NASA stands "for the benefit of all."
feel passionate about my personal missions. And
my missions are consistent with NASA's: "To
understand and protect our home planet, To explore
the universe and search for life, To inspire the
next generation of explorers... as only NASA can."
and Figen BINGÜL
Süleyman Gokoglu is one of the leading researchers
at NASA who had been reluctant to leave Turkey
as a young teenager. When he was accepted as an
undergraduate student with full scholarship to
MIT, one of the most prestigious universities
in the world, he came to the USA, though quite
hesitantly. After about a two-week long culture
shock during the new foreign student orientation
week at MIT, even before the classes started,
he returned to Turkey. He completed his undergraduate
studies at Bogazici University in Istanbul. Later,
he returned to the U.S., this time for his graduate
work at Yale University. NASA recruited him right
after he received his Ph.D. degree. And he has
been with NASA ever since. He has his signature
under many important projects. The experiments
for one of Dr. Gokoglu's recent research involvements
have been carried out on the Space Shuttle mission
STS-107 aboard Columbia, which had its ill-fated crash during reentry.
is a joint interview conducted by Lale Tayla and
Figen Bingül with Dr. Süleyman Gokoglu.
Lale Tayla's more extensive interview was
published in Radikal newspaper, in Istanbul,
on March 13, 2003, following the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster. Light Millennium directed a few new questions to Dr. Gokoglu
as well. As a result, we combined both interviews
as one. This joint work, as a whole, voices Mr.
Gokoglu's accomplishments, experiences and ongoing
projects at NASA as well as his ideas about space
you explain your job at NASA?
work as a senior researcher at NASA. Mostly I do basic
research. Additionally, I am responsible, on behalf of
NASA, for some projects that are carried out in collaboration
with universities. One of these projects, which has been
taking a lot of my time during the past five years, is
called Mist. It is a research on the usage of water
in very small droplets; i.e., in the form of mist, for
extinguishing fires in such places as computer rooms,
aircrafts and space vehicles, where one can't use regular
Water mist is also superior to using chemical fire
retardants that harm the environment by, for instance,
damaging the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere. Using
water to put out fires is such a novel idea that nobody
has ever thought of it until now! Of course, I'm kidding!
The novelty here, though, is that we use water as droplets
of approximately 20 microns in diameter, which is about
one-tenth the thickness of hair. You also end up needing
only one-tenth the amount of water that you would normally
use to extinguish fire. This is the first advantage. The
second one is that you don't damage the electronic equipment,
computers, and systems used in communications. This is
very important, especially in closed environments such
as submarines and spacecrafts. In manned environments,
it is important to protect all the valuable equipment
and not to interrupt the electronic communications and
systems. On Earth, it's easy to use carbon dioxide for
extinguishment; you simply dump it on and put the fire
out, because it covers the fire like a blanket and prevents
oxygen from reaching there. But in enclosures with people,
for instance at the International Space Station which
is inhabited by astronauts, you cannot use carbon dioxide;
it would be deadly. You can't use regular water and flood
the place either.
experiment was one of the luckier ones compared to many
others on Columbia, because we could recover almost 90%
of our data.
test trials of this system were supposed to be done onboard
they were actually all completed; not all of it went to
waste. There is also a lot of good news from Columbia, more than you think. Our experiment,
for example, was one of the luckier ones compared to many
others on Columbia, because we could recover almost 90%
of our data. Most of the data had already been downlinked
before the tragic event took place.
-You mean they tested in space the model systems that
you have developed on the ground?
is not like a technology test because it is still at the
stage of research. You cannot generate a nice and uniform
mist on Earth because the droplets settle due to gravity.
You cannot create a model, ideal mist; i.e., a mist that
is uniformly suspended in gas in which the diameter and
concentration of the droplets don't change. But you can
do it in space. And you can fire a flame onto this mist
that is not affected by gravity or buoyancy; you can look
at the interaction of both, and you can treat this phenomenon
with much simpler mathematics to understand the details.
- Is the reason behind Space Shuttle Columbia's unfortunate crash more clear now?
an official explanation is released, all of the speculations
might be true, or none of them might be the real cause.
Most probably, there was a problem with the ceramic tile
material that has been used as heat shields on the wings.
This material is thinner than typical ceramic bricks,
and you try to glue it onto the underlying metal to protect
the metal from excessive heat. But it is hard to glue
ceramics to metals. Anyone who had his kitchen done in
the house or replaced the tiles in the bathroom would
know what I am saying, especially for ceramics that are
resistant to high heat loads. What are you going to use
as a glue material underneath it that can withstand the
high temperatures? I tell you my personal opinion: it
is not possible to solve this problem one hundred percent.
If you decide to accomplish something in space, you cannot
do it without taking risks. Risk is an inherent nature
of this business. I don't know if NASA could have paid
more attention or shown more sensitivity to this matter
after what had happened to Challenger! Safety issues had been treated with
(It should be noted that since this article was
originally published, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board released
their findings for the most plausible causes of the accident
on October 28, 2003.)
astronauts were so idealistic, so humble, and so professional.
knew the Columbia
astronauts. What kind of people were they? When they go,
don't the scientists who are left behind and whose works
are going to be experimented envy them? For instance,
don't you ever say "Why am I not going?"
I knew them of course. We spent a lot of time together.
We were together for days while they were being trained
on our experiment. We ate and drank together at nights.
I met their wives and children. These astronauts were
so idealistic, so humble, and so professional. They did
their best to fix the issues that arose during the mission,
and they were as happy as we were when the problems were
solved. There left nothing unquestioned in order not to
make any mistakes during the mission and to understand
everything in detail while in training. They made sure
that they practiced each task beyond their level of comfort
before they left. They really deserved the good luck charms
I gave them before the flight. How can anybody look at
them and not envy them? Of course we all envied them.
But can you make me sit on that bomb loaded with hydrogen,
oxygen and powerful fuels, can you put me in that shuttle
and then say "Now we will fire it up from below?"
I don't have that kind of power, courage, nerve or faith.
These were special people. Astronauts are special people.
What are some other space projects you have been working
I need to clarify one thing. By space projects, I don't
mean astronomy or even space exploration. I am a chemical
engineer, I do combustion science, and my research involves
primarily studying the effects of gravity on fluids and
chemically reacting systems. Yes, we have been burning
things ever since Man discovered fire, but we still have
not perfected our ways to use combustion most efficiently
and cleanly. 85% of U.S.'s energy use comes from combustion
with an associated cost of $400 billion. It is suspected
that soot inhalation is the main cause of about 60,000
U.S. fatalities a year. Fire safety is a major concern
both on Earth and in space. Furthermore, combustion is
a technique used today for manufacturing many advanced
specialty materials. So, our research utilizes the gravity-free
environments to eliminate the complications due to buoyancy
that inevitably obscures combustion phenomena on Earth.
The objective here is to have direct Earth applications.
However, the research we do in space also helps us understand
combustion phenomena for space applications so that we
can design and develop enabling technologies for space
exploration. Besides the research projects I already mentioned
above for water-mist based fire suppression, I have another
project related to fire safety which I am also directly
involved in. This project is currently scheduled to fly
aboard the International Space Station in 2006. I will
mention my other involvements in projects beyond the lower
orbits and more related to mission to Mars later.
What does NASA expect to achieve from its main space programs
in the next 20 and 40 years?
In the aftermath of the recent Columbia disaster NASA has major problems to deal with. The report from the Accident Investigation
Board has pointed out many areas to be fixed or improved. NASA is developing careful approaches
to address these issues.
The American public is also facing today major
questions of what the nation expects to get out of the
space program, how to accomplish these goals, and how
much money should be spent on them.
Even the issues of what kind of a transportation
system needs to be used and whether the Space Shuttle
should be replaced with a brand new vehicle are not resolved
is a rumor that President Bush will be announcing a new
mission to the Moon shortly. So, I don't want to speculate too much
on the future other than to refer you to what I will mention
below for NASA's planned mission to Mars.
I have read last summer in Popular Science Magazine, which stated that NASA has planned
to build a space elevator to Mars in 2040. What are the possibilities of realizing this?
There are so many ideas that are proposed to NASA about
futuristic missions. This does not mean that NASA has made
plans or even given credence to such conceptual proposals. I have no knowledge of this one and am
not qualified to comment on it either.
speaking, is NASA today at the point where it was planning
to be, say, in 1970's? Have they accomplished their long
organizations like NASA, long term plans do not change
in three or five years. There are people who think of
it in longer terms, who spend time brainstorming it, and
who try to implement it in a more coherent and consistent
way. The administrations come and go, but the direction
that NASA, that big ship, goes in does not change that
easily. Yet, the amount of funds allocated for it changes
a lot. That is the political side of the issue.
changes from where to where, for instance?
the latest 10-15 years, there have been discussions concerning
the question: what are we giving back to the people on
the street? Discussions regarding our responsibilities:
should we deal with such luxuries as exploration of space,
or with more urgent necessities on Earth? Immediate needs
are naturally considered more important. Space is seen
as a luxury, even for a rich country like the U.S.. Therefore,
it was necessary for NASA's work and research to be explained
to the senators and representatives in Congress, and for
its rationale to be defended to the American people in
order to gain their support. As a tax-paying citizen in
the U.S., a big portion of the space program was not something
that even I supported completely. At this point, distant
space programs seem surrealistic and over futuristic to
me, too. There is so much more to do right here on Earth.
- I don't understand why the government has to choose
between people's current lives and their future. As many
of us are aware now, most of the governments around the
world spend billions for the military industry. There
is never a question of priority when it comes to military
versus people's urgent necessities, but when it's about
space it becomes an issue!
your opinion, what are the main reasons that slow down
or block promoting more explorations, space research and
transforming those in favor of humanity? In other words,
what type of forces are required to channel mainly military
spending budget to improving people's ongoing lives as
well as their future?
It is easier for the governments to create a justification
for military expenditures. Military's space program is not under
as much scrutiny as NASA's, for example. The worry of
"votes" in the political arena has always been
affecting all of us in every field, including NASA!!!
what phase of the space research are we in now? When will
we have arrived somewhere?
will remain as the only and nearest destination that we
can go to for quite some time in the future. Going to
planets far away in search of life is like fishing in
a big ocean in the dark with a small rod.
-With all these in mind, can we still say that we are
doing something presently in terms of going somewhere?
can. In fact, considering the current department that
I work in at NASA, I am probably one of the most closely
involved people for a future planetary mission. The first
goal is to go to Mars. One of the current projects that
I work on is closed-loop life support systems.
This project focuses on providing humans an environment
to survive, in the presence or absence of gravity, without
any supplies or replenishments coming from the Earth or
without having to deal with the generated waste material.
This effort requires developing the capability to recycle
everything with no leftover rubbish.
Another project is directed towards in-situ resource
utilization on the surface of Mars by using only the supplies
present on Mars. This effort requires developing necessary
technologies for, for example, producing and using fuel
on Mars to enable the return flight back to the Earth.
will man go to Mars?
everything is supported, and all the money is provided,
the plan is to launch by 2020. If you ask me, we are at
the crawling stages in terms of the technologies that
are necessary for autonomous, reliable human-support life
systems and safe, efficient and economical transportation
systems. This is a very very big project, it's really
difficult and complex. But at least there is a plan and
is not that far.
it is for the U.S. The private sector in the U.S., like
the typical private sectors elsewhere, acts based on forecasts
of three to five years at the most, and they respond to
a 15-year term project by saying "It is too far in
to the future, hence, it should be the government's job."
goal is not just to get there, but to get the benefits
of getting there.
"... A great deal of the benefits would depend on
whether this goal is accomplished as a result of a multinational
effort or as mostly a unilateral one.
would you foresee happening in the world when Man finally
sets foot on Mars? How would it change our way of life
This is a tough question. I am not used to looking into
crystal balls! It would be even a larger "giant
step" than going to the Moon as it would be the real
beginning of the human exploration of planets to be able
to jump even beyond. It would be a tremendous feeling of accomplishment,
of joy, of pride.
But, for NASA at least, it would also be the climax
of our worry of how to get those astronauts back to Earth
would think that we would still continue the debate as
to whether it was worth the cost and what else could have
been done with that money. This is in human nature and I think it's
a good one. Actually,
the goal is not just to get there, but to get the benefits
of getting there. And seeing the real fruits of these benefits
might take yet a long time.
The skeptics would continue to capitalize on "where
is the benefit?" arguments.
In my opinion, a great deal of the benefits would
depend on whether this goal is accomplished as a result
of a multinational effort or as mostly a unilateral one.
If the peoples of the world do not see that as
a success of the human race at large, if they do not feel
a part of it, then I would be quite concerned with its
Philosophically, I think that if a living creature
is confined to a limited space of existence, it is eventually
bound to be extinct.
Thus, the continuation of the human race to times
beyond the lifetime on or of the Earth depends on our
ability to get out of our bounds. How can we as human beings accept tying
our natural existence so directly to the existence of
the Earth? As long as the likelihood of a huge meteor
hitting our world to end it all is not nell, we can't
remain fatalistic. This philosophy fits very well into
NASA's vision: "To improve life here, To extend life
to there, To find life beyond."
it intentional or coincidental when they choose people
from different nations for the teams going to space?
s not a coincidence, that's for sure. The U.S.'s approach
is two dimensional. First, it is to use the shuttle system
as a rehearsal ground for the multinational environment
on the International Space Station and develop a management
experience on a multinational project. This helps lay
down the groundwork to establish the foundation for future
multinational projects, because this business is both
very expensive and very complex. It is essential to find
partners. Secondly, it is to create a public relations
image of a modern multicultural, non-chauvinistic society
which has gone beyond white, male domination. It is to
present every astronaut crew as a typical sample taken
from any fraction of the American society.
-This multinational environment must also be present
at NASA. Does working at NASA make you ever forget from
where you are? In other words, does being a part of space
work unite everybody there as one people of the Earth?
fact, that's one of the great benefits of working for
an organization like NASA. Sometimes people mistakenly think that
NASA does mostly secret research with military applications
or that NASA is into "star wars" type of work. Well, NASA is actually a civil organization, and we, as researchers,
are encouraged to publish our research results in the
open literature. The motto of NASA is "For the benefit
of all!" So,
when we're faced with a technical challenge or an intriguing
question, all colleagues put their heads together and
try to solve the problem collectively.
There are so many people with so many diverse national,
ethnic and faith backgrounds and with so many alternative
approaches to attack a problem that the work environment
becomes very exciting and colorful.
You definitely forget your origins but start enjoying
the unifying human aspects.
Actually, I should mention this interesting anecdote
about NASA's motto. When I first started working at NASA more
than twenty years ago, the motto at the time was "For
the benefit of all Mankind".
It came under severe criticism of the extreme nationalists
who wanted to change the word "Mankind" to "Americans",
and of the extreme feminists who questioned why "Man"
and not "Woman". In fact, it even got criticized by the
animal rights groups and environmentalists for the exclusionist
implication of "Mankind" towards animals and
plants. And hence, NASA settled on "For the benefit of all".
interesting point about working at NASA is that we are
typically insulated from the bottom-line pressures of
industry and the teaching loads or tenure worries of academia.
Although the technical staff is extremely competent
and certainly has competitive egos, the environment is
not conducive to cut-throat, ruthless behavior you might
The variations in people's accents or looks or
dresses are all part of the relaxed attitude, which I
personally celebrate immensely.
I wouldn't be doing justice if I didn't mention the glass
ceiling a lot of the people with "untraditional"
backgrounds feel when it is time for promotions especially
in management careers. Yes, the education level of people helps blurring such emotional
bias and the multicultural composition of the workforce
curtails such prejudice, but I can't say that the "good
ol' culture" is completely eliminated.
you don't have a cause or a mission in life for which
you can sacrifice your life if necessary, then you should
really question why you're living."
are so involved with big issues like space and future;
this must affect your way of looking to the worldly daily
routines. How do you keep the balance between here and
now and there and future? In your view, are they intertwined
or apart from each other?
I really don't look at these issues as "big"
issues. I have a job! But I happened to be one of the fortunate people to choose
and love this job.
In fact, anybody who is also a parent deals with
the issue of here and now versus there and future all
the time. Our
children force us to balance our future dreams and daily
routines. I think that if you don't have a cause
or a mission in life for which you can sacrifice your
life if necessary, then you should really question why
you're living. And our children are constant reminders
that our missions can not only be guided by selfish reasons
or instant gratifications.
So yes, these issues are intertwined.
I feel passionate about my personal missions.
And my missions are consistent with NASA's: "To
understand and protect our home planet, To explore the
universe and search for life, To inspire the next generation
of explorers... as only NASA can."
Hikmet, in one of his poems written in 1958, says:
"Either we will take
life life to dead stars/Or death will descend upon
our world." **
What do you think about this vision? Based on the
possibility of living in other planets, is it far from
reality to suggest that Earth would be just another destination
to be visited as if it were a continent? In other words,
how close are we to living in other planets as immigrants?
For me, this is a dream so far away and so platonic that
its place is still best kept in poets' ideals.
I love the dream though.
As I said before, without realizing how my philosophy
was so in tune with Nazim's thinking, any living creature
which confines its existence to a limited space is eventually
bound to be extinct.
We see many examples of this in nature throughout
the history of life and survival of species.
Diversification of options is a good strategy,
and one does not need to be a "rocket scientist"
to understand the benefit of this approach.
* Condensed from its
original version published in Turkish by Radikal newspaper in Istanbul, Turkey, on March
For the full passage of the poem:
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed
in this interview belong strictly to Dr. Süleyman
Gokoglu and are not that of NASA.
of Dr. Süleyman Gokoglu
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