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Garrett Reisman: The Future of Space Exploration

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Garrett Reisman: The Future of Space Exploration

Astronaut Garrett Reisman discusses how the Ukraine Russia War, Elon Musk, and global warming are impacting space exploration.

During the interview, Garrett talks about the development of conspiracy theories, from doubting the moon landing to doubting elections:

“I could laugh at the guys in the tinfoil hats that said we didn't go to the Moon. But now that it's corrupting our society and amplified by social media, it's a clear danger to our democracy. And now any kind of conspiracy theorist, I just find it, really, no longer remotely a laughing matter.”

Garrett is a former NASA astronaut who has been to space twice. After leaving NASA in 2011, Garrett joined SpaceX, where he served as the director of Space Operations. He's currently a senior advisor at the company and a professor of astronautical engineering at USC.

To learn more about Garrett, visit his website, garrettreisman.com, and make sure to check out his podcast, Two Funny Astronauts.


You can also find him on Twitter at @astro_g_dogg


Ken Harbaugh:

Hi everyone, it’s Ken. Before we start, I want to share some exciting news: We’ve paired with Meidas Touch, so you can now watch these interviews on YouTube. Just search for the Meidas Touch YouTube channel, or click the link in the show description. Thanks, and enjoy the episode.

Garrett Reisman:

“I could laugh the guys in the tinfoil hats that said we didn't go to the Moon. But now that it's corrupting our society and amplified by social media, it's a clear danger to our democracy. And now any kind of conspiracy theorist, I just find it, really, no longer remotely a laughing matter.”

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

My guest today is Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut who's been to space three times. After leaving NASA in 2011, Garrett joined SpaceX, where he served as the director of Space Operations. He's currently a senior advisor at the company and a professor of astronautical engineering at USC.

Garrett, thanks for joining us on Burn the Boats.

Garrett Reisman:

Thanks, Ken. Great to be here. I never really usually correct people. But you got my name right, you pronounced astronautical engineering right, which I'm really impressed. Most people get those two things wrong. But I've actually only been to space two times.

Ken Harbaugh:

Oh. But how does the three missions work?

Garrett Reisman:

Yeah. I know that's a neat little trick, huh? I did fly in all three space shuttles that we had. That was a neat little trick. I've been to space only two times. I have been to Earth three times, that is true. And the way I did that was, on my first mission, it was a long-duration mission. So I launched on Endeavour, and then I came home on Discovery. So I got two shuttles, one mission. I only launched twice, but I flew on all three shuttles because my third mission was on Atlantis.

Ken Harbaugh:

Awesome. Awesome. Well, I want to get to more of that. I have been really not just looking forward to this interview but trying to figure it out, because I listened to you on Joe Rogan and a couple other shows, and you don't get political. But, given my audience, I'm going to figure out how to get you there today. So, are you ready?

Garrett Reisman:

I'm ready. That's cool. I'm fine. Actually, if you follow my Twitter feed, I do get political on occasion, so it's fine.

Ken Harbaugh:

Good. We'll get it out of you.

We interviewed Charles Bolden, the NASA administrator, a while ago. It was right before Russia invaded Ukraine, and he seemed to have this unshakeable faith in the power of cooperation and space to overcome whatever Earthly disagreements we may have down here. He was talking, of course, about Russia and the US on the International Space Station. But I feel like the world has changed since then, and I'd love your take on where you stand on cooperating with the regime like Putin's, even if it's in space. I imagine you have worked alongside cosmonauts.

Garrett Reisman:

Yes. In fact, during two of the months I was on the International Space Station, it was myself and two Russian cosmonauts. So, yeah, I've been there. And the way we handle that is, we just are professional when we're doing operational things, and focus on the mission and focus on the day-to-day stuff. And it's kind of like Thanksgiving dinner with your family. You try not to bring up politics or religion or anything that's going to mess with your crew camaraderie, which, as a pilot, you understand how important that is in an operational setting. And there have always been frictions, especially at the geopolitical level, even back in 2008, when I was up there. Nothing nearly as extreme as what's going on now, though. So, you're right: things now are different. And I have to admit that when I see our astronauts up there, and crews departing and arriving, and the cosmonauts and astronauts getting together, giving each other big bear-hugs and slapping high-fives and whatnot, it's incongruous. It does not seem right, frankly, given the reality of what's happening back here on Earth.

I really do hope that one day we can evolve to a point where we have this Star Trek future, where everybody, no matter what their nationality, or race, or gender, or religion, we have this big, happy, united humanity going forth in space. And I do believe that space should be an international, cooperative place. But, at the same time, you can't ignore what's happening on the ground by… the reality of what's happening. So, I disagree a little bit with Charlie on this and I do think that we need to face reality, basically.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, I think Charlie has probably come around. The facts on the ground have, I would imagine, forced that. But you have talked about kicking Russia off the ISS, given their behavior on the ground. And that's not a commentary on the character of the cosmonauts who you worked alongside; it's about geopolitical reality, right?

Garrett Reisman:

That's correct. Kicking them off is hard, and there's a good reason why this cooperation is still going. And the reason is that we have no choice. Both sides are completely dependent on one another. It's an interdependent system. The Russian segment of the Space Station can't operate without the electrical power supplied by the American segment. The American segment, and the rest of… the European segment, Japanese segment, all those segments can't operate without the propulsion capability supplied by the Russian segment. So if either side pulls out, it's the end of the ISS, and both the United States and Russia have invested way too much to just walk away from this thing at this point, given that it still has some useful life left. So it's kind of a shotgun wedding and there's no conscious, or how did Gwyneth Paltrow put it like-

Ken Harbaugh:

Whatever the amicable divorce in Hollywood is these days. Yeah.

Garrett Reisman:

Yeah. There's no happy end to this, and so we're stuck. But we have an opportunity. Relatively recently, just a few months ago, Russia made yet another pronouncement that they're pulling out. It's hard to take it seriously because they've said this so many times that they're leaving, they're leaving, and then, at the end of the day, they don't leave. And I have my suspicions as to why they don't leave. But they don't. And so it's very difficult for NASA or anybody to take them seriously because they're saying it again. It's a little bit different this time because it came right after a meeting with Putin himself. So it seems to have the blessing from the dear leader. The other thing was, it wasn't like, "We're leaving tomorrow." It wasn't like a bluster. It wasn't like… Rogozin, who previously was the head of Roscosmos, he put out this little music video where they abandoned an American astronaut, Mark Vande Hei, on the Space Station and said, "До свидания" (‘Dosvidaniya’) (‘Until the next meeting). And no, that's just bluster. We never take that seriously. But this is a little different because they're not saying, "We're leaving tomorrow," they said, "We're leaving in two years," they said 2024. So, if I were the NASA administrator, I would take them at their word. "Why not? They said it. Why wouldn't we take our partner seriously?" And I think we have two years to put together a crash program to replace that Russian propulsion capability so the ISS could continue without the Russians' involvement. And then two years from now, if we're ready, just say, "Okay, you said you're leaving. It's time for you to leave."

Ken Harbaugh:

You said you had your suspicions as to why, in the past, it's been all bluster. Can you share that with us?

Garrett Reisman:

Yeah, it's a simple reason, actually, is that, without the ISS, without the International Space Station, Russia does not have a space program of any merit whatsoever. And if there's one thing that's dear and important to Putin, as you well know, it's at least the perception that he's running a superpower. And superpowers has space programs, human space programs. That's what they do. Now, right now, the ISS is really the only thing that Roscosmos has going form in terms of human spaceflight. The United States and other countries are working on new programs. We have a lot, both on the drawing board and about to launch, as far as… we're going back to the Moon with the Artemis program. SpaceX is working on Starship. There's so many things happening right now that we have to look forward to. Russia has none of that. Absolutely nothing. Without the ISS, the only thing they'd be left with, for a space program, would be launching Soyuz capsules that would do maybe a few days of orbits and splashing down. They'd be basically back to the Gemini days, or in their case, the Voskhod days. So it would set them way back to a very primitive program. And you might say, "Well, couldn't they just fly to the Chinese Space Station?" Well, the thing is they can't because the orbit that that Chinese Space Station is in is not reachable with their rockets and their launch sites. They could go out with their hat in hand and ask the Chinese to take one of their cosmonauts up to their Space Station, but again, that would be a very secondary, subservient position for Russia and be hardly befitting a superpower. So, really, as far as projecting that soft power or that illusion of strength, the only way for Putin really to do that is to maintain their partnership in the ISS.

Ken Harbaugh:

You mentioned the Artemis mission and the struggle to get back to the Moon. That's a stepping stone to Mars, right?

Garrett Reisman:

Yes. I certainly view it that way, and I know NASA wants to view it that way. There's this debate that's raged for decades now, after the ISS: Should we go back to the Moon or just go for Mars? And there's been a lot of good reasons put forth on both sides of that debate. But it's one of the few times today you'll hear me say that it's okay to say both sides. It should be considered equally, because it is something that could go either way, and there are good reasons to do both. I've talked to Elon Musk about this, and, at least initially, he was all about going to Mars because he believes we have this window, where we have the technical capability right now to send humans to Mars, and you don't know how long that window's going to stay open.

We've had plenty of examples in human history where technology didn't develop in a purely monotonic fashion. In other words, it wasn't all up, up, up, up, up. There are setbacks. We had dark ages, where certain technologies were lost for periods of time until we got them back. So it is quite possible that, just because we have the capability right now, doesn't mean that 2030, a hundred years from now, we'll still have the capability. So, in his mind, he wants to get on with it, and I get that.

On the other hand, there's good reasons to go back to the Moon first because there's still a lot we don't know. That would be nice to know before we send humans to Mars. And the biggest thing, probably, has to do with radiation. There's a lot of nasty radiation once you go back to the Moon, around to Mars.

When I was on the space shuttle and on the Space Station, we're above the atmosphere, but we're still pretty close to Earth. We're only about 300 kilometers up or just a little bit over 200 miles. And that's not far. 200 miles, that's pretty darn close. The Moon is a quarter of a million miles away. We're above all the atmosphere when we're on the Space Station, but the key is, we're still well below the Earth's magnetic field. And that magnetic field of the Earth is what protects all of us, not only while we're on the Space Station but all of us down here on Earth from the harmful radiation that's out there, outside the Earth's magnetic field. It's like a shield, like a force field, if you will.

So, if we go back to the Moon, we have to deal with that. And the way we dealt with it during Apollo is, we just didn't stay very long. Those missions were a week or two. So, if we want to go to Mars, there's no option to go to Mars for a week. If you're going, you're going for a couple years. If you just go for it, then you're committing to put people in that radiation environment for that long.

Now, we know exactly what kind of radiation is out there. We've had very sensitive instruments that have gone on all of our Mars probes and our rovers and other spacecraft we sent out beyond the Earth's magnetic field. So we know precisely what ions are out there and how much energy they have and what the flux is. We've measured all that. What we don't know is, ‘What does all that stuff do to the human body?’ Because there's no direct comparison that we have. The closest thing we have, as far as data goes, is from accidents with the radiation workers, or from survivors of the nuclear bombs in World War II. It's not really apples-to-apples either, because then we're talking about very high doses over short periods of time as opposed to lower doses over long periods of time.

The bottom line is, we don't really know what's going to happen to people. One way we can learn kind of safely is, we can go to the Moon and put people into that environment and stay for a couple weeks. Then we can stay for a couple months. Then we can stay for a year. And we could do this in kind of a building-block fashion. And then we'll know, we'll have data. And then we can go to Mars and we can know what kind of risk we're really taking. In my view, that's the most useful thing about going to the Moon first. But maybe we just go for it. I don't know.

Ken Harbaugh:

Are there any astronauts who don't think that going to Mars is a good idea, not for the technical reasons, not for the scientific challenge it poses, but because they're looking at what's going on down here and thinking, "You know what? We got to get our shit together first"?

Garrett Reisman:

Well, I don't think you can find any astronauts that say that they don't think it's a good idea, one day, for us to go to Mars. I think none of my buddies would say that. I don't know. Maybe there's somebody out there that would say that.

But this was the argument that was made during Apollo: "Why are we spending all this money on flying to the Moon when we have all these problems to deal with on Earth?" I think that argument has merit, and I think if we were spending a good percentage of our federal budget or our GDP on human space exploration, that would be a mistake because that would compromise our efforts to address climate change, and address the war in Ukraine, or address energy prices, or address all the homelessness, all the myriad of problems that we have down here on Earth. But we're not. We're not spending, like, 50% of our GDP or even 25% of our federal budget. If you take NASA's budget and you divide by the total federal budget, do you know what percentage?

Ken Harbaugh:

I don't.

Garrett Reisman:

It's half of 1%. So for every tax dollar that a taxpayer pays, one half of one penny goes to NASA. And that's not just for, like, the Artemis program for the Moon or the human spaceflight; that's for the James Webb Space Telescope, that's for the Helicopter on Mars, the Perseverance Rover, all the things that NASA does. They do it on one half of 1% of the US tax dollar. So, at that rate of expenditure, if we shut down NASA entirely and stopped exploring space, would it move the needle at all, if we just had one half of 1% more budget to spend? No, it's not going to make any measurable difference. So, I think that that rate of expenditure is appropriate, given the return on that investment and the fact that it's an investment in our future that will pay dividends down the road, I think is a smart play. I would advocate ramping it up to 1%, but I'm not going to advocate ramping it up to 10 or 20, because I do think we have other things we have to do.

Ken Harbaugh:

The ultimate argument isn't that we need a backup planet. It's that we're a species that has that desire to explore in our DNA, and this is the public expression of that. Is that a fair summary of your philosophy on it?

Garrett Reisman:

I would say it's both. I mean, yes, it's human nature to explore, and that's what we do. And there are people out there, including a past president of The Planetary Society, who believes that we could just do it all with VR: we could send these machines out there, we put on those goggles and pretend you're walking around on Mars. There might be something to say for that. I mean, it is fun to go on Google Earth and go walk around the streets of Paris or something and look around. That's kind of cool, but it's not as cool as going to Paris. So I don't think that ever will truly be satisfying from that perspective.

But I do think that there is something to this idea of survival of the species. And that is, I think, ultimately, maybe the strongest motivation to actually go, and that is what's driving Elon. I could tell you that. The idea is that we have essentially all of our eggs in this one basket here on Earth. And let me make something very clear: Elon or Jeff Bezos or any of these guys that are proponents of sending large numbers of people out into the solar system and getting off of Earth, none of them are saying that Earth is a disposable planet. All right? We're not saying that "Well, we've kind of wrecked this place with climate change. Let's just get out of here and move on to the next one." That is not what they're saying. In fact, Elon, his plan A was to deal with climate change by electrifying all of our personal transportation, which is why he created Tesla. Plan A is definitely preserve this place. And I could tell you, there is no place as well suited for human habitation and life than Earth. I mean, we evolved on this planet. Our organism is particularly well-suited for 14.7 psi atmospheric pressure, 80% nitrogen, 20% oxygen, and 1G. Our bodies are built for that. Our skeletons are built for that. Any place we go is not going to treat us nearly as well as this place, not to mention the fact this is the only planet in the known universe where there's pizza, which is not trivial. Having lived up there for three months without pizza, I could tell you that.

So, for all those reasons, nobody's saying that we want to get rid of Earth and move on, but we have to be somewhat realistic. There have been multiple, I think seven, extinction events, including the most famous one, the one that took out the dinosaurs when we got hit by an asteroid, but that was not the only extinction event over the course of Earth's history. If you go back billions of years, we had periods of time where there was so much volcanic activity that there was really no animal life on the planet. All life was nearly extinguished. So, the Earth has gone through all these different cataclysmic events, and there's going to be another one: It could be an asteroid, another asteroid. It could be a supervolcano, like Yellowstone, going berserk. And most likely, we could do it ourselves with climate change or nuclear war. It's perfectly within our capability to create our own extinction event.

For all those reasons, it'd be great if we did have another option, if we had a self-sustaining colony somewhere else in the solar system, where if the Earth does have another extinction event, human life will still go on. I think that is a valuable insurance policy and one worth pursuing.

Ken Harbaugh:

You worked at SpaceX. Do you have any reservations at all about billionaires like Elon, like Jeff Bezos leading the charge, in not an insignificant way, basically making policy for the human race?

Garrett Reisman:

Yeah. That's a thorny… that's a difficult question. I think, first of all, I'm actually grateful to Elon, and to Jeff, and to Richard, because they are committing a lot of their capital-

Ken Harbaugh:

Richard Branson, the third one, right?

Garrett Reisman:

Richard Branson, yes, who is another billionaire that's devoting a lot of his resources to human spaceflight. So, those three individuals, they've all ponied up the cash and put their own efforts into this with great vigor, and have really revitalized this whole industry and really disrupted the industry. There's been tremendous advantages, and NASA's been a beneficiary of a lot of it. In a certain sense, I admire what they've done and I appreciate what they've done.

I do think, though, that there is a risk. One thing that we have to be very clear about is that, so far, anyway, in the area of orbital human spaceflight, it's not just been SpaceX or any individual company or any individual billionaire that's really set the policy; it's been a partnership with NASA. So the SpaceX Crew Dragon, the Falcon 9 rocket, the Boeing Starliner, those were all developed in partnership with NASA, in a public-private partnership, where the design and the certification, the vehicle was done together with the government. And in a lot of ways, this is no different from the way NASA's always done this. NASA's always had a private company build their vehicles. There was not a factory with civil servants in it that built the Saturn V rocket. I mean, part of a variant of the Saturn V was built by the Chrysler Corporation. So there's always been private companies involved. It's just that, what's happening now is a different relationship and kind of giving the private company more freedom to innovate and to do things their own way. And that's had benefits for both sides. There's also a difference in IP ownership, intellectual property. The companies, SpaceX owns and operates those rockets and those spacecraft, and then they could turn around and use those rockets and spacecraft for private missions, where Rockwell, that built the space shuttle, could never do that. That was not part of the contract. They couldn't build another spaceship or even use the existing shuttle and sell tickets. That was against the law. But it's different now. There are some key differences, but in a lot of ways, it's the way it's always been in NASA, still. And I hope that that continues. Now, will that continue, or will SpaceX go to Mars without NASA, without the partnership and just do it themselves? It's possible. And then you do have to ask yourself questions about: Well, what will be the governance structure once we get to Mars? I mean, who's in charge over there? What's the law? Is it maritime law? What's the legal arrangement? If there's a crime committed on Mars, does it fall under US legal authority? Anyway, there's a lot of questions that I do think will be a lot more difficult if it's no longer a partnership.

Ken Harbaugh:

I vote for maritime law because then we can have pirates, right?

Garrett Reisman:

Life is always better with pirates. Yeah.

Ken Harbaugh:

Right. Al Gore famously argued that if we could all just see the Earth from space, we'd get along a little better. I'm wondering if your time and space seeing the Earth as a barely insulated ball of dirt and water changed your perspective once you got back home. Did it change how you think about politics or being a parent? How did it affect you?

Garrett Reisman:

Wow. Yeah. A lot of astronauts talk about this overview effect, where you see the Earth from space and realize all of a sudden that we're all in this together, and have the sense of unity as a human species, which is a wonderful sentiment. And I don't mean to disparage it in any way. But I'm a bit of an outlier because I didn't get this kind of sudden epiphany like a lot of these guys talk about. I looked out the window and it was nice, it was pretty. The oceans were really blue. And looking at the aurora, that was spectacularly beautiful. Things like that. And watching the sun come up over the horizon was breathtaking, especially once when I did it when I was out in the spacewalk. I still have that image. I could see it right now. So, yes, that was all beautiful, but it didn't lead to this kind of transformative moment or this overview effect that- and I think it's because I knew this before I left, that, fundamentally, what makes us all human beings and the things that unite us are so much more powerful and important than all the tribal things that divide us. Whether that be religion, nationality, race, politics, gender, all those things that divide us are trivial compared to the fact that we're all, fundamentally, human beings, created equal, living in the same home, breathing the same air. You shouldn't, in my opinion, have to strap yourself into a rocket and blast off into space and look back at the Earth to realize that one fundamental, self-evident truth that we're all human beings. It's great that they talk about it that way, but we should all understand that intrinsically.

Ken Harbaugh:

That way of thinking suggests that, if we faced a common threat as a species, those commonalities would supersede and override our petty differences and we'd band together. I mean, the example, sometimes, given is: if aliens invaded, we'd figure out that "Yeah. We got to work together." So I'm sympathetic to your perspective, but then I think about a common threat like climate change and our total inability to rise above our petty differences, and I'm stuck on which side I'm going to fall on.

Garrett Reisman:

Yeah, I know. Boy, there's a lot of things we could talk about there. I know. It would be like Independence Day. If we were invaded, we'd be like, "July 4th is now everyone's Independence Day," whatever Bill Pullman said. So, yeah, it would be great. But that is a clear and present danger where there's no… The problem we have with climate change is kind of the old prisoner's dilemma, where your country can do great things and do lots of… reduce energy consumption and sacrifice and reduce their carbon footprint, but if the other countries don't follow suit, it's all for nothing. It's this classic game-theory problem of the prisoner's dilemma. So that's why I think it's proven to be so intractable, because "Why should I turn down or turn up my thermostat if those guys aren't doing it?" So that is a problem. And we have to overcome that because I think it's becoming more and more clear that, yes, it's affecting all of us and that nobody's going to be immune from this problem. But it's difficult.

One of the things I learned from working with Elon, watching what he did with Tesla, is: the key is not to address this all with sticks. And I was just over in Armenia, by the way, and I was hanging out with some climate-change scientists and talking about how they realize that they have to understand better how to deal with public policy and public perception because they fail miserably. Because if they just keep saying, "The sky is falling," this is not the sky falling. It's not Chicken Little, the sky is actually falling. But if they just keep browbeating everybody, it's not effective. It turns people off and it drives them to inaction, makes them passive. And one of the things I learned, again, from watching Elon with Tesla, which is that, there has to be a carrot, too. So the way I look at this in the Tesla example is, he realized that as long as people were only buying electric cars because they cared about the environment, and they were willing to put up with deficiencies, not being able to go as far, not being able to go as fast, not being as safe by driving these little, tiny, basically, golf carts, that it was never going to catch on and it was never going to have mass appeal. So what he said was that "We have to do both. We have to make a car that addresses climate change, an electric vehicle, but make a car, also, that is better than the alternatives at the same time, and make a car that goes faster, that is sexier, that has better performance, better features, so the people will buy the car because it's a better car." And I think we need to do the same thing with climate change. I think we really need to invest heavily in energy production in a sustainable way. I want my children, and I want the children in countries that are developing, in the future to use more energy per capita than I do. I want them to crank those air conditioning units up. I want them to have a bigger house, whatever, use all that energy, travel around the world in airplanes, do all that. But let's find a way that we can do all that and, at the same time, not produce greenhouse gas emissions. I think there is a technical solution if we try hard enough, and we can do both. I think that's how we fix this problem and make everybody's life better. Not saying we're going to address climate change and your life's going to have to get worse in the process; we're going to address climate change and your life's going to get better. And I think the policy makers are starting to come around to that.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. I have always assumed that people in your line of work have just a reflexively optimistic outlook when it comes to technology. So it really surprised me to hear you talk about Elon Musk's technological pessimism and this idea that the window might close. I mean, in our politics we have this same tension: those who believe that the wheel always turns forward if we keep pushing it, and those who believe that we could slide back very quickly, very dramatically without even realizing it. Where do you fall in terms of, not just technological optimism, but this idea that the wheel of progress inexorably turns forward?

Garrett Reisman:

It was a Martin Luther King quote about the arc of justice bending… Yeah. I don't know. Certainly, prior to Donald Trump's election, I thought that that arc was bending the right way, and I thought we were on this inexorable march towards a better future, where we're going to be more tolerant and we're going to get along better and be more sympathetic to each other as a human species. And then, I think anybody that's seen what's happened in this country over the past 10 years now, I guess, over the past decade, realizes that "No. The progress is much more tenuous and much more fragile. And we could totally backslide and regress." So we just live through that right here, but that's nothing new. There's plenty of historical examples. Look at Germany after World War II as far as a country that regressed.

So, as far as social progress, our technology keeps getting better, for the most part. At least in the recent century, it's been getting better all the time. But our social progress has its ups and downs. So in a way, if you're a screenwriter in Hollywood, it's what you want, right? I mean, the thing that makes human existence, if you could detach yourself and be objective and view it from, like, the Moon, looking back at Earth, as an alien species, just observing the Earth, the thing that makes human life so fascinating is the fact that we have just the right balance of good and evil in our nature to make the outcome completely uncertain. And I am optimistic that we end up in that Star Trek future, where we all get along and we're out there. And if we do, we're going to be spreading out through the solar system. We're going to go beyond that. It's inevitable if we can find a way to get along and solve our problems, working together.

But you could just as easily, I hate to say it, but just as easy could end up in the dystopian future, where either we're fighting our own machines, like the Terminator or the few survivors of a nuclear war. There's a lot of very bleak possible outcomes, too. I don't know. I don't know. But as far as what world do I want for my children, I think that's obvious, and I would hope that we would all want that. So there's got to be some way of getting back on track.

Ken Harbaugh:

Are you a particular kind of sci-fi nerd? You've mentioned Star Trek twice now. Is that the vein you would put yourself in, or are you more of a Star Wars guy? I've heard you like Kubrick, as well, which is its own very, very narrow niche. Where do you fit?

Garrett Reisman:

Yeah, no. I play both sides on this one, too. I also am a big fan of Star Wars, as well. I like Star Trek and Star Wars. I'm working on a TV show right now, For All Mankind. That's my current obsession, but it's also my job. So I'm a little biased there. It's on Apple TV, by the way. 4.99 a month. Sign up.

Anyway, but actually, if you asked me what my… We did this. I remember when we were getting together early with NASA, it was a really hard time. One of my biggest challenges at SpaceX was getting SpaceX and NASA, who had two completely different corporate cultures, to work together and to get along. And so, we were having this big meeting when we were starting to get really serious about flying NASA astronauts on SpaceX rockets. And to try to break the ice, I had everybody go around the table and say, "What's your favorite science-fiction movie or space movie?" And when it came to me, I didn't say Star Wars, or Wrath of Khan, or even Apollo 13. Those were probably the favorites. I said Galaxy Quest because I like the funny stuff. So Galaxy Quest, I think, is the best space movie of all time.

Ken Harbaugh:

For All Mankind is an alternative history series about what things would look like if the Soviets, if the Russians beat the Americans to the Moon. I have heard you talk about all the conspiracy theories are out there, mostly the ones that are related to the Moon landing. And you've said that you used to be flattered by them, but now they worry you. Can you explain?

Garrett Reisman:

Yeah. Back in the good old days, when the nutjobs out there were just focused on that the Moon landing was fake, back in the fun old days, when it was relatively benign, I almost took it as a compliment. I really did, because I thought "Wow, we did something so improbable." A lot of us take it for granted. But if you think back to, let's say, I guess it was, I want to say 1961 or ‘62, when JFK first gave his speech to a joint session of Congress, where he said, "We're going to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they're hard." And by the way, my son, one day, threw that back in my face. I told him to clean his room. He said, "Dad, I will clean my room, not because it is easy, but because it is hard." Smartass.

But anyway, when he said that, he said it twice. First time was to a joint session at Congress. And at that point, do you know how much time Americans had logged in space?

Ken Harbaugh:

No, I don't, but probably not much.

Garrett Reisman:

15 minutes, and, I believe, 22 seconds, which is a total length of Alan Shepard's initial suborbital flight. That's all we had. And he said, "Within 10 years, we're going to be walking down the Moon and coming back." That's crazy. All right? I assert that that is actually much more aspirational than anything that Elon or Jeff or Richard has ever said. And that's saying a lot. But the amazing thing is that we did it, and now we kind of take it for granted, but that was so hard to do back then. We're having a hard time doing it again all these years later.

So, I think when people said, "Oh, it was a hoax. It was on the sound stage in Hollywood," or whatever, I kind of took it as a compliment because it was like, "Wow, we did something so hard, they're still, even today, having a difficult time. With all the evidence and video and everything, they're still having a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that we actually pulled it off. That's cool." I thought that.

But what changed over the years is this fringe movement of conspiracy theorists started entering the mainstream over the past decade. And you started getting these crazy conspiracy about JFK Jr still being alive, or some pizza parlor in DC that's human trafficking with Hillary Clinton, and all this crazy, insane stuff. Conspiracy theories became part of certain governments' official foreign policy. I mean, Putin's doing it right now with the denunciation of Ukraine and everything. It's no longer funny, all right? I could laugh the guys in the tinfoil hats that said we didn't go to the Moon. But now that it's corrupting our society and amplified by social media, it's a clear danger to our democracy. And now any kind of conspiracy theorist, I just find it, really, no longer remotely a laughing matter.

Ken Harbaugh:

What do we do about it? I mean, clearly, there are influencers and leaders and politicians who are instigating and provoking these wild theories. Not sure how much control we have at that level, but is there something culturally or policy-oriented in terms of education that we can do to prepare people for a world that is so confusing in terms of information flows and sources?

Garrett Reisman:

Boy, Ken, I really, really wish I had a good answer to that question. Unfortunately, I have to admit I don't.

It seems like just making sure the truth gets out there, fact-checking and so forth doesn't really work. It seems that the people who buy into this stuff, no matter how… The stuff is so easily objectively disproven, even flat-earthers and stuff. The ancient Greeks did scientific experiments that prove that the Earth is round, a sphere. So it's not like sharing that information or knowledge changes their mind. So what will? It's a fundamental conundrum facing all the people that run our social media platforms, that: So much of this goes on, do you shut it down? And if you do shut it down, does that just make it worse, because, then, that confirms that "Oh, we're right. This proves we're right." Because I have people who will hand me stuff that they print out, and I ask them, "Well, why don't you just send me the link," and they say, "Well, oh no, because they banned it." I'm like, "Well, shouldn't that tell you something?" But it doesn't stop him.

So, boy, if you figure this out, please let me know. I would ask every guest on your podcast that question. Maybe somebody will have a solution, but unfortunately, I don't.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, I want to end on a slightly elevated note. You've walked in space. I put a similar question to combat vets sometimes, and I'm wondering if it applies to astronauts. When you've had that life-changing adrenaline rush, does normal life pale in comparison? Is it hard to go back down to Earth; in your case, literally, not just metaphorically; and try to live a normal life?

Garrett Reisman:

Wow. Well, the first… I want to make a distinction because you brought up combat. And that is that I get kind of embarrassed when… sometimes I'll be introduced to give a talk or something and they'll say, "Now there's an American hero." There's a big difference in what I did, what you did, Ken, because nobody was shooting at me. All right?

Ken Harbaugh:

I was 30,000 feet above it, so I was pretty clear of it, but keep going.

Garrett Reisman:

They have these missiles you know.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yes, they do.

Garrett Reisman:

I did what I did, and it was risky, but I did it because I was so excited about it and I loved doing it. I wanted to do it. And I was really motivated, personally as well as altruistically, but there was a selfish side of it, too. I wanted the adventure, the excitement. Somebody who goes out there because they're doing it as a sense of duty and patriotism for their country and are putting themselves in that harm's way, not just because they're off on a grand personal adventure, but because they're doing it for a higher cause, that is true heroism. And I cannot equate what I did, to that. It would be completely wrong. So I just want to draw that line.

But having said that, as far as the excitement and the adrenaline rush, it was awesome, don't get me wrong, and I miss it. I do miss the excitement of being up in space and, oh, doing a spacewalk. Nothing beats that. And even flying around the T-38s, I miss that. But all those things were fantastic life experiences. And what excites me is… they might not be to the same scale, but I still get a lot of enjoyment and a lot of adrenaline rush out of flying my little piston airplane. I have a Cirrus, and I fly that thing around. And on some days, that can be just as challenging as flying a T-38, depending on what the scenario. I still enjoy going on hikes and exploring new mountains and doing all those kinds of outdoor things. And so I still get my fix, if you will, that way. It might not be to the same magnitude as it used to be, but there's so many other things in life that are so worthwhile. And I have a family now. I have kids. And just being a dad is another great adventure that I really enjoy. One of the best pieces of advice I got when I was still at NASA thinking about going to SpaceX was: First of all, you only get to leave the astronaut office once. And second of all, always, whenever you're making a move like this or change, don't go away from something; go towards something. Always be excited and find something to do in your future that you are passionate about and make you happy. And given everything that happened at SpaceX, I would have to say that mission was accomplished. So I think that's the key.

Ken Harbaugh:

Awesome. Well, it's been so great having you. I've got a note here: "Once we're done saving democracy, let's make sure we get pizza in space." So that'll be the next thing.

Garrett Reisman:

Yes, please.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again, Garrett.

Garrett Reisman:

My pleasure, Ken. Good talking to you.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again to Garrett for joining me.

To learn more about Garrett, visit his website, garrettreisman.com, and make sure to check out his podcast, Two Funny Astronauts. The link is in the show description

You can also find him on Twitter at @astro_g_dogg

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We're always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more follow us on Twitter @team_harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss. I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.


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