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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Space Chronicles; Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Air Date: Week of April 13, 2012

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Neil DeGrasse Tyson, author of Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier (Photo: Chris Cassidy/ Casspix.com)

Astrophysicist extraordinaire Neil DeGrasse Tyson discusses the past, present, and future of America’s space program. Tyson talks with Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood about his latest book “Space Chronicles – Facing the Ultimate Frontier” and about why America needs to return to space.


GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. NASA has been sending Americans into space for half a century. But now that proud chapter is history. With the end of the space shuttle program, we have no way of launching astronauts in an American spacecraft from American soil for at least a decade, and maybe longer.

Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has big problems with that and he writes about them in his new book Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and he recently spoke to Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood about space exploration, science education, and the role of discovery.

CURWOOD: So, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, tell me, why aren't we sending people into space like we used to?

TYSON: [laughing] You're asking me to give the argument of those who I'm trying to argue against? Don't ask me why aren't we, ask me why should we!

CURWOOD: [laughing] Well, no, but give me the analysis. How did we get, in your view, how did we get to this place?

TYSON: Here's my best understanding of it. We got complacent. There's a branch point in people's understanding of why we went to the moon. The actual reason why we went to the moon is that we were at war. NASA was created in a militaristic environment. Russia had put up Sputnik in 1957; one year later, in reaction to that, we found the agency known as NASA.

We went to the moon because we felt threatened by the communists. When you feel threatened, money flows like rivers. And so, out came the money for us to go to the moon. The war driver does not match the reflections on the era for why we went to the moon. And then we find out Russia's not going to the moon? We stop going to the moon. That’s obvious, once you realize we went to the moon for war purposes. And it's not obvious if you think we went to the moon because we're explorers and we're discoverers and it's in our DNA and all these arguments that space enthusiasts had given, leaving them disappointed to find that it never matches.

CURWOOD: So, tell me, why should we explore space, with people?

TYSON: I've got my own reasons for exploring space, that I don't presume others should have these reasons. I think we should explore space because it's cool to do and that you discover interesting things tomorrow that you didn't know today, and that's enlightening. That's why I like to explore.

But I'm not going to require others to want to write the checks for those reasons. We should do it because our economy is tanking right now and people need to recognize the role and value of innovation as a cultural directive on the health of an economy. And innovation, I mean the capacity to dream about a tomorrow that doesn't exist today, the capacity to want to accomplish something tomorrow. In space it would require some kind of application of science, engineering, and technology to do something tomorrow that you didn't know how to do today and when you innovate on that scale, you invent the economies of tomorrow.

And when you do that, the kids want to become scientists because they can see what role, it's writ large in the daily headlines, they see what role science and engineering fluency plays in the trajectory of your society. And then the entire country becomes a participant on that frontier rather than sitting on our hands watching the rest of the world do exactly what we used to dream about doing for ourselves.

CURWOOD: Whoah! So, your analysis that we're not sending people into space, into deeper space than just low earth orbit these days, is based on the military history of what we've done in space?

Space Chronicles (W. W. Norton & Company)

TYSON: Well, military was the original driver, of course, that was the cold war driver that got us to the moon. And so, space exploration, among those who remembered it as a military exercise, would think of it as, well, we'll do it again if we have military reasons but otherwise there's no point. And, of course, if China, I joke, they should leak a memo, it doesn't have to be true, just leak a memo that they want to put military bases on Mars, [laughing] we'll be on Mars in ten months!

So, no one wants war to be a driver of anything. At least, I don't. But, once you recognize that in that era, apart from war being the driver, we gained significant economic growth out of that period in spite of the fact that we had heavy expenditures in the war machine that had been created for the cold war. People don't think about it that way.

And I'm trying to assert, based on my read of the history of the conduct of nations, that the two greatest drivers of doing great, adventurous things are the "I don't want to die" driver, that's the war driver, and then "I don't want to die poor," that's the economic driver. We can go forward in space. The explorers will do the exploring, but the people who write the check need to recognize that to be a huge return on the economy of the nation that makes that investment.

CURWOOD: Okay, so you say one of the biggest motives is the "I don't want to die" motive and in your book you talk about huge threats, extinction of life on earth, from asteroids floating around out there. Could that be a motivation to get back into the game of getting out into space?

TYSON: That's the biggest military driver of them all, of course. However, the asteroid that might take us out, you calculate the orbits and you predict when it will happen, that will be in a thousand years, or five hundred years. And 88 percent of Congress gets elected every two years. So there's a mismatch of time scales there and I'm saying that would be among several reasons to go into space, and a really important one.

But I claim that if you go into space because you know it has an economic return, not only from the direct spinoffs from the space investment but from the cultural shift that exploring big brings onto a nation, and onto its peoples, so that everybody's a participant in the "innovation nation," if you will, this spreads into our culture and in society. And then you have dreamers who once again dream about tomorrow.

CURWOOD: So let me ask you this: with NASA's limited budget these days, what would you prioritize?

TYSON: No! No! I say double the budget! I'm not going to argue about the crumbs that Congress feels like that's all they can afford to give NASA. No. That's the wrong conversation. There are people doing that now, yes. I was called days after the book came out to testify in front of Congress because NASA's budget is in play right now. And I said "I'm not going to argue over the pennies that we’re going to redistribute within the NASA budget." They said, "okay, come and talk about the future of what you think NASA should be." And I said "this half a penny on the tax dollar that's the NASA budget? Double it. Make it a fat penny. Then that will be big enough to go into space in a big way."

CURWOOD: So then the flip side of this question is this: let's say that funding was not an issue. What would you like to see NASA do and what should NASA do first?

TYSON: Excellent, excellent! Thank you! What I would do is create an entire suite of launch vehicles that can be differently configured depending on the needs. So if you need to go into space, you strap it together, four rockets from column A, two from column B, that gets you to deep space. I might want to go to the back side of the moon, set up an observatory, the military might have reasons to go one place or another, the entrepreneurs might want to give you a tourist ride and visit a moon colony, space then becomes our backyard. That is how I see the healthiest way to take us into the future. And you don't sit on your laurels, you always advance the frontier. Otherwise, you don't stay ahead of where you were the day before.

CURWOOD: So, what has happened here? Now back in the sixties, I remember, there was this sense of wonder about the world -

TYSON: You're telling me!

CURWOOD: - and what's happened, that when kids go into the classroom these days, they don't get that sense of wonder about the natural world?

TYSON: And the people want to believe that the solution to that is, let's get more inspiring teachers. Well, in mathematics we call that a necessary but insufficient condition to achieve the goal. Yes, you want inspiring teachers. Go ahead. But don't believe that that's going to solve the problem. Because a teacher can light a flame but something has to keep that flame fanned as they proceed through their educational pipeline.

So when you have a big, ambitious mission, such as space exploration, a field that taps all the traditional STEM fields, the science, technology, engineering and math fields, here you have the call for excellence and innovation on these frontiers because we're going into space in a big way and that will reverberate down the academic pipeline in ways that - it will be like a force of nature.

You create the more scientists and engineers that you've been searching for. You innovate and you have new products. Your factory can't go oversees because they haven't figured out how to make it yet. And when new economies get invented, and developed, and promoted in a next generation, we rise up out of our economic doldrums and we become a competitive nation once again. Rather than on the sidelines watching the rest of the nations who do understand this take the lead.

CURWOOD: How much does the public need to know about science? And what makes someone science literate?

TYSON: I think there's a misunderstanding. Many people think that being scientifically literate is being able to recite the theory of evolution or how does your microwave oven work or internal combustion engine car and that's an aspect of science literacy but I don't think it's the most important. The most important aspect of science literacy is recognizing that science is not a body of knowledge, it's a way of thinking and querying the world around you.

And it's what empowers you to ask the right questions when someone confronts you with a claim. If someone says, "I have these crystals and if you rub them together it will cure all your ailments." So what' s your first thought in that encounter? Is it, great, great, how much do I pay for them? Or is it, well, what are the crystals made of? And what evidence do you have that it's worked in the past? You start asking questions and the person runs away in tears because they don't have the answers to those questions. And you've just exposed the person as the charlatan that he or she is. Without knowing anything in advance, you're just curious about a claim. And so science literacy is the capacity to ask intelligent questions about the physical world around you.

CURWOOD: These days, a substantial portion of the population, I'm not sure I'd pick a number, exactly, is skeptical of the science behind the concern about climate. Why?

TYSON: Oh, yeah, because they get their news from people who don't know how to tell the difference. And they're not trained to study the raw data themselves. Psychologists have known for a while that even if you know something to be true, if someone else is telling you the opposite and they do it persistently that you eventually believe what you've been told multiple times. It kind of overrides your brain's memory of what was the actual truth and you're just believing what's repeated to you. When you turn on the news, you believe that, and you're left with no further capacity to analyze the situation because someone else handed you your worldview. As an educator, I see it as a duty to empower people to be able to construct a worldview of their own.

CURWOOD: So, your concern about the media brainwashing people about science, and we were just talking about climate, raises an interesting question about your role in the media, because I understand you're working on a reboot of Carl Sagan's landmark television series Cosmos. But it's going to be on FOX!

[Tyson laughing]

CURWOOD: FOX has this reputation, in fact there've been academic studies showing that FOX is among the quickest of the network news channels to trot out climate skeptics any time an issue regarding climate disruption comes up in the news. How do you reconcile working with a company whose record would appear to be contrary to your view of how science should be treated?

TYSON: It's why Cosmos needs to be on FOX. [laughing] That's the answer. You don't put Cosmos where everyone is already scientifically literate and already understands how to interpret scientific research. That's not where you put Cosmos. You put Cosmos where it's most needed, where it has the greatest access to the heartlands of America.

CURWOOD: Now, back in the day, Carl Sagan was, well, I don't want to use the word vilified exactly, but the scientific community didn't treat him very well. They felt, somehow, that he had betrayed many of them. How is the scientific community treating your ability to communicate so powerfully and effectively in the wider world of media?

TYSON: That's an excellent question. Back in his day, it hadn't been done before. And so there's always blood on the tracks if you're the pioneer. Carl Sagan went on Johnny Carson. He was criticized for that. And it turns out Johnny Carson was a fan of science and a fan of Carl's and a fan of Cosmos and what happened was all boats started getting lifted.

Congress was talking about astronomy in ways they hadn't thought to do so before because Cosmos was such a hit series and Carl Sagan had such charm and such wit and such bedside manner in his delivery of the frontier of science in ways that other scientists had not developed. So my field, the field of astrophysics, among sciences, was the first to embrace that activity for all the benefits that it brought us. And since then, there've been many of us, I'm not alone on this landscape, that have brought science to the public.

CURWOOD: So, final question before we go: What intrigues you the most right now, either a recent discovery or a question that we should be addressing in the cosmos?

TYSON: I think the right questions are being addressed by the scientific community. We're searching for life. We want to get our inventory of exoplanets, planets orbiting stars outside of our own solar system, to see if there are any ones that kind of look and smell like us, earth-like planets. We're a little biased there, of course, but we're self aware of that.

There's dark matter, dark energy. Eighty-five percent of the gravity of the universe has an unknown origin, it remains a mystery. It's the longest standing unsolved problem in modern astrophysics. Then there was dark energy, this mysterious pressure in the vacuum of space that's making the expanding universe accelerate, against the wishes of the collective gravity of all the galaxies within it. That's a mystery as well. Combine those two sources of energy and it is 96 percent of what's driving the universe.

So our entire understanding, all of our knowledge of the laws of physics and chemistry and biology - is contained in four percent of what's driving the universe. We don't know what's happening in the rest. I look forward to a day where some discovery is revealed that turns out to be the missing puzzle piece that brings all the rest of this under one simple-to-understand umbrella.

CURWOOD: Neil DeGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist. He's director of the Hayden Planetarium. His new book is called Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier. Always a pleasure, Neil Tyson.

TYSON: Thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.



Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Web Page


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