< Light Millennium: Süleyman Gokoglu - NASA stands "for the benefit of all." A joint interview by Lale Tayla & Figen Bingül
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Süleyman GOKOGLU:
NASA stands "for the benefit of all."

"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."

A joint interview by
Lale TAYLA* and Figen BINGÜL

Dr. 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.

Below 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 programs.  

-Would you explain your job at NASA?

-I 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 sprinklers.  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.

"Our experiment was one of the luckier ones compared to many others on Columbia, because we could recover almost 90% of our data."

-The test trials of this system were supposed to be done onboard Columbia
, right?

-Yes, 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?

-It 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?

-Until 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 utmost seriousness!  (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.)

"These astronauts were so idealistic, so humble, and so professional."

-You 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?"

-Aaah. 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 on?

- 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 yet.  There 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.

-Generally speaking, is NASA today at the point where it was planning to be, say, in 1970's? Have they accomplished their long term plans?

-In 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.

-It changes from where to where, for instance?

-In 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!

In 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!!!

-At what phase of the space research are we in now? When will we have arrived somewhere?

-Mars 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?

-We 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.

-When will man go to Mars?

-If 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 program.

-2020 is not that far.

-But 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."

"The 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."

-What would you foresee happening in the world when Man finally sets foot on Mars? How would it change our way of life on Earth?

- 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 safely.  I 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 potential repercussions.  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."

-Is it intentional or coincidental when they choose people from different nations for the teams going to space?

-It 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?

- Absolutely.  In 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".

Another 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 find elsewhere.  The variations in people's accents or looks or dresses are all part of the relaxed attitude, which I personally celebrate immensely.

However, 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.        

"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."

-You 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."

- Nazim 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 13, 2003. http://www.radikal.com.tr/ek_haber.php?ek=cts&haberno=1982&tarih=11/06/2002&

** For the full passage of the poem:
Strontium 90

The opinions expressed in this interview belong strictly to Dr. Süleyman Gokoglu and are not that of NASA.

For Profile of Dr. Süleyman Gokoglu

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