The following is a transcript of a phone interview conducted with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson on June 4, 2011. Dr. Tyson is a popular astrophysicist and an advocate for increased government funding of science in general and space exploration in particular.
HPR: You recently delivered a keynote speech at the 28th Annual Space Symposium in which you commented on the decline of a national collective consciousness with regard to space since the 1960’s and 1970’s, and the countless benefits to be reaped from a greater national investment in space travel. You stated that the culture of NASA drives our economy and the culture of innovation. Given today’s current fiscal situation, how do you think the federal government can balance conflicting priorities to at least double NASA’s current budget, as you proposed previously?
NDT: If it is an investment, it is not a matter of balancing priorities. You balance priorities if there is no other foreseeable return on the money that you are spending, because then you’re taking from Peter to pay Paul, whereas if it’s an actual investment, then it’s an investment in the future of the nation. So when it’s an investment, you don’t have to go through that kind of analysis of who’s going to get money and who isn’t. Secondly, if you double the NASA budget – I recommended doubling it, but any number that is significantly larger than the current amount would be good – it corresponds to a penny on a tax dollar. That is still not a significant fraction of what the total spending of the nation is. So to say, “How do we have to think about balancing it to balance one-half of a percent to one percent?” is a trivial exercise given how much money is floating around doing other things that are not in the interest of boosting the Americans’ economy.
HPR: Just as important as the previous question, though, is the question of communicating this message to the American people. As a preeminent science communicator, how do you communicate the importance of space travel to a generation of Americans who are far removed from any serious interest in space exploration?
NDT: That’s an important question. I think I’ve stopped trying to convince people that discovery is a fun and interesting thing to do. I’ve stopped trying to convince people that exploration is an amazing thing that cultures have done ever since there’s been culture. I’ve resorted to in fact a much more potent comment, a much more potent assessment. And that is, if we do not do it, then our economy will fail on the world stage. And since we’re a free market capitalist democracy, I presume that people care about the health of our economy on a scale that they will do what it takes to keep America economically strong. So it comes down to that. I’ll certainly tell you about the beauty of discovery to whoever will listen, but the history of that exercise is one of failure. What I mean is that, in the history of human culture, discovery has never been a sufficient enough driver to stimulate the large expenditures of money that our next steps in space would require. It just never has. Neither has science. The things that have accomplished this task are war, and the promise of economic return. So I don’t want to go into space for war, I mean, we certainly would if forced, but I don’t want that to be the reason. But economic drivers are almost as potent as military drivers for the major expenditures of human or financial capital. Thus I say we should go into space because if we don’t, we might as well just move back into the cave, because that’s where we will wake up one morning and find ourselves as the rest of the world passes us by.
HPR: Do you see any problem with the current structure of NASA and if so, what steps would you take to reform it and make it more efficient?
NDT: There are always inefficiencies in government. I don’t think that needs to be the center point of any conversation regarding NASA, otherwise you can make it the center point of any conversation you have about any government agency. So that’s not what is going to drive this. What’s going to drive this is the idea that people want to go into space not only because it’s fun, but also because the space exploration culture will help stoke our economy in ways that our economy once was. So when you recognize this idea, it becomes an easy allocation of money because you expect the returns on this in terms of the strength of our economy and the innovations that derive from it.
HPR: Do you see any role for private investment and technological innovation in future space expeditions as governments are impeded by budgetary concerns? Is there a precedent for this, and what ramifications would it have?
NDT: I think private enterprise should have been there a long time ago. I think private enterprise should have taken us into space decades ago, but that is no longer a frontier. Private enterprise can’t advance a frontier; it’s not equipped to do so. But what it can do is take on the routine tasks that have already been established and where the maps are drawn, the trade winds are identified, and so on. Once you know how to quantify those risks, then you can make a capital markets valuation of how to invest in it. So don’t expect it to lead the space frontier; it simply won’t because it’s not conceived to do so.
HPR: One last question for you, Dr. Tyson. History has proven that geopolitics has a central role in determining the trajectory of space travel. Present economic uncertainties notwithstanding, some commentators have suggested that a strengthening of China on the international scene could mean the start of a second great space race. What are your opinions about this and how do you think it would play out both in the short and long terms? In other words, do you see a legacy of active cooperation or one of heated competition?
NDT: If it’s business, then it’s not a matter of cooperation or competition. If business is healthy in the conduct of space activities, then the countries become irrelevant because there would be multinational corporations engaged in it. In terms of how we might be motivated to return to space in a big way, if China says they are going to put military bases on Mars, we’ll be in Mars in 10 months, right? One month to fund, design, and build the spacecraft and nine months to get there. If it’s just because they are doing better than us economically, then it’s time to step up to the plate. But if it’s an economic contest, I don’t know that people would think of it as a race, because a race implies a destination and if we have a healthy space program participating with a space industry, then it’s simply access to our solar system: to the near side of the Moon, far side of the Moon, asteroids, Mars, Martian moons, Lagrangian points. So there is surely enough out there for everybody to participate in. I don’t see it as a race, and if people want to cooperate, that’s fine. But the drivers could be scientific; we’ve cooperated scientifically on missions forever, so that wouldn’t be a new construct. It could be touristic reasons. It could be geopolitical reasons or military reasons. It could be direct economic reasons; for example, mining of the Moon or of asteroids. So I am not going to prejudge the rate at which one of those activities unfold versus another; the circumstances of the moment would dictate that. But if you have access to all of the solar system, then you don’t have to predetermine a path that everyone needs to take first; you don’t have to assert that it is a race to one destination or another. And then everyone just engages in this. And if we want to collaborate with China, fine, but once we recognize that it is an investment in our own future, the collaboration is not necessary due to financial reasons. Therefore, collaboration could happen for geopolitical reasons. Maybe we want to partner with them, and that’s fine too, but none of that should be a prerequisite for any of this. We should do it because it is good for our economy. Period. Whatever else happens after that is gravy.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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