Pushing the Planetary Envelope

cat_eye
Cat’s Eye Nebula
Credit: ESA/Hubble

Neil deGrasse Tyson is the Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and also a Visiting Research Scientist at Princeton University’s Department of Astrophysics. He writes a monthly column called "Universe" for Natural History magazine, and is the author of several books, including "One Universe: At Home in the Cosmos" and "The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures in an Urban Environment".

His most recent project is the NOVA four-part series, "Origins." As host of the PBS miniseries, Tyson guides viewers on a journey into the mysteries of the universe and the origin of life itself.

In this interview with Astrobiology Magazine editor Leslie Mullen, Tyson discusses his role in the President’s Commission on the Moon, Mars and Beyond, and explains what drives us to seek a future in space.


Astrobiology Magazine (AM): You mentioned the Apollo program, which was due in part to the Cold War…

Neil deGrasse Tyson (NT): We would have never gone to the moon without the Cold War, I am certain of that.

AM: Do you think it’s beneficial to the goal of exploration to have that kind of competition with other nations, or do you foresee a future of cooperation with space-faring nations such as China, Russia, and Japan?

NT: I’ve spoken and written at length about this very subject. It has to do with what drives civilizations to invest high levels of resources towards one project or another.

Apollo_11_insignia
Apollo 11 achieved the goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth in 1969.
Caption/Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

If you look at the history of major funded projects, if you made a list of the most expensive things cultures have ever undertaken, there are only three drivers. One of three drivers accounts for every one of the most expensive things people have ever done. And if you made that list you’d include things like the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Manhattan Project, etc.

One of the drivers is war, or "defense" as we say in modern times. The second is the promise of economic return. And the third one is the praise of either deity or royalty. I know of no exception to these three criteria.

So unless we are to believe that twenty-first century Americans are fundamentally different from the humans that have ever lived in the history of culture and civilization, then we should wise up to this fact that if we want to go to the moon, Mars and beyond, and if that’s going to be very expensive, it ought to have one of those three drivers.

Now one of those drivers is no longer really possible in modern times. In America we don’t have kings, so it’s not going to be in praise of royalty, and praise of deity doesn’t take on technological projects, except for architecture where you get buildings like the cathedrals of Europe.

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The 1967 Outer Space Treaty limits the use of celestial bodies (including Mars) exclusively to peaceful purposes, prohibiting weapons testing and military maneuvers.
Caption Credit: Wikipedia.org

Image Credit: NASA

So that leaves only two possible drivers to turn a space program into a space enterprise. Either we do it because we’re in competition, or we do it because we see there is an economic benefit from it. And rather than promote war by saying, "Let’s hope China builds military bases on Mars, so that we would then go to Mars," that leaves private enterprise.

Private enterprise has already played a modest role in keeping a buoyant level of space exploration afloat, with the launch vehicles and the satellite industry. It’s not a thriving industry, but it’s there and it’s real. Without the participation of private enterprise, I think we can forget the whole thing and just go home. Let the rest of the world pass us by technologically, and we’ll sit at home sucking our thumb and complaining that jobs are going overseas.

AM:In Ray Bradbury"s testimony, he said we must explore to satisfy our craving for knowledge and adventure. Do you agree with that sentiment or do you think it is overly romantic?

NT: It is, but you need some of that too. There are people who will join this vision for romantic reasons without specific reference to economics or politics. It’s a richer vision when you can include the rest of these reasons. I’m simply saying that the romantic reasons aren’t enough to sustain funding over the time necessary to get to Mars and beyond. And over the political and economic fluctuations that have damned expensive projects in the past, like the Supercollider, or the space station.

AM: Speaking of time, what sort of timeline do you foresee for the President’s goal?

NT: Thirty years. That’s a lot of presidential elections, so this can’t be a partisan issue. Historically it’s been non-partisan. It’s been partisan on its edges, but not at its core. Kennedy said, "Let’s go to the moon," but it’s Nixon’s signature that’s on the moon. We all did this together.

AM: But thirty years for the moon, Mars, and beyond… Do you really think we’ll do it in that short of a time?

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Low earth orbit: the appeal of living in space?
Image Credit: NASA

NT: I think that’s a phased time with a modest budget. If you don’t have much money, then you stretch it out over a longer time in order to accomplish it. So rather than telling Congress, "Why don’t you triple NASA’s budget so we can do this in ten years?" We say we’ll just up-tick the budget a little bit and we’ll do it in thirty. But meanwhile, we’ll do other things on route so that we’re always pushing the envelope that hadn’t been pushed before, or hasn’t been pushed in a very long time. And going into Low Earth Orbit is not one of those envelopes.

AM: Yeah, the urgency behind that seems to have faded.

NT: For Low Earth Orbit? That’s right. It’s faded because it’s not new. But look at the excitement behind Spaceship One.

AM: More of that private enterprise you were talking about.

NT: That’s right. As long as that kind of prize money continues to push an envelope, there’ll always be an interest in that frontier. And people say, "We’re not interested in the space program like we were in the 60s." Well, duh! It’s because we’re not breaking any frontiers anymore.

Artist's conception of the early Earth
Artist’s conception of an early, pre-terraforming outpost for human visitors to Mars. Painting by Mark Dowman. Credit: Dowman/JSC/NASA.

AM: Do you notice there’s more of an interest in pushing that frontier in the private industry than among scientists themselves?

NT: By and large, scientists, and especially astrophysicists, are not especially keen on sending people into space versus sending robots. You can’t even have that conversation.

AM: Really?

NT: Well, you can, but you’re mixing apples and oranges. You’re saying, "How do you get the biggest space exploration bang for the buck?" Well, you send a robot. We all agree about that. But then you say, "How do you get the funding to do this in the first place?" You’ve got to send people. So you’re caught in this debate that’s not really a debate. There’s the reality of the politics and there’s the reality of the science. And the science is not getting done at all without the politics. You have to honor the politics, otherwise nobody’s in business.

AM: I guess people got scared about sending humans anywhere after the recent Columbia disaster.

NT: The problem there is not that humans died, which itself is a tragedy. It’s that they died boldly going where hundreds had gone before.

It’s very different to die being the first astronauts attempting to land and walk on Mars than it is to be astronauts who died going into Low Earth Orbit. These are very different ways to die. I don’t believe the claim that we’ve lost our nerve. If every next mission were pushing an envelope, you would have people lined up around the block to take that risk.


Related Web Pages

A Perfect World I: Tyson
The Origin of Life on Earth: Book excerpt
The Search for Ourselves in the Cosmos: Book excerpt
Tyson and Planetary Society
Tyson Testimony to Congress on Astrobiology
The Bigger Picture
What Would a Martian Drive?
Three Tough Questions