A panel discussion featuring former Apollo astronauts and a former flight director at ciWeek10 Wednesday took an expansive look at space missions, past and future. Here are some key takeaways from the session at Des Moines Area Community College’s West Campus.

— Gerry Griffin, former director of Johnson Space Center in Houston, said anyone going to Mars will likely have cancer when they get back, or shortly after. “They will probably get back OK, but in the next few years, there will be deterioration” because of intense radiation in space. “Going to Mars probably means cancer. We aren’t really ready to go to Mars. We don’t have the technology to provide a radiation shield.” 

Apollo 7 lunar module pilot Walter Cunningham, who is from Creston, said there are other issues with a human mission to Mars. “We need to be realistic about the costs of going to Mars.”

Apollo 15 command module pilot Al Worden said it would take a year and a half to get to Mars with today’s propulsion technology. “Things could happen.” On the other hand, Worden said we shouldn’t think small. “I don’t want anyone to think Mars is the destination. It’s only a step on the way.”

— Worden was in China recently and was invited to visit the space agency, where the Chinese are working on a space station to be deployed in 2023. The U.S. State Department blocked his visit to the agency at the last minute. Worden said that was a mistake, because we could have learned about how advanced the program is. “They Chinese are doing stuff that we don’t do now. They are forward-thinking, which we are not,” he said of China’s long-term budgeting for space exploration. 

“We should be cheering the Chinese on,” Worden said. “We are being aloof. They are doing great work, and we could learn something from them.”

Worden said the Chinese may partner with the U.S. on things like robotics. 

Cunningham said the Chinese will be the next to land on the moon. China landed a probe on the dark side of the moon this year, a first.

— When President John F. Kennedy famously said he wanted U.S. astronauts to land on the moon within a decade, in part to regain space exploration superiority lost to the Soviets, even the astronauts wondered if it could be done. Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise recalled thinking, “This is a big step. Can we really pull this off?”

— Cunningham wanted the audience to know that the while cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space with one orbit in 1961, the Soviets didn’t have the controls and safety measures NASA would demand before attempting a mission like that. “I guarantee they didn’t have control of that craft. He was just along for the ride,” Cunningham said. “Even in the Gemini program, we had beat the Russians. We had solved a lot of issues.”

— Griffin said none of the Apollo astronauts were afraid of dying on a mission. “They were afraid of being the one who made a mistake in front of their friends.”

— Griffin said Mission Control functioned as a risk-management arm of the operation. “The astronauts were sitting on 6 million pounds of oxygen and a lot of hydrogen, and we tried to keep the two apart,” Griffin said. “You are at risk” when you go into space. “We can’t manage it to zero.”