Space exploration has always had a grip on the human imagination. Ever since Jules Verne and H.G. Wells fearlessly conceived of a future in which humankind would loose the surly bonds of Earth, the desire to go to what’s out there, as opposed to just wonder about it, has been an unimpeachable part of our culture. Wonder is a powerful force; but, as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson argues, wonder alone is not sufficient to motivate nations to commit the resources necessary to take human beings to the places that populate the night sky. He has identified three motivators that, in his view, have underpinned the capital-intensive expeditions that have mapped the Earth and are beginning to chart the Universe.
Tyson explores these three motivators in his book Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier. In this wide-ranging interview with Editor in Chief Jerry Edling, he argues that space exploration is far from being the exclusive province of impractical dreamers. In Tyson’s view, space exploration is a force for economic progress and one of the most potent tools available for public diplomacy.
J.E.: You argue fundamentally in the book that space exploration is not a luxury, that it drives innovation and technology and that nations, especially superpowers, that forego space exploration do so at their peril. Could you expand on your central thesis a little bit?
N.d.T.: Sure. Just my read of the history of major funded projects – we could quibble over the details of this list – but the sense of it would be resonant. So, for example, you have things like the Great Pyramids and the great voyages of Columbus and Magellan and the Manhattan Project and the Apollo project, just make the list; and we all agree these are really expensive things – you know, church building in Europe – these are episodes of cultures where lots of human and financial capital was invested in them, sort of significant fractions of the total available resources of the day. And if we’re going to go to Mars, for example, in a big way, that, I think, would be expensive and big, like the rest of these other projects.
So, I was curious some years ago, I asked, what would it take to motivate America to go to Mars if it’s very expensive? I thought maybe I could take a cue from previously-motivating activities. And so, when you do this, you go through this exercise, what you find is that there are three principal drivers of why nations spend large sums of money. And there’s not more than three; there’s just three. And the obvious, the most obvious is war. Nobody really wants to die, and you’ll spend whatever money it takes to prevent it. And that gets you the Great Wall of China; that gets you the Manhattan Project. It also, by the way, got us the Apollo project, which was a Cold War activity. We’ll get back to that in a minute. And also another important one is the search for wealth, the promise of economic return. That’s what gets you the Columbus voyages. Queen Isabella was not interested in Columbus coming back and describing the plant life and the animal life. She said, here, take this satchel of Spanish flags, plant them wherever you go; and, meanwhile, find a shorter trade route to the Far East. There are economic incentives.
So, what I’ve come to learn is that if we’re going to go into space, sure, we would do it for military reasons. We already did. That’s why we went to the Moon. But no one wants that to be the emergent reason; or, at least, I don’t. But it could also easily be justified for economic reasons, because the innovations that advancing a space frontier require – require daily, even – those innovations and those patents and those discoveries are the engines of tomorrow’s economies, especially this, the 21st century. So, it became clear that if we are in economic hard times and we’re not investing in space, we’ll just continue to slide while the rest of the world passes us by.
It’s not a matter of just the spinoffs that come from investments in space. There are always spinoffs, and who doesn’t love a good spinoff? I’m talking about the innovation culture that the act of advancing a space frontier brings upon the entire nation, whether or not you’re employed in the STEM fields – you know, the science, technology, engineering and math – if you’re part of this culture… If you’re a journalist, you’ll write a story about some discovery in space. If you’re a producer, you’ll do some extra documentaries surrounding it. If you’re an artist, you might be inspired by cosmic themes. Everyone becomes a participant, and everyone wants a piece of that tomorrow, just the way we did in the 1960s, because that was what the World’s Fair was all about. It was all about tomorrow, a tomorrow brought to you by the scientists and technologists.
J.E.: So, do you think we’ve lost this innovation culture?
N.d.T.: Oh, it’s long gone. We haven’t had it since the 1980s. By the way, there are other innovations. Don’t get me wrong. I mean, the entire sort of microelectronics universe is a universe unto itself; and that required daily innovation. The portfolio of Apple products, for example, is widely regarded in the field of innovation and industrial design. So, it’s not that you can’t have innovation without space; but, in terms of the effect that innovation would have on your culture and on the pipeline of students who want to decide what they want to be when they grow up, I know of no force as great as that of space exploration.
J.E.: Much has been made lately in foreign policy of the value of soft power to nations, soft power being defined as the power of attraction. The U.S. has derived much of its soft power from its image as the land of opportunity and freedom; and I’d suggest that U.S. soft power may have reached its zenith at the time of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Is that a fair statement? And how essential is space exploration to U.S. soft power and its competition, if you will, with nations like China, Russia and the entire EU?
N.d.T.: First, I agree entirely with that assertion. If you go back to the 1960s, here we have NASA, which was conceived in a Cold War climate almost exactly a year after Sputnik was launched. The ham radio operators at the time will remember that it had a little radio transmitter inside that just went beep-beep; but the military folks took notice because it was a hollowed-out intercontinental ballistic missile shell. And so, here’s this innocent craft, Sputnik translates to fellow traveler. Sounds innocent enough, until you realize that they had the new high ground. This spooked the military, it spooked Americans, it spooked our democracy, our leadership in the free world. We founded NASA as a civilian agency, but then every astronaut, except for two of all the astronauts of that era, every one of them was drawn from the military.
So, when you consider how we actually played it out over that decade, the military motive’s fine; but now, watch what happens. We land on the Moon. Those astronauts who went to the Moon become not only national heroes but international heroes; and, as was portrayed in that film of interviews of all of the moonwalkers. One of them said, you know when we go to all these remote countries and they would come up to us, they wouldn’t say, “You did it. You did it.” They’d say, “We did it. We walked on the Moon.” There was a shared vicarious participation in the act of having walked on the Moon. Humans walked on the Moon. And so, NASA, even at a time when we are in the middle of the Cold War and we’re fighting a hot war in Vietnam and the hottest period of the Civil Rights movement and the leaders are getting assassinated…the shiniest jewel, the only jewel with any shine at all in the American crown was the space program, and people came to view the space program not simply as an American activity but as a cultural activity of our species, and if that’s not soft power, I don’t know what is.
J.E.: Moving forward from that, so where did we lose the momentum that that generated?
N.d.T.: Oh no, it’s because we went for war. We did it for war purposes, and when we found out [Russia was] not going to the Moon, of course we stopped going to the Moon. Mars was never in our sights as long as it was not in the sights of the Russians. This is part of the delusion of our memory of that era. By the way, the alternative title of my book, which was rejected by the publisher because they said it was too depressing, is Failure to Launch: The Dreams and Delusions of Space Enthusiasts. That’s my original title, which was rejected. A lot of the book – not all of the book, but a lot of the book – highlights delusional thinking of space enthusiasts.
Leading the list of delusional thought was that we’re on the Moon by the 60’s, we’ll be on Mars by the 80’s. That’s if discovery were the driver, sure; but discovery was never the driver. So, it’s retrospectively obvious that we would go to the Moon and then stop. And so, the momentum was militaristically driven. Period. So, to say, what happened to the momentum… it was never there beyond just beating the Russians, beating the Communists, showing that we have a better system than they do. Let’s not fool ourselves. Once you assess the actual causes and effects of decisions of that era, then it’s clear why all that momentum went away.
I would maintain that having a healthy economy is a pretty good thing that everyone kind of wants, and using space… If you don’t care about discovery, if you don’t care about new frontiers and new vistas, in a free market society you probably care about not dying poor, okay? So, then take on the lens of the economy for how our activities in space can serve it, and when you do that then it becomes our directive on our politicians rather than waiting around for the whims of one politician or another to sort of give NASA a handout on whether we can afford to explore space from one economic cycle to the other. Until you learn that NASA is the driver of the economic cycle, you’re stuck thinking that NASA is only getting handouts every year rather than not only driving the economy but driving part of the nation’s identity as well.
J.E.: So that brings up a couple of points. First of all, how do you think politicians should articulate that particular vision? One thing you mention in the book is, for example, that when President Kennedy articulated the idea of going to the Moon in ten years in the background he had said privately to his advisors that he wasn’t really all that interested in space, but he got the idea that if the Russians beat us, it would not be a good thing. So, in terms of the economy and NASA as the driver of the economy, if you were President Obama’s advisor right now, how would you advise him to articulate the vision so we’d recapture that momentum?
N.d..T.: You say that as the health of NASA’s frontier goes, so, too, does the economic health of the nation. And so, you take NASA’s budget and double it. Double it, as an example; and that would be sufficient to get back to space in a big way, where we’re not just saying we might land on Mars in the 2030s sometime, under the watch of a president to be named later on a budget not yet established, which is the current configuration of NASA. What you would do is, you would bring all of that into the near future and consider all of space, all of the solar system your backyard; and that would then drive not only the science, but tourism and mining, and there could be geopolitical reasons why one would want to go into space; and that culture, the discoveries and advances on that frontier would create an innovation culture; and it’s that innovation culture that drives the economy.
Yes, there are the direct spinoffs that will help drive local economies or for various products and services; but I’m really referring to the broader impact that adventure would have. That’s what I’d tell him to do. If he didn’t want to do it, I’d say, “I don’t care what you think; this is the mandate of the people, and you work for us at the end of the day.” Being advisor to the President means you still report to the President, as does the head of NASA, and you’re subject to the whims of the President; but in the end it’s the President who is subject to the wishes of the electorate.
As an educator and as a scientist my interest is in the electorate, because they can ultimately create the mandate that politicians must follow and thereby remove it from the table of debate about whether it should or shouldn’t happen. For example: veterans’ benefits. That is not a subject of competing candidates because it is a mandate of the people that there are veterans’ benefits. If there are discussions, it’s on the edges of how it’s administered or, or what is the nature of the, of the services; but whether it exists or not is not even on the table. So, the doubling of NASA’s budget: people say, well, we can’t afford it. Of course you can afford it. You can especially afford it once you know that it’s an investment. That’s what investment means. You put down money now, and you get more later. That’s how that works. And so, of course there’s money. It’s a matter of how you choose to spend it. All those who are concerned about how much we’re spending in space versus how much we’re spending on the ground, we hear that a lot right? Why are we spending the money up there and not down here? If you actually look at the budget, to just look at the budget; first of all, in America the Department of Education, its budget is three times that of NASA. There’s already three times, the factor of three higher. Then you add to that all the money that social programs get. Often, NASA is contrasted with social programs. There’s a competition of need. You add that all together, it is 50 times the NASA budget. So we are spending money on important issues down here. And so, there is no real argument against this. Like I said, if the President doesn’t want to do it, I don’t care. We’ll get the public to mandate it of him, because he works for us.
J.E.: And, indeed, one positive thing you bring out in the book is that there is a huge reservoir of support for space exploration in the public, as evidenced by, say, the popularity of the National Air and Space Museum and things like that.
N.d.T.: Yes, and it’s not only that; I mean, there’s some even more crass measures of it; for example, the popularity of science fiction films. Just look at how successful Avatar was, for example. Look at how successful and recurring the “Star Trek” series is. Even the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS. Just look at it. There’s an appetite for it that goes far beyond just the geek set and the technically trained people. It goes deep into our culture. It’s there, we want it, we like it, and some of the highest-grossing films of all time had space-based themes, from “E.T.” to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” to even disaster movies like “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” and Carl Sagan’s “Contact.” These are all, films that have captured our imagination and go beyond just the science and engineering community to be embraced by all.
I’m reminded of the 1960’s – I’m old enough to remember – where people spent a lot of time imagining a tomorrow that they knew the scientists and the technologists would bring. And that is what the 1964 World’s Fair was all about. It wasn’t about yesterday; it wasn’t about today; it was about tomorrow. And the people who I hear, they say, “I want to dream about tomorrow again; let’s create another world’s fair.” It’s like, no, you don’t get it. It was the fact that people were dreaming about tomorrow in the 1960s; that culture was in us. It is that culture that bred the World’s Fair in our society. The World’s Fair is a symptom of people wanting to dream about tomorrow. It didn’t create it. It is a symptom of it, and the kind of symptom you want to have, I think. Maybe I’m biased. The Amish clearly live in the past and they [are] perfectly happy doing so. So I don’t want to force a future on people that they might not want; but what I will do is, as an educator, is to alert you of causes and effects of your decisions and the causes and effects of your non-decisions. And in a free market democracy, you vote for how you want your future to be. Most people I know don’t want to die and they don’t want to die poor, and so here’s a recipe to resolve that.
J.E.: Do you think some of these large-scale missions going forward, say, to explore the asteroids or to go to Mars or anything that involves such huge expenditures or such a huge commitment – should that be a national effort or should it be an international effort? Should we make an effort to create a consortium or should it be that the U.S. commits itself as a nation to put a foot on Mars by a certain year?
N.d.T.: Consider that the International Space Station is the greatest collaboration of nations outside of the waging of war that there ever was. Just consider that. So, I guess we can call the Olympics a collaboration of nations, but the cost of the Olympics doesn’t rival that of the Space Station. So, there is strong evidence that nations can collaborate and do collaborate and share technologies and so these are the geopolitical reasons why someone might want to go into space. When I said earlier that in a healthy NASA, at one percent of the tax dollar, doubled from one-half a percent, a healthy portfolio would be spacecraft that could go to any destination we choose: the near side of the Moon, the far side of the Moon, the asteroids, Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and send people, send robots, you could go for scientific reasons, for touristic reasons, for the reasons of exploiting resources, such as mining, and, possibly, geopolitical reasons, there could be military reasons for going into space. All of this would be served by this set of launch vehicles.
Now, normally, the role of collaboration is that because one country can’t afford it you pool your resources; but if it’s an investment, because you know it returns back on your economy, it’s not a matter of not being able to afford it. It’s a matter of who’s got the money to invest. So, I can imagine other countries investing with us and they share in the technologies and they share in the benefits, and heroes are made – local heroes, national heroes – and so, that could stoke the economies of multiple nations if people want to participate as co-investors. Beyond that, I remind you that China was disinvited from participating in the Space Station. We cited human rights violations in it, but the consequence of that was, well, China still wanted to go into space. That didn’t stop China from wanting to go into space, so they built their entire own space program with their own astronauts. And that’s what happens when you’re motivated. The threat of America to say you can’t play in our sandbox fell on, all it did was motivate them more to sort of leapfrog their space initiatives; and now they’re talking about going to the Moon and on to Mars. That’s kind of an adversarial competition, non-militaristic – you know, I think of an adversary as kind of a friendly foe, right? Chess opponent: that’s my adversary.
So I don’t think of an adversary as necessarily military in this context; but sometimes competition will stimulate more innovation than participation. I’m not going to vote one way or another. All I’m saying is that if you view it as an investment, and in a global economy you don’t care where your investors come from. It’s just that they have the money to participate. And in this case, it’s the investment of nations feeding back to the innovations of the businesses, and, just to complete that thought, once the patents are awarded and the risks are assessed and the costs are established, then you can stimulate a capital market participation in it because then you can make a business model for it and there’s a literal return on investment that can be calculated. So this movement underfoot today, where private enterprise is vying for the contracts to take astronauts back and forth to the Space Station – and cargo, by the way – this is a good thing; but that’s not a space frontier. Private enterprise cannot advance the space frontier because the space frontier cannot be capitalized in the way that capital markets require for you to obtain investors.
J.E.: Well, just discussing commercial space ventures just for a second, do you think that commercial space ventures could serve as a vehicle for commercial integration among nations in the same sense that, say, the European Coal and Steel Community served as a vehicle for commercial, and eventually geopolitical, integration among nations of Europe which had been warring and now are in an integrated economy. Do you see that happening in space or vis-à-vis space going forward?
N.d.T.: The little I know of history and war tells me that if you have a completely intertwined economy, you’re less likely to go to war against each other, because there’s a mutual interdependence; and so it’s true that all the countries of the International Space Station are at peace with one another, including the United States and Russia, sworn enemies for an entire generation, for 1945 to 1989. So it is possible that enemies can become friends – that’s certainly the case – and sustain friends through such collaborations; but you don’t specifically need space for that. You can have just simply multinational corporations that do business in multiple countries and – so, that alone is not the ticket to prevent war, I don’t think, but it can certainly help. So you can see it as an activity of nations initially, for sure; but the next wave of participation, this sort of corporate business venture participation, that needn’t be any one country or another.
In a global economy, if I’m running a business, I want to have tourist jaunts to the Moon, I need the best technology I can find. So, is there a piece I need in India that engineers have invented there, I’ve got it. Something I need from Japan, something I need from Europe, something from Brazil. Brazil has the third-largest aerospace industry in the world, by the way, unbeknownst to most Americans, who, when you just mention Brazil, all you think of is soccer and thong bikinis – we have our own stereotypes of how we think of nations and nations who have themselves risen up and have embraced innovations in science and technology. While we are saying we’re at the top of the world, the rest of the world has been putting themselves on top, and we wake up one day quite surprised how backwards we are. So, I don’t see why the business ventures wouldn’t be completely multinational. That would be a fascinating future in store for us all; and in that way multiple nations share in the fruits of the resources that space provides.
J.E.: In terms of technology and science, one of the things you touched on in the book and in some other writings is the decline of science and what you call brain regression as opposed to brain drain. Could you discuss that a little bit?
N.d.T.: Actually it’s just the trajectory of the educational system. So back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s graduate schools in engineering and in the physical sciences of chemistry, physics, even astrophysics started getting a higher and higher participation of foreign nationals, in particular from Japan, Taiwan, India and a few other places. Beginning in the early 1990s you started getting people from the former Eastern Bloc nations. They would come, they get their advanced degrees – Masters and Ph.D.s – and they would stay. And so we’re getting the best and brightest around the world coming to America. We train them, and they stay. This is sort of the ideal immigrant scenario, where the person from another country enhances what it is to live in the country they emigrated to.
But you have to ask, how long will this continue? Will they ever want to go back to their country? Well, over those years their home countries have started to improve their own economies and they have growth trajectories that were greater than that of the economic growth here in America. So, what we started getting was students coming here, getting their degrees and then returning to their home country because that’s where the opportunities were. That’s at best, sort of neutral, right? That’s sort of neutral. We get some who publish papers while you’re in graduate school or may they hang out for a few post-docs. There’s some participation in the nation’s goals. The next step in that evolution is those that return to set up their own schools of education so that the people never have to come here to begin with, and when that happens, we’re hosed.
So much of what we identify as America was built on the sweat equity of immigrants who came here – hard-working immigrants who helped to define what the future of this nation would be. Hard-working, smart and motivated, emphasis on motivation. So, if they never come here to begin with and it’s just us, I fear for America. I just fear for what our future will be. All the more power to these other countries, of course; but, I’m being a little jingoistic here, right? Because I’m American, so it would be nice if we didn’t lose this intellectual capital, but our loss is the gain of other nations. So, that levels the playing field in ways that I would hope America would still sort of rise to the task; but I don’t see that in the cards.
J.E.: One of the other points you make is that it also stops us from having to negotiate. I think the example you give is that the Europeans have developed the Galileo system and that we may be put into a position where to fly into their airspace we may have to pay to use this system, whereas, in the past, we’ve been so far ahead technologically that we could just give away what we have.
N.d.T: Yes, exactly, and the modern version of that would be the concern today that our jobs are going overseas. Of course, in a global economy it is not only expected, it is almost required that if a company can make their widget cheaper in another country that that’s what they should do, because that would maximize shareholder value and that’s the only real point of the existence of the corporation. So, we can’t simultaneously expect to be a participant in a global economy and then cry foul when a factory moves overseas. But the fact that the factory jobs are moving overseas and that we’re complaining about them means that we somehow didn’t want to give up those jobs. Well, why? Well, because there’s no other job to take its place. If we are in an innovation culture and in an innovation economy, then the jobs in our factories stay here because no one else has figured out how to do it yet. It’s a new idea, it’s a new concept, it’s a new product, it’s a new way of earning money; as long as you stay active on that innovation frontier, there’s a point where other countries can catch up with you and then the jobs go overseas. At that point, you don’t care because you have a list of seven other jobs waiting for you to occupy. So the innovation culture solves many current problems, and, you’re right, because, what are we doing now? We think the solution to that jobs problem is, well, let’s put tariffs on the product or let’s create tax incentives so that the company keeps their factory…and these are Band-Aids. These aren’t solutions. I don’t know how to solve this, so this’ll temporarily stem the hemorrhaging, right? The real solution is to innovate.
J.E.: One thing you mention in the book – and it’s a negative in terms of moving the space program forward – is the infusion of partisanship into the whole debate. And the fact that there is a debate is, as you mentioned earlier, is kind of a new development. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?
N.d.T.: It’s quite a new development, and it disturbs me greatly. There’s always been politics in space, so that’s not the issue here. NASA was created in a geopolitical environment. So, as an academic I’m prone to complain about politics because it’s always between where you are and what your goals are; but in Washington, politics is the currency. So, you don’t go to Washington and say everything’s fine except for the politics. That is how it works. So, I’m not so naïve to complain that politics is there. What concerns me is the partisanship. So, I would say this sequence of presidents, going from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, has the biggest swing of partisan divide I’ve ever seen in my life. So, there are all the people who didn’t like George W. Bush, vociferously, for whatever is in the list, whether it was his absence of intellect or his policies on war or the environment or on religion. Then we have Obama, and then all the people who were Bush supporters now hate Obama with the same fervor that the Obama supporters today would have hated Bush.
What that means is that we have these two camps who have knee-jerk reactions to political policy on a level where they seem to be even incapable of giving a complimentary nod to something that actually deserves it. So, for example, when George W. Bush proposed the next generation space policy, it actually was quite sound. It said we’ll phase out the shuttle, use the saved monies to then build a new vehicle that’ll get us back to the Moon and on to Mars and beyond. Okay. That was sound, but the knee-jerk of the Bush haters was, send Bush to Mars. Why is he even doing this? We’ve got other problems here on Earth. Okay. So then Obama gives a space speech, and he phases out the shuttle. He’s blamed for phasing out the shuttle when, of course, that was called for by Bush. The Obama haters, their lens prevents them from noticing this; and so they blame Obama for phasing out the shuttle. And then Obama said, you know, we’ve already been to the Moon. Let’s stay ambitious and go to Mars.
I was at that speech; and, of course, it rang well with the audience; but then you realize, if you don’t go to the Moon, which is your near-term launch goal, then all the people engaged in near-term launches don’t have a job. So tens of thousands of people lost their job by that very one sentence, let’s skip the Moon and go to Mars. So, then, all of a sudden, you had the people accusing Obama of killing the space program when he said explicitly I love Mars, I want to go to Mars and on to asteroids. So people were blind to information and interpreted information in ways that fulfilled their partisan perspectives. If you have a partisan divide, given even what are normal political challenges, and given the annual hat-in-hand handout conduct that NASA required with Congress to get its budget each year, this is not helping. NASA has historically not only been bipartisan; it’s been nonpartisan. You could not know if a person supported NASA just by learning of their political leanings. It somehow transcended that; and I thought that was always its strong point.
J.E.: So what’s your vision going forward? To use your term, if you were the “Pope of Congress,” which I love …
N.d.T.: (Laughter) The Pope is all-powerful, right?
J.E.: Exactly. What would you mandate, and where do you see the U.S. and the world in space in a perfect world in, say, 20, 30 years?
N.d.T.: The Pope of Congress would be an all-powerful position; but then I realized, no, that’s not the most powerful position you can be in. The most powerful position you can be in is to convince the public that this is what should happen, because, at the end of the day, the Congress and the President work for the public. So I’m back-treading on my previous imaginings of being “Pope of Congress” and saying, let the public understand that a healthy NASA matters to the culture of innovation in the country in which we live. The culture of innovation stokes the economies that we so desperately need to lift out of its doldrums. Once the public decides that space is in their economic interest as well as in the interest of their dreams – once they recognize it’s in their economic interest, the public then mandates it of the lawmakers and of the leaders and of the elected officials. So I don’t want to just convince Congress and then two years later – since 88 percent of all of Congress is re-elected every two years or has to run for re-election every two years –have to do it again. I want that mandate to be so fundamentally part of what it is to be American that the senators and congressmen and president are simply executing our will. And it’s not a matter of the political whims that they represent or capture.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. He has begun production on a new Cosmos television series, which is due to premiere in Spring 2013. He lives in New York.