The prez and the professor: Holdren and Obama at the White House, in March.
Win McNamee—Getty Images
By Jeffrey Kluger
December 21, 2015

It’s not easy being John Holdren. As Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology, he has the unenviable job of explaining and promoting complex policy to a public that too often rejects what ought to be basic scientific truths. But one thing most Americans still agree on is space—we love it, we’re good at it and we can’t get enough of it.

Since 2011, the American space program has been at a crossroads, with the shuttle in mothballs and the International Space Station (ISS) still flying, but with no means to send astronauts there without buying seats on Russia’s Soyuz rocket—which go for more than $70 million each. And those challenges don’t even take into consideration NASA’s and the Administration’s long-term goal—getting astronauts to Mars by the 2030s. TIME sat down with Holdren to discuss these and other pressing issues—all of which gain urgency as President Obama enters his final year in office and looks to establish his Administration’s legacy in space.

TIME: The NASA budget is nowhere near what it was in the Apollo days. Can we really get to Mars—even by the 2030s?

Holdren: We are already on Mars with robots, but getting there with humans is a big challenge, its going to be expensive. I believe it will be done jointly, it will be an international project. I don’t think we will have a race to Mars with the United States, Russia, the European Union, Japan, China, all competing. I think we are going to go together and that is one of the reasons it will become affordable.

Is there any preliminary work or planning being done for that kind of international mission?

Of course there are preliminary conversations going on. We are not at a moment of great relations with Russia, but we still collaborate with Russia on the ISS, which is a great example of international corporation in space. Roughly a hundred billion dollars has gone into that operation. It really is an unbelievable project when you look at what is almost a small town in the sky. Mars will be a bigger project in all likelihood and I expect again that all of the major players are going to come to the view that sending humans to Mars simply has to be a joint venture.

The wild card that exists today and that didn’t exist in the Apollo era is the private sector. Could the likes of Elon Musk and SpaceX wind up overtaking government space programs?

I think we are going to see an increasing private sector role in space overall. We have brought in new models, working with the private sector to get cargo and humans to the ISS. The initial idea there was to give the private sector a larger role in relatively straightforward missions like going to LEO [low-Earth orbit], while letting NASA focus its capabilities on its most demanding missions. But the private sector is proving so energetic and ambitious that I have to assume that they will be looking to play a bigger role in the more demanding mission and find a way to do so.

The President’s nearer term goal is an asteroid redirect mission—the idea of capturing a small asteroid, steering it to the vicinity of the moon and then sending astronauts to land on it. A lot of people have asked what the purpose of such an improbable mission is.

I actually think there is much less skepticism out there than earlier. I think it makes it sense from the standpoint of developing technological capabilities. It also makes sense from the standpoint of developing a better understanding of the asteroids that come closest to the Earth and the possibilities for deflecting one should it come up on a collision course. A lot of commercial companies are interested in learning what kinds of minerals asteroids contain and possibly developing a business in mining them for materials that could be used in space, saving us the trouble of lifting them out of the Earth’s gravitational field. There are even companies that believe there are going to be such valuable minerals that it would be worth bringing them back to Earth.

The moon has been taken off the table as a goal for manned space flight, but one of the challenges of a Mars mission is figuring out how to build a base camp and live off the land for months at a time. Why doesn’t it make sense to practice that first on a world that is only three days away?

The short answer is, fundamentally, money. Our estimate of what it would cost to develop a base on the moon is $60 billion or more. No one looking at the U.S. budget can figure out where the money to do that would come from. Basically by operating in the vicinity of the moon as we would in the case of an asteroid redirect mission, we can develop and demonstrate the capacities we would need for long term habitation without paying the enormous price of setting up operations on the moon.

How confident are you that the next President will continue President Obama’s space policies, particularly concerning the construction of a new heavy-lift rocket and crew vehicle for deep space exploration?

There are certain fundamentals that everyone who looks at the challenges of space exploration [recognizes]: a heavy lift rocket is one of them, a crew capsule is another. Every President who comes into office and looks at the space program also comes to understand what the program means for U.S. technological leadership and what it means as inspiration for young people. We still find that getting kids inspired about science and math and engineering is one of the great features of the space program. It seems to do it more effectively than anything else.

What will President Obama’s space legacy be?

I would say first of all, restructuring the space program and coming to an agreement with Congress so that we can meet congressional priorities and the President’s priorities. We have put the [human exploration] program on a sustainable course, without gutting space science, astronomy, cosmology and the space telescopes, which are immensely important.

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