After decades of global dominance, America's space shuttle program ended last summer while countries like Russia, China and India continue to advance their programs. But astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, author of the new book Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, says America's space program is at a critical moment. He thinks it's time for America to invest heavily in space exploration and research.
"Space exploration is a force of nature unto itself that no other force in society can rival," Tyson tells NPR's David Greene. "Not only does that get people interested in sciences and all the related fields, [but] it transforms the culture into one that values science and technology, and that's the culture that innovates," Tyson says. "And in the 21st century, innovations in science and technology are the foundations of tomorrow's economy."
He sees this "force of nature" firsthand when he goes to student classrooms. "I could stand in front of eighth-graders and say, 'Who wants to be an aerospace engineer so you can design an airplane 20 percent more fuel-efficient than the one your parents flew?' " Tyson says. "That doesn't usually work. But if I say, 'Who wants to be an aerospace engineer to design the airplane that will navigate the rarefied atmosphere of Mars?' because that's where we're going next, I'm getting the best students in the class. I'm looking for life on Mars? I'm getting the best biologist. I want to study the rocks on Mars? I'm getting the best geologists."
But spending for space programs isn't where Tyson would like it to be. In just one year, Tyson says, the expenditure of the U.S.'s military budget is equivalent to NASA's entire 50-year running budget.
"I think if you double [the budget], to a penny on the dollar, that's enough to take us in bold visions in a shorter time scale to Mars, visit asteroids, to study the status of all the planets," he says. On Venus, for example, scientists have observed a "runaway greenhouse effect," Tyson says. "I kind of want to know what happened there, because we're twirling knobs here on Earth without knowing the consequences of it."
Today, Mars is bone-dry; it once had running water. "Something bad happened there as well," he says. "Asteroids have us in our sight. The dinosaurs didn't have a space program, so they're not here to talk about this problem. We are, and we have the power to do something about it. I don't want to be the embarrassment of the galaxy, to have had the power to deflect an asteroid, and then not, and end up going extinct. We'd be the laughing stock of the aliens of the cosmos if that were the case."
The possibility of asteroids hitting Earth is actually a reasonably serious problem that does need a solution, Tyson contends. The asteroid Apophis, named for the Egyptian god of death and darkness, has a very slim chance of striking Earth in 2036. Tyson says some researchers have advocated for blowing up the football stadium-sized object.
That could create a bigger problem, though: "If you blow it up and it becomes two pieces, and now one is aimed for each coast of the United States, it's just doubled the emergency status of that call," he says.
Another option is what he calls a "gravitational tractor beam." A space probe would be parked a fixed distance away from the asteroid. Gravity would tend to pull the objects together, but by firing rockets on the probe, the asteroid would actually be "towed" away.
Tyson admits that such a space tow truck would be a tough sell for a president asking for more money for NASA.
He proposes this tack: "What [the president] needs to say is, 'We need to double NASA's budget because not only is it the grandest epic adventure a human being can undertake, not only would the people who led this adventure be the ones we end up building statues to and naming high schools after and becoming the next generation's Mercury 7 as role models, not only will there be spinoff products from these discoveries, but what's more important than all of those, what's more practical than all of those, is that he will transform the economy into one that will lead the world once again rather than trail the world as we are inevitably going to be doing over the next decade.' "
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We're going to spend some time now talking about outer space. President Obama in his State of the Union address a year ago brought up the Soviet Union's Sputnik space mission in 1957. That's when the Soviets embarrassed the U.S. by putting a satellite into orbit and took the lead in the space race. Mr. Obama used the memory of that moment to inspire Americans of today to do more, but not enough according to renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
He thinks the president and political leaders of all stripes are just missing the point these days.
NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: He said let's use this Sputnik moment to have high speed rail and Internet for everybody. And I'm thinking is that how you're going to use a new Sputnik moment, to do what we should have already had? Excuse me. Let's use a Sputnik moment to do a Sputnik kind of thing.
GREENE: And it's not just about what politicians are saying in speeches, Tyson told me, it's about what teachers are telling students in the classroom. Tyson argues in his new book "Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier," that if America's leaders don't invest more in NASA, if they give up on bold missions to the moon and Mars, students are less likely to dream about discovering, and they're not going to be as interested in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
TYSON: I can stand in front of eighth graders and say, who wants to be an aerospace engineer so that you can design an airplane 20 percent more fuel efficient than the one your parents flew? That doesn't usually work.
GREENE: That doesn't inspire.
TYSON: It just simply doesn't. But if I say, who wants to be an aerospace engineer to design the airplane that will navigate the rarefied atmosphere of Mars because that's where we're going next, I'm getting the best students in the class. I'm looking for life on Mars, I'm getting the best biologist. I want to study the rocks on Mars, I'm getting the best geologists.
It's a force of nature unto itself that no other force in society can rival. Not only does that get people interested in sciences and all the related fields, it transforms the culture into one that values science and technology and that's the culture that innovates. And the 21st century, innovations in science and technology are the foundations of tomorrow's economy.
GREENE: But when we look back at when President John F. Kennedy, I mean, made that plea to go to the moon, it was not the argument that we're going to create new scientists in the country.
TYSON: Of course.
GREENE: It was a war argument that you said really resonated.
TYSON: Completely. The only driver stronger than an economic argument to do something is the war argument, the I-don't-want-to-die argument. And so we went to the moon not because we wanted to get wealthy. That was not the driver at the time. That same speech, where he said, let's go to the moon and return as safely to Earth, you could hear the Brookline accent just by reciting those words to yourself because it resonates in the iconography of the nation's speeches.
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PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.
TYSON: Two paragraphs before that is when he said - 'cause Yuri Gagarin had just come out of orbit six weeks earlier. We didn't even have a vehicle...
GREENE: Soviet cosmonaut.
TYSON: ...cosmonaut - we didn't even have a vehicle that wouldn't kill any one of us going into orbit yet. And he said if the events of recent weeks are any indication of the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, we need to show the world the path of freedom over the path of tyranny. It was the war driver. It was the I-don't-want-to-die driver.
GREENE: It was winning the Cold War.
TYSON: And when you don't want to die, money flows like a tapped keg. Here's something. Are you ready?
GREENE: I'm ready.
TYSON: One year's expenditures of the United States military budget equals the entire 50-year running budget of NASA combined.
GREENE: Well, give me an argument for why that shouldn't be the case. I mean, why NASA's budget needs to be bumped up, why it's worth it.
TYSON: I think if you double it, that's enough to take us in bold visions in a shorter time scale to Mars, visit asteroids - one of them's going to hit us one day - to study the status of all the planets. Venus has a runaway greenhouse effect. I kind of want to know what happened there because we're twirling knobs here on Earth without knowing the consequences of it. Mars once had running water. It's bone dry today. Something bad happened there as well.
Asteroids have us in our sight. The dinosaurs didn't have a space program, so they're not here to talk about this problem. We are, and we have the power to do something about it. I don't want to be the embarrassment of the galaxy to have had the power to deflect an asteroid, and then not and end up going extinct. We'd be the laughingstock of the aliens of the cosmos if that were the case.
GREENE: I'm frankly scared of asteroids.
TYSON: You ought to be.
GREENE: And you made me even more scared because you said in the book that there is one that's coming like in 20 years that's going to do a pass-by.
TYSON: Oh, yeah.
GREENE: And if we don't do something about it, it could be a direct hit the next time it comes around.
TYSON: This is a buzz cut. Yeah, asteroid Apophis, named for the Egyptian god of death and darkness.
GREENE: That's ominous.
TYSON: Yes, we name them good for when they're headed toward Earth. We didn't name that one Bambi.
GREENE: Before 2036, when you're saying it could - one in a million chance or whatever - hit Earth...
TYSON: Several in a million, yeah.
GREENE: It comes - it's doing a buzz by us a few years before that.
TYSON: Yeah, yeah, on April 13, 2029, which by the way is a Friday, Friday the 13th. It's about the size of the Rose Bowl, if you mention a Rose Bowl as a kind of...
GREENE: That got my attention.
TYSON: Yeah, yeah. So it's large and it's in the book to just alert you of, you know, cool things you can do with the space program, like, save the Earth.
GREENE: How - could we blow it up out of the sky, or what can we do about it when it...
TYSON: We've got generals out there, of course, who know that we still have bombs in the silos and you can imagine them in the war rooms. Let's blow this sucker out of the sky, you know, with chewing tobacco.
GREENE: They get juiced by this stuff.
TYSON: They get totally jazzed by it. But here's the problem. In America while we're really good at blowing stuff up, we're less good at knowing where the pieces will go afterwards. And so if you blow it up and it becomes two pieces and now one hits - is aimed for each coast of the United States.
GREENE: Hasn't solved the problem.
TYSON: Yeah. It hasn't - it's just doubled the emergency status of that call. So what we have in mind, and it works on paper, and no reason why it can't work in practice, is a kind of a gravitational tractor beam, where you send up a satellite - a space probe - with enough mass that you park it next to the asteroid, and you maintain its distance. They want to fall together, but you prevent that with little retro rockets.
And the act of doing it actually tows the asteroid out of harm's way.
GREENE: You're a renowned scientist. You talking about this, you know, it's compelling and I believe it. I'm just trying to imagine President Obama going out there and giving a speech and saying we need to up NASA's budget because this is what we could do with the money. We could park a spaceship next to an asteroid and tug it out of the way so it doesn't hit the Earth. I mean, is that...
TYSON: So what he needs to say is we need to double NASA's budget because not only is it the grandest epic adventure a human being can undertake, one. Two, not only would the people who led this adventure be the ones we end up building statues to and naming high schools after and becoming the next generation's Mercury 7 as role models, not only will there be spin-off products from these discoveries, but what's more important than all of those, what's more practical than all of those, is that he will transform the economy into one that will lead the world once again rather than trail the world as we are inevitably going to be doing over the next decade.
GREENE: Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History and he joined us from our bureau in New York. Dr. Tyson, thanks so much for talking to us.
TYSON: Thanks for having me.
GREENE: And Dr. Tyson's new book, again, is "Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier."
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