NASA Ames' director talks Yuri's Night,
Google, and more
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF.--In April 2006, NASA
announced that it was bringing in University of Arizona
astronomy professor and former brigadier general Simon "Pete"
Worden to be the director of its NASA Ames Research Center here.
NASA Ames director Pete Worden has brought a
fresh perspective to the facility since his arrival in 2006. At
the Yuri's Night celebration on Saturday, he demonstrated his
sense of humor and history by wearing a Soviet-era general's
uniform in recognition of the first-ever space flight by
cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin
Since then, Worden has
brought a fresh perspective to the helm of one of NASA's
most important research facilities, demonstrated through
initiatives such as giving a keynote address to the
International Space Development Conference from the virtual
Life. (Note: My wife works at Second Life publisher
But along with administrators at several other NASA
facilities, Worden has been a leader in hosting Yuri's
something that might not have been possible even just a few
An evening of art, music, dancing, fire, and science, Yuri's
Night has become a much anticipated event for many people,
especially the version held annually here at NASA Ames.
On Saturday, as the party throbbed just feet away, and as
Worden sat drenched in sweat from having participated in a
fashion contest wearing a Soviet-era general's outfit, he
sat for an open-ended, if short, interview with CNET
Q: Why is NASA hosting this event?
Worden: Tonight, there are at least four NASA centers doing
it. The fundamental issue facing NASA is that we're
embarking on the most significant step that has ever been
done in space. The next step is settling the solar system.
The U.S. space exploration program is a key part of that, as
well as efforts around the world. NASA has always played a
key role in other critical issues that face us as well, such
as aeronautics, all the way up to understanding the secrets
of the universe and addressing climate change. Those are all
NASA jobs. But to do that we need the next generation
excited about space and the other things that NASA does. But
we are a technology agency, and it's a lot of science and
math and engineering. Sometimes that's not considered quite
as cool as other things. We think it is. And Yuri's Night is
an opportunity to bring the next generation in and show them
how cool it is. This is an opportunity to reflect on the
past, such as the first humans in space, such as Yuri
Gagarin in 1961. Our first Space Shuttle flight in 1981. And
to the future, where the future means expanding into the
solar system. But we're not just expanding as machines and
science. We're expanding as humans. There's art, culture,
music, and dancing. So it's about all those things as well
and to link that with the technical aspects will be maybe
the most inspiring thing we can do.
Talk a little about
NASA's role in addressing climate change?
It's basically NASA data that has enabled us to
understand climate change and that changes are
occurring, and that human activities are a significant
part of that. Here at NASA Ames, we specialize in
measurements of climate change. Second, NASA Ames houses
the agency's supercomputer, the Columbia supercomputer,
and one of its primary purposes is to run these very
significant climate models and to support research from
climate researchers around the world. We do the detail
work, and we run airborne sensors, and we run the really
sophisticated computer models here.
Can NASA Ames be a center of research into peace?
I think we are a center of research into peace. I can't
think of anything more peaceful than working with the
rest of world to expand humanity into the solar system,
or to address some of the pressing issues like climate
change that are facing the Earth or researching new
green energy solutions. Peace in its fullest and most
positive sense is bringing everybody together. Probably
the most significant thing NASA did in the 1960s was to
take that famous picture of Earth from space. That made
people realize we have a lot more in common than
differences. I believe that it was that one image that
has led to the end of the Cold War, and to growing
Please talk a little about NASA's repositioning of
It is one of the most significant areas, and an
interdisciplinary field. We're trying to invent a new
area based on the fusion of biology, astronomy, physics,
and engineering. And there are three key questions: One,
where did we come from, and where did life come from;
two, Where else is it in the universe; and, three, what
is the future of life in the universe. That is a very
exciting area. There were some cuts in our astrobiology
program, but we're seeing those have been largely
restored, and we have a very optimistic program. We're
expanding the program.
What's the period, like this one, leading up to a
change in presidential administration like for NASA?
Every election is both an opportunity and a potential
problem. After awhile you grow comfortable in what your
current leadership, both congressional and presidential,
tells you to do. But there's going to be new leadership,
and I'm pretty optimistic that though there will be some
changes, the fundamental direction of NASA is not going
to change. The NASA Authorization Act of 2005 passed by
huge majorities. There was bipartisan support for it.
All of the potential candidates voted for that.
Why was the deal to allow Google's co-founders to
keep their airplanes at Ames good for the facility?
The key point is that this is a research center, and it
has a lot of facilities that are expensive to maintain.
We have very limited usage of the airfield, and we're
fortunate enough to have 1,800 acres of Silicon Valley
real estate, which is very valuable. Congress and the
White House have pushed us to form new relationships
with private corporations, and there are 55 corporate
tenants on Moffett Field. We also have research
partnerships, including one with Google. In addition, we
are building public/private partnerships with other
people who have airplanes, and we lease those
facilities. The use they put it to is some benefit to
NASA. In this case, the Google co-founders' airplanes
are available for some NASA research use, and we've used
those a number of times. Plus they pay us for the
hangar, and this is a real win/win, and it's good
government. We're defraying government costs. And it's
not really a sweetheart deal. The use of the facility is
Is Google building a
facility at NASA Ames?
We're in discussions with Google to lease tens of acres
that they would use to build new facilities, offices,
research facilities and housing. I would expect in a few
months to have some agreement on that. We're also in
discussions with a consortium of universities to build a
university campus here. Right now, it's the University
of California, which is the lead university, and Santa
Clara University, Foothill College, and De Anza College,
and Carnegie Mellon University. The idea is to have a
campus devoted to some of the specific expertise that's
needed to power Silicon Valley. And this is an ideal
location for it.
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