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Speaking of space

By Apoorva Pasricha '14
April 23, 2012

The population of Earth is roughly 7 billion people. The population of space? The six people currently living on the International Space Station.

As Bjorn Mellem '12 pointed that fact out to the audience at the beginning of his STO Talk this weekend (his talk begins at 75:45), he also noted that most of today's news stories about space exploration focus on things that haven't worked — NASA cancelling its space shuttle program last summer, for instance, and scuttling the project to build its replacement.

All of which might lead to the conclusion that human space exploration is a thing of the past. Yet Mellem knows otherwise. He spent last summer working for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and NASA Ames Research Center. As a climate researcher studying the dynamics of the Martian north polar ice cap, he experienced firsthand how the study and exploration of space can be beneficial for Earth.

The St. Olaf physics, mathematics, and computer science major also met individuals who are laying the groundwork for a new age of private and commercial space exploration. He left SETI more inspired and optimistic about the future of human space exploration than ever before, and he shared that vision with hundreds of people at STO Talks, St. Olaf's version of the popular TED Talks. (Watch all 15 STO Talks online.)

Here Mellem shares why he thinks human space exploration is necessary, who has his dream job, and whether he believes in aliens.

SETI sounds like something out of a science fiction novel. What exactly does the institute do?
SETI is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The SETI Institute's main project is listening to radio waves coming from distant stars and searching for patterns indicative of artificial sources. Really, they look for technology similar to ours transmitting signals toward Earth. However, their mission goes beyond that — they investigate anything related to the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. This includes studying the climates of other planets (as I did), and looking for extreme life forms on Earth.

Do you think aliens are out there?
I think there is probably intelligent life out there somewhere, but I’m not surprised that it is hard to find. While limitless possible homes for life exist, these places are very far away. Life on our planet has only developed the technology to communicate and listen to the stars in the last 50–100 years. The nearest potentially habitable planets we have found are about 25 light years away, meaning we are only just reaching the point that we might be able to hear back from life elsewhere.

Why is human space exploration necessary?
Many people claim that most of the benefits of space flight can be gained through unmanned missions at a fraction the cost of a manned expedition. It is absolutely true that probes, orbiters, and rovers can tell us a lot about distant planets and moons, and unmanned exploration will always be part of our efforts. But until we develop artificial intelligence, there just isn't a substitute for a human presence. I recently attended the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, a gathering of scientists involved in many of the unmanned missions to Mars and other places in the solar system. When asked who would like to be a planetary scientist on Mars today, every hand at the conference went up. Being able to freely move about the solar system and beyond would open many doors, from economic developments such as mining or terraforming new real estate to scientific opportunities such as direct exploration and measurement on the moons of Saturn or the surface of Mars.

What are the disadvantages to human space flight?
It's expensive, dangerous, and often controversial. When the Space Shuttle flew, it cost $450 million for a single launch. Putting people in space means putting them in a very dangerous situation. A lot of extra work has to go into making sure they are as safe as possible, which is often not needed for mere machines. When interests in space and on Earth come into conflict, money usually goes to Earth.

What do you see as the future of private and commercial space exploration?
I see private and commercial space flight as a path toward making space accessible to every individual. Private space enterprises such as SpaceX are already building rockets that are much more efficient and cost-effective mechanisms for escaping Earth’s gravity, and competition will only lead to these corporations seeking broader markets at lower prices. My optimism about the success of this industry comes from the successes they have already demonstrated and their timetable for the future. SpaceX has already placed their Dragon spacecraft in orbit and successfully returned it to Earth. While NASA is predicting that any new missions to the moon, asteroids, or beyond will be more than a decade distant, people like Bill Stone claim they will be ready for a manned expedition to the moon by 2015. It’s hard not to get excited about prospects like that!

What's the coolest thing about the Martian polar ice caps?
The coolest thing about the Martian polar ice caps is probably frozen CO2. While there are permanent water ice caps on both poles, a large portion of each ice cap is also made of dry ice. According to orbiting instruments, the temperature can get as low as 200 degrees Celsius below freezing. Since most of Mars' atmosphere is carbon dioxide, the atmosphere itself literally freezes onto the surface over the poles!

What's your dream job?
I think Elon Musk has my dream job right now. He started out by founding PayPal, went on to start up Tesla Motors, an electric car company, and is now running SpaceX. I'd love to be a tech entrepreneur, particularly one involved in space enterprises. Engineering rockets, probes, or other spacecraft would be a good place to start. I'd most like to develop technologies that can take me and others like me to space. But I'm very interested in anything that lets me use creativity to build new and exciting inventions.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or