Pete Worden, director of NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., which designed the LADEE orbiter, says forget the 20th—this is the real space century.

Stephen McLaren: Is science fiction a big source of inspiration?

Pete Worden: Here, there's almost a secret handshake among engineers who have read lots of science fiction. It lets you dream—how can we make that technology real, how can we make a better future?

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Image: An artist's depiction of NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) observatory as it approaches lunar orbit, courtesy Dana Berry/NASA Ames