who like space — to influence their elected representatives to provide the funds needed to do these inspirational missions so the U.S. can continue to innovate. There’s an irony when you’ve got a legislative body made largely of lawyers telling everybody else to innovate.

If you had to pick one flagship mission, would it be Mars sample return or a Europa orbiter?

Mars sample return. The thing about Mars is we may discover life there. That would change the world profoundly in the same way Copernicus and Galileo changed the view about our place in space. If we could get to a slushy outcropping on Mars, or you found a place where this super salty water is oozing out of the canyon wall on a sunny day near the equator, and you found fossilized microbes, or microbes that are still alive? It’s extraordinary but not crazy. It would change the world. So this is where a per-taxpayer investment of less than a fancy cup of coffee for a few years is worth it. To change the world forever for less than a latte? That’s pretty good.

The uncertainty surrounding NASA’s new direction has resulted in higher projected launch costs, putting a double whammy on space science budgets. Does the Planetary Society see a way out of this conundrum?

If you had a steady, reliable rocket that was made in larger quantities — the number is around a half-dozen a year — you’d save money. Full disclosure, SpaceX [Space Exploration Technologies] CEO Elon Musk is on our board. But those guys are doing great stuff there. I spent time with one of their engineers who said, “Look. We didn’t reinvent things. We read the NASA manuals written in the 1960s and we’re embracing the physical principles.”

How would SpaceX do it cheaper than, say, United Launch Alliance?

As you add acronyms, you add cost. When organizations get too big they become inefficient. If they claim they can do it cheaper, it’s not because the other guys can’t do a good job; it’s because the other guys have a little too much inefficiency.

Do you have any other advice for NASA?

If I were king of the forest — and I’m not — I would stop talking about the heavy-lift launch vehicle and promote something called the Deep Space Rocket. When you say you’re building a vehicle, nobody feels it. You’re building a rocket. And where is it going? Deep space.

I also would discourage NASA from using the word “exploration” as a euphemism for humans. The people who go to the space station, the people who fly on the shuttle are achieving almost entirely engineering objectives. It’s all great and I’m crazy for it, but it’s not exploring someplace new.