NASA Astronaut, Virgin Galactic CEO Discuss Space Exploration

The UN's director of outer space affairs also participated on the RAND panel
Warner Bros.

NASA astronaut Cady Coleman was irritated by one aspect of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity: “If you were in space with George Clooney, you wouldn’t let him go,” she said, getting a laugh from the crowd at RAND’s Politics Aside fundraising event.

Thursday at Sony Pictures Studios, Coleman participated in a panel discussion that also featured Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides and director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs Simonetta Di Pippo. During the program, they discussed the science and policy of space exploration, as well as its portrayal in Hollywood.

On the latter, Coleman gave Gravity high marks, saying that it “showed what it is like to be there,” but she also acknowledged that “a lot of the laws of physics were violated” in the space-set adventure.

Coleman’s career has included two Space Shuttle missions, and a mission that involved roughly five months on the International Space Station in 2013. “I would have stayed another six months in a minute,” she admitted, talking about how “moving is so different” in zero gravity.

Di Pippo was recognized as a former director at the European Space Agency that this week made history by successfully landing its Philae probe on the surface of a comet. But she and the other speakers emphasized that there’s still a lot more to learn.

To that end, the speakers offered their best estimates as to when man might get to Mars. Di Pippo estimated that it's 10 years away. A more cautious Whitesides projected 20 years.

During the discussion, Whitesides also commented on Virgin Galactic’s recent SpaceShip Two crash during a test flight that left one pilot dead and one injured. He noted that the “brave test pilots put themselves in harm’s way to make it safer for the rest of us.”

He added that Virgin Galactic would be assisting the victims' families, while continuing to move forward with its work. A new SpaceShip Two is under construction and expected to be completed in “a few months.”

Twitter: @CGinLA