I pretty much just love to learn. I loved school, but it was everything equally in terms of English, science, math—all those things. And then I became an engineer at Notre Dame. It was actually perfect for me because it was a liberal arts school, and I loved philosophy, so some of my favorite courses were in philosophy.
I've always been fascinated by Plato, by Socrates, in terms of teaching and the Socratic Method. I got interested in the period when philosophy and early science meet—when we get a little bit of the juncture, and the prevailing of science methodology. I like to see what the thinkers and writers are saying at those cross-sections. I'm interested in the different viewpoints, and the debate.
I kind of look at it in terms of leaders, which of course can be across the spectrum. So there's definitely some science and engineering leaders in the world. Buzz Aldrin. [Astronaut] Dave Scott is still doing a ton of great work on lunar analysis. Harrison Schmitt was the first scientist on the moon in Apollo 17. All of those guys I hugely admire, and it's been nice to meet and work with them over my career.
I call the spacesuit one of the world's greatest engineering feats, because it keeps people alive; it provides all their life support. Basically my whole career has been looking at all the world's spacesuits, really, so I've probably analyzed and looked at the designs of pretty much every spacesuit that's out there. The team at MIT is trying to push innovation and creativity and think about how you could possibly have a really mobile, lightweight suit. Unfortunately, those are some of the constraints of any of the current suit systems for NASA or for the Russians and the Chinese.
I see humans getting to Mars, hopefully with very advanced suits and systems and rovers—a complete exploration system. It's not a couple people implanting a flag. It's a very different era of exploration. We will be more like the early ship explorers who were so successful, and even Antarctic explorers who were successful. It wasn't about colonization for any of the initial explorations.
The important point is that NASA is already on our journey to Mars. We're at the International Space Station right now. We have six astronauts and cosmonauts up on the station today, busy running experiments, performing science, and doing technology demonstrations. And then the second phase of our Journey to Mars is in the 2020s. That's what we like to call “the proving ground” to get to Mars, where we get to demonstrate our technologies, prove capabilities that we don't have currently and test them in Earth-moon orbit—for instance, new in-space propulsion technologies, like solar electric propulsion. We’ll be looking at habitats, looking at life-support systems that will last well beyond what we have now. And then the final phase of the Journey to Mars gets us into the 2030s, and that's when we finally get to Mars and we become earth-independent. In the meantime, we're building the heavy lift launch capability, the Space Launch System.
I've learned a lot about the James Webb Space Telescope when I was at Goddard Space Flight Center. Now, this is one huge, large, gorgeous telescope, and it's going to blow us away. Remember how phenomenal Hubble has been? We're still celebrating Hubble all the time here. Well, James Webb coming up is going to see into the universe and reveal so much in a different spectrum. I think it's really going to be a breakthrough in terms of looking beyond what Hubble's shown us. We're searching for the answers for dark energy and dark matter, and we're talking galaxies and galaxies and galaxies. It’s kind of hard for me to get my head around.
What space movies do you enjoy?
2001: A Space Odyssey is pretty fantastic. I loved the visual effects in Gravity. The two nights after I watched the movie in 3D, all my dreams were about floating in space. It was fun. I thought those visual effects were beautiful and wonderful. There're parts I was, of course, critical about, in terms of the plot and physics of things, but in terms of entertainment and the visuals, I liked it. I'm kind of like that about all space movies—as an engineer, you critique in different ways: They should have consulted with us and gotten the physics right, what kind of suits are they using, and all those kinds of things. But the entertainment value is always fun.
I'm inspired a lot by art and design. They inspire my thinking all the time. There's been a lot written on art and science and how they are so complementary and go hand-in-hand, but I think that there's another intersection of design and engineering that go hand-in-hand, and we have so much to learn from each other. My work kind of stands in all four quadrants—art, science, design, and engineering.
Just go for it. We need every single one of them. Don't listen to anyone who tells you you can't do it, because I think everyone is just a born little explorer. They just have to go with their passion. The other advice I have for them is to have fun and play and build and fail. If one thing succeeds out of 10, especially building with your hands and designing, you're going to learn a ton from failures. If you're a designer or engineer, learning is in the journey, in the process, not usually in the end product. I'm an experimentalist at heart.