This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, Jan. 2, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.
BOB SELLERS, GUEST HOST: Two American Mars rovers are due to land on the Red Planet... Meantime, it looks like England's Beagle II (search) is stranded.
ROGER LAUNUS, CHIEF OF SPACE HISTORY, SMITHSONIAN AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM: Well, we'd like to find the past capability of having water on the surface of that planet. If we find that, the chances are very good we will find some sort of fossilized life (search) that may have existed there millions of year ago.
SELLERS: What would we learn from that?
LAUNUS: Are we alone in the universe? That is the number one question that space scientists have been pursuing these many years and finding that will be just stupendous to our entire civilization.
SELLERS: What about the argument that just going somewhere and targeting something, it just happens to be Mars, is a positive thing for science itself?
LAUNUS: Well, targeting some body in the solar system is a positive thing. No question about that. In the context of going to the moon, going to Mars, those are two of the big targets that people talk about for human exploration.
But sending robot probes, sending our robot emissaries everywhere in the solar system is something we are seeking to do. Mars is such an inviting target because of the possibility of past life.
SELLERS: How long does it take to get to Mars?
LAUNUS: Well, just about a year. It depends on how big a rocket you put on this thing, obviously. But normally we launch about every other year. It takes about a year of cruise time to arrive there and then there is activity that takes place for several months thereafter if the mission is successful.
SELLERS: Are you one of those folks that would like to see maybe some sort of base on Mars that people could visit?
LAUNUS: Well, I would love to see us undertake a human expedition to mars. I don't think that is going to happen in the short-term, by any stretch of the imagination. Human bases are probably going to be confined to the moon for the next 45 or 50 years. But that would be an important step as well.
SELLERS: What is your response to the economic argument that this is a waste of money?
LAUNUS: It's not. It's peanuts in the overall scheme of things. The entire NASA budget is about $15 billion and change and that's less than 1 percent of the federal budget. So, it's a very small amount of money. And the robotic missions that are going to Mars are peanuts in comparison to even the NASA budget.
SELLERS: Let's say we're able to get to Mars. Let's say we're able to find something that looks like, “Gee, maybe there was water on here. There are canals.” And you find some sign of life. Do you expect that life — of course we don't know, we're not there — but is the scientific community in the belief that this is like some humanoid existence previously or is it some different kind of life?
LAUNUS: I don't think there's very many scientists who would think there was something like we might call little green men on Mars that is so much a part of our popular culture. But some form of life, probably it would have been relatively simple in its construction. But perhaps more complex forms did evolve on Mars. We don't know. We'd really like to try to find that out.
SELLERS: Are you talking about an amoeba? What kind of thing are you talking about?
LAUNUS: Single-cell life is what most people are focused on. Something more complex than that, that might be something that would be an invertebrate of some type. It would be very exciting for a whole lot of people. But most people don't anticipate finding that.
SELLERS: And all coming from, as Carl Sagan (search) might say, star stuff.
SELLERS: Which makes us all related in some way, I guess. Tell me what it is like to be chief of the Air and Space Museum. I, like so many other people go in there, and I'm awestruck by what's in there. What is it like going to work every day?
LAUNUS: The Air and Space Museum is one of the most wonderful places in the United States. When I walk in the morning, I walk past the Wright Flyer, the Lindbergh Spirit of St. Louis, the Glamorous Glennis Bell X-1 that Chuck Yeager flew, the Apollo 11 spacecraft and so on.
All of these are objects that are significant for the technical development of the United States in the 20th century. It is truly an inspiring experience.
SELLERS: And it is good for children to go to because it kind of opens up your entire world as you see what's possible. Thank you very much, sir.
LAUNUS: Thank you.
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