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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Astrophysicist and New York Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson tells Living on Earth host Steve Curwood that President Bush's new choice to take the helm at NASA, Michael Griffin, has all the qualifications it takes to lead the nation's space agency through the 21st century.


CURWOOD: Michael Griffin has been nominated to head the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Right now, Professor Griffin heads the space department at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. He's also held positions at NASA and in the aerospace industry. If Michael Griffin is approved by the Senate, he'll take the helm as the eleventh administrator of NASA at a time when the agency is facing questions about its budget and its mission.

Dr. Michael Griffin
(Photo courtesy of Applied Physics Laboratory.)

Joining me now is Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and director of New York's Hayden Planetarium and a regular contributor to our program. Dr. Tyson, welcome back to Living on Earth.

TYSON: It's a pleasure. Thanks for having me again.

CURWOOD: So, tell me, what do you make of the choice of Michael Griffin for NASA administrator?

TYSON: Oh, I think it's a brilliant choice. I served on the president's commission to study the implementation of the new space vision. And, among the myriad of tasks we set out for NASA to accomplish, it included making sure the engineers talked to the scientists so that engineering problems don't get too far ahead of the science drivers and that science doesn't get too far ahead of the engineering enablers. We called for an act of participation of the private sector which, as far as we could judge, is the only truly buoyant force of any long-term program in this capitalist society in which we live. We also called for the stimulation of entrepreneurship so that the entire space exploration effort is not driven by one or two companies, but is spread around. There's a lot of smart, clever people found in a lot of unlikely places and you combine all these factors.

You say, well, who you have on the docket to lead this? Is there a politician? No, it could be useful for some things, but not the whole rest of this list. You look at the pedigree of Mike Griffin. He's got a bachelors in physics and a Ph.D. in engineering and an MBA and he's head of a space physics lab and he once worked at NASA, heading up an engineering group. He's all these factors and he worked for the private sector as COO of a division of a major space corporation. It's all rolled up into one person. If there's a better candidate for the head of NASA, at this chapter of NASA's history, I don't know of one.

CURWOOD: But, some say that Michael Griffin doesn't have the Washington experience of the man who's leaving, Sean O'Keefe, who was what, navy secretary, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget right there at the White House; that he may know the science and the engineering, but he may not have the experience in politics.

TYSON: Well, keep in mind he worked at Johns Hopkins University which is in Baltimore, which is in throwing distance of Washington. There is a Washington proximity effect whereas you're near Washington, you're more close to Washington politics and Washington issues. So, you're right, he's not a complete insider the way his predecessor was, Sean O'Keefe. However, my personal goal here--and I think it should be all of our goal--is for the public to take ownership of NASA. And when that happens, then we have taken ownership of our elected representatives with regard to our presence in space. And when that happens, we don't need the insider to get things done because it's happening by the normal democratic process that has made this nation great over the past.

And so, my hope and expectation is the same way the public, think about this, the public has taken ownership of the Hubble telescope. The mere announcement that it might not get repaired...you saw the replies, the op-eds, the debates on talk shows. People said, 'this is our telescope' and we learned that that telescope did not belong to NASA; it did not belong to the astrophysicists. It belonged to the people and I was very heartened by that. I don't know any public outcry for any scientific experiment in history that compares in any way to what happened with the Hubble telescope.

The public needs to take ownership of NASA the way they took ownership of NASA in the 1960s. That was our collective space program. It was our collective achievement. They don't say NASA landed on the moon in the 1960s; they say America landed on the moon in the 1960s. So, when we take ownership then we grease the pathways for Michael Griffin to bring his formidable expertise in science and engineering to get the job done.

CURWOOD: And, assuming Mr. Griffin is confirmed by the Senate, what are the challenges he faces as head of NASA?

TYSON: Yeah, he'd have to have some serious skeletons in his closet to not be completely confirmed by the Senate. And, what are his challenges? Well, consider that in this new vision, the whole solar system is part of the portfolio of what NASA will be exploring, not only robotically and scientifically, but with humans, as well. Yet, the history of NASA and its formation is traceable to an enterprise that had a singular mission and that was going to the moon. So, the challenge is, how do you morph an organization with that kind of legacy into one that has the entire portfolio of the solar system on its docket? And, to do this, he's got to smooth over what has historically been an uneasy relationship between NASA and the efforts of entrepreneurs, the business community, NASA has, in many ways, considered it distinct from the private enterprise. But, in fact, going forward, they're going to have to intersect in ways that have never before been dreamt. And, it's the private enterprise, that is our read from serving on the commission. It's the private enterprise that will provide the buoyant force to keep NASA vibrant over multiple election cycles and through multiple economic cycles. So, he's going to have to stimulate a more meaningful relationship between NASA, the private sector, NASA and entrepreneurs. He's going to have to rework the structural form of NASA to work in the service of multiple missions treating the entire solar system as a destination and not as a singular object.

CURWOOD: Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and director of New York's Hayden Planetarium. His latest book is called, "Origins: 14 Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution." Thanks for taking this time with me today.

TYSON: It's a pleasure.

CURWOOD: Coming up—pro drilling forces win a major battle but the war to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the oil industry isn't over. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: The Ventures "Love Goddess of Venus" The Ventures in Space (EMI) 1963]



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