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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Is that why you included "space tweets" in your book?

Yes! I couldn't let these tweets go uncaptured for this book. I tried to treat them like little biscuits -- you earned your way to that point in the book, so have a little tasty biscuit. All tweets are tasty. Any tweet anybody writes is tasty. So, I try to have each tweet not simply be informative, but have some outlook, some perspective that you might not otherwise had.

I always try to get people a different outlook. When you do that, people take ownership of the information. They don't ever have to reference me because, I'd like to believe as an educator, I'm empowering them to have those thoughts themselves. When a person has those thoughts themselves, the embrace the information, they take ownership of it, and it becomes relevant to their lives. That's why in every tweet, I try to put in something people want to capture and keep. Otherwise, people will say, "That's true because Tyson said it." If that's how you're getting through your argument, I'm failing as an educator.

You write that space exploration is a "necessity." Why do you think others don't agree?

I don't think they've thought it through. Most people who don't agree say, "We have problems here on Earth. Let's focus on them." Well, we are focusing on them. The budget of social programs in the federal tax base is 50 times greater for social programs than it is for NASA. We're already focused in ways that many people who are NASA naysayers would rather it become. NASA is getting half a penny on a dollar -- I'm saying let's double it. A penny on a dollar would be enough to have a real Mars mission in the near future.

Can the United States catch up in the 21st-century space race?

When everyone agrees to a single solution and a single plan, there's nothing more efficient in the world than an efficient democracy. But unfortunately the opposite is also true, there's nothing less efficient in the world than an inefficient democracy. That's when dictatorships and other sort of autocratic societies can pass you by while you're bickering over one thing or another.

But, I can tell you that when everything aligns, this is a nation where people are inventing the future every day. And that future is brought to you by scientists, engineers, and technologists. That's how I've always viewed it. Once people understand that, I don't see why they wouldn't say, "Sure, let's double NASA's budget to an entire penny on a dollar! And by the way, here's my other 25 pennies for social programs." I think it's possible and I think it can happen, but people need to stop thinking that NASA is some kind of luxury project that can be done on disposable income that we happen to have left over. That's like letting your seed corn rot in the storage basin.

So, is NASA's current funding situation not enough?

President Obama says we're going back to Mars, that we'll get there sometimes in the 2030s. Is he going to oversee that? No, it's a president to be named later. On what budget? On a budget acquired by a president to be named later. This is not an audacious statement to make. It's a pretty safe comment for a politician to make, and I was disappointed in that.

The problem is that many people operate on the assumption that NASA should go to Congress every year with hat in hand and justify it every year. Well, I see it as the greatest economic driver that there ever was. Economic drivers don't need justification.

Of the drivers you mention in Space Chronicles that increase NASA funding -- war and economic interests -- which do you think is more likely to be adopted by politicians in the coming decades?

No one wants to die, and no one wants to die poor. These are the two fundamental truths that transcend culture, they transcend politics, they transcend economic cycles. So, once you recognize that a healthy moving frontier in space stimulates the kind of mindset that fosters innovations in science and technology, then you'll realize that of course we need to go in space because that's just the kind of society you'll want to live in.

While war is always the easiest solution to anybody's funding problem, you don't want war to be the modern day driver of space -- even though that's what got us to the moon, in spite of our memory cleansing that into "We're Americans, we're explorers, we're discoverers, that's why we went to the moon." So going forward, the economic argument is a strong one, but it's not a simple "A goes to B". It's not "We need more innovation, so let's fund innovation companies."

My favorite quote, I think it was Antoine Saint-Exupery who said, "If you want to teach someone to sail, you don't train them how to build a boat. You compel them to long for the open seas." That longing drives our urge to innovate, and space exploration has the power to do that, especially when it's a moving frontier because all traditional sciences are there. And so you'll get the best students, they'll have a place to land, and you'll change the attitude that our culture has to the role of science, engineering, technology, and math on our future.

To make any future that we dreamt up real requires creative scientists, engineers, and technologists to make it happen. If people are not within your midst who dream about tomorrow -- with the capacity to bring tomorrow into the present -- then the country might as well just recede back into the cave because that's where we're headed.

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Images: NASA.

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

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