Lederberg on his involvement with the space program

Well, like almost any kid my age, I've been fascinated with the idea of rockets and interplanetary traveling, so I remember very vividly the Orson Welles broadcast of the men from Mars. In October 30, 1938. It's been redone a couple of times... I thought it was a double spoof: first you had the broadcast, and that was a great story, typed as being a newscast and so on, and then later on they would interrupt the programming later on that evening with reassurances telling people no, it was all show, and I said, Orson Welles is really very clever: he not only got his spoof into the first hour, he also got the spoof of the interrupted broadcast. I thought that was a spoof too, I couldn't believe anybody would take it seriously.

There was also a cable TV movie recapitulating it and that was very amusing. It's a rather poor quality recording as a matter of fact. Well, so, I can use that to tie down...as a kid of 13 I knew enough about Mars and so on to know what was probable or possible or not, in that story. The immediate provocation was that space was there, that in 1957 I in fact had an opportunity to see Sputnik at a very early time, because I was in Australia, and in the southern hemisphere it was visible for a few days before it was visible in the northern hemisphere, so it made quite a stir, and so I saw a satellite in orbit, and I said ok, the space age was about to begin, we better start thinking about what we can do with it as an experimental tool, and what precautions we need to take. And I was mostly concerned about the latter, so when I got back to Wisconsin in 1958, I started a successful campaign to be sure that there would be a doctrine of quarantine for space missions, so that we wouldn't carry terrestrial bugs to Mars, and we wouldn't let material come back from the planets to the Earth without taking very stringent precautions. That was the protective part of it. I was the first to introduce the issue but it got a lot of attention very quickly, and it actually ended up being an international treaty to consult about making those arrangements. That put me in touch with the newly developing space agency, and it became obvious to me that they didn't have the foggiest idea what they were going to do about biological issues, so I organized a couple of committees to advise them on biological aspects of the future space exploration, biological science and at one point they said listen, you've been a very useful critic, you've been a very useful commentator, so why don't you put some of your own effort into designing some of the experiments, and my colleagues thought I was crazy that we would have vehicles to Mars somewhere at the end of the 21st century, but I knew better. And the timetable is roughly what I predicted it to be. I have a sense of how rapidly technology progresses. And I wanted to be sure that when that was done, it was done right. I was never a great fan of huge expenditures to space, and I'd argue against it, as a matter of fact, but once that was settled, that it was going to be this huge investment at least I would get the best scientific deal from it as possible. I was not in favor of the Apollo missions, I thought sending people to land on Mars was silly, it accomplished no useful purpose, it was taking risks for the people for a piece of showmanship, and I guess I still feel that way. The same kind of investment in automated systems would have put us much further ahead in robotics and computation and so on, and there'd be more side benefits from it, and we would get more of the scientific data we wanted, and if you want people in the loop, then for that kind of money you could sell time to people on the ground so they could manipulate joysticks and operate instruments across planetary space, but Mr. Kennedy had different views on the matter, so I guess his vote counts more than mine. I don't want to in any way demean the astronauts. I know a few of them, and they are heroic people in every sense of the term, and I have a lot of admiration for them. And what guts.