TODAY   |  April 15, 2010

Space cuts to hit U.S. prestige, scientist says

Physicist Michio Kaku tells TODAY’s Matt Lauer that with the cancellation of the Constellation program, the U.S. will lose its status as a leader in space exploration, falling behind Russia and China.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> much. a theoretical physicist , best selling author and a host on the sci-fi channel. president's saying basically, times are tough. there is nasty recession out there, bloating at nasa . there's room to cut money here. constellation is one good place. i know you agree with the assessment that there's room for cuts. you don't necessarily agree with the process.

>> well, we need a leaner and meaner nasa . to put anything into outer space cost $200,000 a pound. to put an astronaut on the space shuttle costs $65 million per astronaut. we all agree we got do bring down costs. but do we lop off an arm and our leg in the process, or do we try to slim down, get more vigorous and innovative.

>> for 50 years or so this country has been the leader in manned spaceflight . now as a result of the president's plan, do you think it is a necessary conclusion that we will no longer be the leader? are we going to be second or third in that program ?

>> we're just going to have to get used to the fact that we're going to be depending on the russians for entering outer space and the chinese are going to go to the moon by 2020 or shortly afterwards. we just have to get used to the fact we aren't going to be dominating the manned space program .

>> do you see any problems with hitching a ride with the russians or chinese or by turning this over to the private industry ?

>> in the long term, no, i don't see any problems. however the transition is going to be very abrupt. we'll go cold turkey . $9 billion are spent on the constellation program . all down the drain. and private enterprise may not yet be ready to pick up the slack.

>> but when you hear the white house talk about it , they say, look, we are not going to stop investing in cutting-edge technology, things like robotics, the things that the space program has been known for over the past 50 or 60 years. are you in agreement with that? will we still be investing in technology?

>> we will. however, i think we should be even more radical. chemical rockets are simply too expensive to put things into outer space . we should look at microwaves, laser systems where we have ground-based lasers energizing water as the propellant shooting the payload into outer space instead of the fuel.

>> let me ask you about the dream side of this. when i was a kid, i would lay awake at night. the apollo program was in full swing . i would dream of being an astronaut or going into science, reaching for outer space . what do you think this is going to do to the dream and the inspiration for millions of young people in the next generation? is it going to damage that just to save money ?

>> it will definitely dim the dream. now, i'm a scientist. we like robotic missions to mars, beyond, the hubble space telescope , all done without any astronauts at all. but young scientists in the making who are 10 to 15 years old who get energized and see that inspiration, we're not going to have that in the future.

>> you're worried about that.

>> i'm worried about that.

>> doctor, thank you very much . i appreciate it. 13 after the hour. here's meredith .