Neil deGrasse Tyson: How Space Exploration Can Make America Great Again

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The Internet's favorite astrophysicist talks about saving NASA, putting a person on Mars, and why he thinks every tweet is "tasty."

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Neil deGrasse Tyson is not pleased with the plight of NASA. After the agency's decades-old space shuttle program was shuttered last year -- ending the kind of low-Earth orbit exploration that the astrophysicist and Hayden Planetarium director jokes "boldly went where man had gone hundreds of times before" -- Tyson believes America is at a critical moment for future space exploration.

Maybe that's why he originally wanted to call his new book Failure to Launch: The Dreams and Delusions of Space Enthusiasts. (After publishers balked at the depressing title, it was renamed Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier.) Over the last few decades, Tyson writes, Americans deluded themselves into believing misconceptions about space travel, and, as a result, the purpose and necessities of a space program are now misunderstood.

Give NASA the money it needs, he argues, and the agency will stimulate the economy and inspire students to pursue innovative, ambitious projects. (Say, for example, a way to thwart a wayward asteroid that could threaten to wipe out humanity.) Continue to fund NASA at its current rate -- a shade more than $18.7 billion in 2011, or as Tyson often reminds, six-tenths of a percent of the federal budget -- and the country will lose an ongoing space race to the Chinese and European space agencies of the world.

In a conversation last week, I asked Tyson about American curiosity toward space, what needs to be done to save NASA, and how he's been able to make science accessible to the general public.

Space Chronicles focuses on the future of space exploration and America's interest in it. What do you think inspires children and students to want to learn about science and technology?

What I have found is that people who really need the science education are the adults. Adults outnumber children. They're in charge. They wield resources. They vote. All of the things that shape the society in which we live are conducted by adults.

"All the adults are saying, 'We need to improve science in the world. Let's train the kids.' ... It's the adults that need the science literacy."

Kids are born curious about the world. What adults primarily do in the presence of kids is unwittingly thwart the curiosity of children. Let's say, for example, a kid wants to jump into a muddy puddle. What does the parent say? "No, don't do that. You'll get your clothing dirty." Well, that's how craters are formed on the Moon! This experiment has now been halted on the premise that it would get something dirty, when it otherwise it would've been a science experiment with interesting, illuminating consequences.

The challenge has never been children. The challenge has been adults. I don't think you have to do anything special to get kids interested in science, other than to get out of their way when they're expressing that curiosity.

All the adults are saying, "We need to improve science in the world. Let's train the kids." I've never heard an adult say, "We need more science in the world. Train me." I've never heard an adult say that. It's the adults that need the science literacy, the kind of literacy that can transform the nation practically overnight.

In your book, though, you mention the difficulties of keeping students interested in science -- that it doesn't work to stand in front of a high school class and ask, "Who wants to design a vehicle that's 20 percent more fuel-efficient than they one your parents built?" If that's the case, what needs to be done to attract their curiosity?

While all kids are scientists, they reach a point, a benchmark, when puberty sets in and social life starts getting complicated. Then it's time to consider how their interests will manifest through the transition. At that point, I would step in and offer an ambitious goal for them to reach for, so that while they're continuing (or initiating) their studies of science, they know they have a place to land when they get out of the pipeline.

You're right. If I say, "Design me a plane that's more fuel-efficient, because the country needs that now," you're not going to get any truly transformative, innovative solutions. Instead, if I say, "Who wants to build an air foil that'll navigate the rarified atmosphere of Mars?" or "We're about to go to Mars. Who wants to study life forms that are yet to be understood that we may discover?" I'm going to get the best engineers, I'm going to get the best biologists. I'm going to get the best of those categories because it's a goal befitting the depth of ambitions of students.

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You've made yourself incredibly open to the general public - on Reddit, Twitter, through email, and your podcast, Star Talk. What have those interactions revealed to you about adults' curiosity towards space?

Thanks for asking that question. Not everyone puts it together that way - there are many different dimensions of reaching the public, particularly with the many media today, social media in particular, which parcel what audience you might reach from one medium to another.

For me, the most fascinating interface is Twitter. I have odd cosmic thoughts every day and I realized I could hold them to myself or share them with people who might be interested. These are thoughts that are unique to the perspective of someone who is an educator and is scientifically literate. For people who are not one or both of those, these observations become intriguing.

I remember once, just reflecting when I was driving down the street after I saw a streetlight, "When that turns red, I stop. But suppose our blood was based on copper instead of iron? It would be green instead of red, so green would be a color of warning. What would stop lights look like if we had green blood?" I put that out there and it was heavily forwarded, heavily re-tweeted. People enjoy thinking along with me with these thoughts.

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Chris Heller is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic. He has also written for NPR, Washington City Paper, and Metro Weekly.

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