Neil deGrasse Tyson was born the same week in 1958 that NASA was founded. Luck of the draw, perhaps, but the stars clearly have been aligned for a man who today is America's most famous astrophysicist (not to mention director of New York's prestigious Hayden Planetarium).
In recent years, Tyson has also taken on the role of popular educator -- if not public intellectual -- making the case for bigger national investment in space exploration and research. The thrust of his argument is that the pursuit of bold "space adventures" would have the salutary side effect of planting the seeds of new economic growth. That's no easy sell in an America still picking up the pieces after a sharp economic recession where nearly every public policy question seemingly turns into a left-right referendum.
Even more frustrating to Tyson is the new legitimacy given in some quarters for theories that not long ago would have been dismissed as pseudo-science. Earlier this month, for example, a Tennessee bill that, among other things, shields teachers who let students question evolution and who teach creationism became state law.
"I blame government for not having invested in big enough science projects so that people could realize the value of science in their lives," says Tyson.
Tyson has also taken his concerns to a community beyond the space enthusiasts. In a recent essay he authored for the journal Foreign Affairs., he argues why America's culture, economy, and technological prowess would benefit from a reinvigorated space program and warns of the perils involved in living with a policy of benign neglect. That essay led to Tyson's subsequent appearance before a Senate committee
If the article got read at the White House, nobody has yet offered any feedback to the author. No matter, Tyson says; more importantly, he's found the interest coming from the other direction. After Tyson's Senate testimony, his talking points got picked up and went viral in the form of a YouTube video; in particular, his message that raising NASA's annual budget a half a penny on your tax dollar (to a full cent) would pay major dividends. "It would help create an innovation culture which would end up stoking economy because new ideas spawn new ideas," Tyson said in an interview. "And when you do this, then jobs don't go overseas because the folks overseas haven't figured it out."
The following are excerpts of our conversation earlier today.
Q: Why does an astrophysicist take to the pages of a journal that caters largely to an audience of national security experts and policy wonks?
Tyson: Good question. I can tell you that I knew very little of the journal other than that it existed. I read other things. But the opening chapter of my (recently published book "Space Chronicles" crossed over from the space enthusiast zone into where people talk about why to go into space...A lot of arguments (about space budgets) you hear repeated but none explicitly references the geopolitical forces as well as the value to a nation. I think that enabled the attention to spill over the wall and get noticed by others. The fact that it landed in Foreign Affairs led to the invite to testify in front of the Senate. I'm certain that if it had only been my book coming out, then no invite would have been forthcoming.
You spend about 4,700 words making, as you say, the case for space where you joke about how we would put astronauts on Mars within a couple of years if we got our hands on a Chinese memo revealing plans to build military bases there. Given what you know about the way politics works, will the U.S. need something along the lines of another Sputnik moment, where the powers that be get spooked into action?
Tyson: You know, the Sputnik moment galvanized us because we were war-spooked. The Russians were flying over our heads with a hollowed out intercontinental ballistic shell. On the front end it looked innocent, but the military folks knew it was first blood in terms of might of power and who had the high ground. And within a year, NASA was formed...We had a future economy and the fact that we were advancing along a space frontier had everyone thinking about tomorrow -- and that would come about through innovations from space technology. We can still dream about tomorrow but the driver shouldn't be war but the expectation of economic return.
Will the future of the space program remain subject to partisan squabbling? You have Democrats politicizing space exploration when a Republican sits in the White House and Republicans doing the same, now that Obama is the president.
Tyson: Until recently, space was a nonpartisan issue. Political affiliation didn't accord with whether you supported NASA. My mission statement is to compel the electorate to go into space for all (the above) reasons. Even if you didn't care about space, it is good for the economy...at that point, it's the politicians executing the needs of the electorate.
If you were made the White House's point person to sell the idea of going to Mars and beyond to the nation and to Congress, what's the short version of the pitch you'd try and offer?
Tyson: I'm not interested selling to Congress. Two years from now 88 percent of them will be swapped out. I'm tired of selling something that should be fundamental to the American concept of itself. My target is not Congress or the president; it's the public. At the end of the day, they work for us....If you can compel the electorate, then the political winds are immune to those (political) shifts.
Let's segue to a related topic: In the essay, you write about a "brain regression" where foreign nationals studying here in advanced academic science programs opt to return to their countries rather than settle in the U.S. What's your "guestimate" how long we have before this trend, should it continue, begins to impact the quality of our technology and ultimately, the quality of our lives?
Tyson: It already has. During our xenophobic post-9/11 era we feared foreigners. Even though some of our greatest Americans were foreigners who brought their talents to our business infrastructure and engineering. Most of those grad programs are filled with students from places like Taiwan, India, China, and Singapore. In the old days, they would stay. The danger is that in the next round they won't even come [to America] and become professors in their own countries who teach the next generations.
Why don't more Americans think science is cool?
Tyson: Because we're not doing cool things. I'm convinced. In the 1960s we didn't need a program beating people over their heads to prove that science was cool. The proof of discoveries were writ large in daily newspapers. You'd look and say "wow, let's do a little more of that, depending on the needs of moment. When you do that everyone understands the value of science.
You're likely familiar with the announcement from Planetary Resources and its plan to mine asteroids for natural resources. What about the privatization of space exploration where companies like this one or SpaceX take the lead. Is that a good thing?
Tyson: The SpaceX folks are filling in the rear end of this...It was the frontier in '60s. Now the frontier is a manned mission to Mars. That's the business of NASA, which ought to be in it exclusively. Private enterprise cannot lead the space frontier. Space is dangerous and you can't solicit VC money for danger, so governments will conduct these activities. Once the maps get drawn and the trade winds are established, then it'll be the turn of the private sector.