By Jessica Shambora
July 23, 2009

What can we expect from space exploration over the next decade?

By the time Brainstorm Tech 2019 convenes, we will have established a permanent presence on another planet (Mars), we’ll know if life exists on other planets in our solar system, we’ll have a “family portrait” of our neighboring 2,000 solar systems, and we’ll have a better understanding of what’s happening on our planet.

This is what Dr. Charles Elachi, director of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and vice president of the California Institute of Technology, predicts is within our grasp.

Following this week’s celebration of the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, Elachi’s presence at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech was of particular note. He brought the Mars rover “Curiosity” with him from Cal Tech, just down the road from the conference in Pasadena. Curiosity, scheduled to be launched in 2011, will go where will no rover has gone before.

But nostalgia and sentiment didn’t prevent Fortune’s Jeff O’Brien from asking Elachi what he was doing with NASA’s $1.6 billion budget. How is space exploration going to help us emerge from the financial crisis?

“Our economy is fundamentally dependent on innovation,” said Elachi. “My philosophy is when things are tough, this is the time to invest, not to go back in sit in our shell.”

But Elachi acknowledges it’s difficult to plan for innovation. Instead you have to “give people something almost impossible to do, and then they do it,” he said. Elachi cataloged several innovations that have resulted from NASA’s work: GPS, cell phones, image processing, and lightweight electronics. In all these cases an entrepreneur took a technology that JPL developed and found another use for it.

The data that the team at JPL uncovers about what’s happening to earth could be one of the most important discoveries it makes in the coming years, setting the record straight on things like climate change. Elachi explained, “We want to provide scientifically-based information so people can make smart decisions.”

Given that Elachi’s team is often tasked with doing the impossible, he had some advice for companies in today’s economy¬† that might be in a similar predicament. “You have to have passion and boldness, and be prepared to make mistakes,” advised Elachi.

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