The Knowledge Project | Thomas Zurbuchen: Adventures in Astrophysics

Key Takeaways

  • The most important question is: “Is somebody else watching the other way?” Dr. Zurbuchen
    • Life, like planetary systems, might also be distributed in the universe
  • International coordination in space is critical for our future
    • However, we see some countries that are making us question whether they’re serious about the peaceful utilization of space
      • Things will only heat up because the mining approach to the “world in space” is inevitable
      • This is especially true of colonizing Mars and mining asteroids
  • The toughest part of research is walking the edge between irrelevance and the seemingly impossible
    • This requires building programs that push that edge at the maximum speed viable and require that you learn how to fail
  • Two red flags that he tries to keep an eye out for when running an organization:
    • Dishonesty, or over-exaggerating your comfort level 
    • Blindness, or forgetting you might not be seeing some part of your trade space
  • “The priority is mission success. We will not rush and make stupid mistakes because every one of these mistakes in that environment costs us hundreds of millions of dollars. Saving a day and having six months to fix a mistake, it’s just a bad thing.” – Thomas Zurbuchen

Intro

  • Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen (@Dr_ThomasZ) is currently Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, where he seeks answers to big questions about the universe and our place in it. Previously, he was a professor of space science and aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan and a founding director of its Center for Entrepreneurship.
  • Host: Shane Parrish (@ShaneAParrish)
  • In this conversation, Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen talks about other life in the universe, some cool experiments on the ISS, the future of Mars and space mining, and the trials and tribulations of leadership in an organization like NASA.

Dr. Zurbuchen’s Unusual Start in Astrophysics

  • Dr. Zurbuchen grew up in an isolated religious community in the mountains of Switzerland
    • He didn’t have a lot, but what he did have access to was the clear night sky
      • “I bought a star map and I started looking at it. So for me, the stars were always both a goal and an escape.” – Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen
    • One of the most important questions he asked himself as a kid is: “Is somebody else watching the other way?”
      • Dr. Zurbuchen thinks this is a question we are on track to answer
      • “When I started my master’s degree, we had no planets elsewhere other than the ones in our solar system. In the meantime, we have thousands of those planets and some of them look awfully like our own relative to the data we have, which are really really really sparse. So we’re on that track towards a belief or kind of a sense that yeah, you know, life, just like planetary systems, life could also be very much distributed in the universe.” Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen

The International Space Station

  • What are the most interesting things we’ve learned from running experiments on the International Space Station (ISS)?
    • One question we’ve been able to more clearly understand is how is the human body, or even life itself, changes without the presence of gravity
      • There’s also very important work being done to understand its effect relative to our bone structure, our visual system, and gene expression
    • Another exciting experiment being performed on the ISS is the measuring of the ingredients of neutron stars, which are high energy, high-density stars
  • Are experiments on the ISS coordinated across countries and is the data shared? Or does each country do their own experiments?
    • NASA has a policy of sharing all data
      • There are partnerships in which multiple countries participate and they make sure that we’re not doing the same things twice
      • NASA encourages and empowers both government agencies and companies to work on the space station and coordinate
  • How does the ISS stay safe in space?
    • The Earth’s magnetic field plays a huge role in keeping the ISS safe
      • We still don’t fully understand how the magnetic field around Earth occurs
    • What we do understand is that the magnetic field shields the inside of the Earth (everything down to the surface) and the ISS from energized particles from the Sun and other sources deep in the galaxy

Top Challenges in Governing Space

  • “We have a problem as an international community that low earth orbit is choked with debris. It’s one of the things we have to solve in the next ten years. We have to clean that garbage.”  Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen
    • Low earth orbit is full of debris and satellites, and soon it will be too congested to launch new equipment into space at that orbit
    • In addition, the upper atmosphere has a drag force, and that debris will fall onto the earth like an artificial meteor shower
  • “One of the things we want to be careful about is keeping space peaceful. I think that’s something we’ve been watching with trepidation.” – Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen
    • Treaties have been signed both in the US and elsewhere
      • However, some countries are making us question whether they’re serious about the peaceful utilization of space
        • They can put telescopes there, observe whoever they want to, their people or other people
        • They can do that by law but they cannot, for example, weaponize space

The Future of Mars and Mining in Space

  • Does Dr. Zurbuchen think we’ll live or work on Mars in our lifetime?
    • “I don’t know. Never underestimate the power of innovation. That’s really important, but what I want to do is just break down the first few miracles because it’s good for all of humanity.” – Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen
  • How likely is it that Mars becomes a contested mining colony in the future?
    • The mining approach to the world  in space is inevitable
      • “I think this is an issue of our lifetime. Resources relate to living there, living off the land, but it is also about creating business models that kind of make it viable. Its feasibility and viability that matter.” – Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen
    • In addition to Mars, Dr. Zurbuchen foresees 16 Psyche, a large asteroid suspected of being the core of a failed planet, playing a major role in near-future space mining

Leadership, Failure, and Accountability

  • The hardest part of the research is always to find that edge
    • Thomas imagines research as walking in the mountains on that ridge
      • One side is irrelevant – we’ve already proven it, it’s easy to do research there, it’s safe
      • The other side is the impossible side – questions don’t only need the right question, but also the right time for that question
    • The obstacle is to build programs that push that edge at the maximum speed viable that requires that you learn how to fail
      • “For me, what I hate, if you want to tick me off, come show up and tell me everything is low risk. That makes me believe you haven’t understood your job, right? Don’t make me laugh, don’t make me feel good. Make me feel scared and then make me feel comfortable because you’re dealing with all the risks. Don’t come and say it’s all low risk. It is not low risk, it’s rocket science.” – Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen
    • One of the things Thomas believes in is not getting pushed
      • If he’s not sure, he doesn’t mind being the only guy who’s not comfortable and he will back off
  • How does Thomas think about decision-making in an organization?
    • Thomas makes sure to sit down and explain his thought process when making decisions
      • He tries to work backward, imagining having to argue how he made his decision in front of Congress
    • There are two red flags that he tries to keep an eye out for:
      • Dishonesty, or someone over-exaggerating their comfort level
      • Blindness, or forgetting you might not be seeing some part of your trade space
    • “The priority is mission success. We will not rush and make stupid mistakes because every one of these mistakes in that environment costs us hundreds of millions of dollars. Saving a day and having six months to fix a mistake, it’s just a bad thing.” Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen
Knowledge Project : ,
Notes By Mellisa Waltzer

More Notes on these topics

Top Insights and Tactics From

31 Best Podcasts of All Time

FREE when you join over 12,000 subscribers to the
Podcast Notes newsletter

No Thanks