Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson

The Space Chronicles author explains why space is the ultimate frontier and comments on the future of U.S. space exploration.

As a kid in the Bronx, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson was expected to become a star athlete. Instead, he overcame the misperceptions of a young person of color and became an astrophysicist and the youngest-ever director of New York's famous Hayden Planetarium. Tyson works with the American Museum of Natural History, writes a column for Natural History, and is an award-winning author, with titles that include The Pluto Files and, his latest, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier. He's also involved in several programs that bring science to inner-city schoolchildren.


Tavis: Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the most visible and respected astrophysicists of our time serving as the Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.

Next year, he’s reprising the iconic Carl Sagan series, “Cosmos,” which will air on FOX, but now he’s out with his latest text. It’s called “Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier.” He joins us tonight from, where else, New York City. Neil, good to have you back on the program.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Thanks, Tavis. Thanks for having me back.

Tavis: Let me start by asking the obvious question for me, at least. What is the ultimate frontier?

Tyson: [Chuckle] Well, it’s space. Space, the ultimate frontier. I think when people historically thought of the frontier, there was where you were living and then there was some edge beyond which no one had explored.

It took a special kind of person. Not everyone has the urge to do it, but the special subset of the community that says I want to know what’s on the other side of that frontier.

It could be the other side of a cliff face, a mountain or valley, a hill, and some people go out and explore. Not all of them come back. I mean, not all of them survive to come back.

Yet those who do survive and get to tell of those stories, those adventurers become sort of epic stories in the culture of those who supported those acts of discovery. So this has gone in the history of our species ever since people first left the cave.

So the ultimate frontier, now that all of earth is mapped, is, of course, space, the ultimate frontier.

Tavis: To what extent is manned exploration a thing of the past?

Tyson: You know, a lot of people felt that way. Those cite things like, well, we have the Rovers on Mars. People love the Rovers and the website that tracks the Rovers was heavily visited. The Hubble Telescope is doing great.

So people say, well, it’s the robotic exploration that people are really excited about. I understand the feeling there because, in fact, robots can do things humans can’t. They can survive harsh conditions, they can explore places we would never go, plus you never actually have to bring them back [laugh].

They don’t complain if they don’t come back. There’s no loved ones that will miss them forever. So there’s a certain cost savings. In fact, it’s at least a factor of 100 cost savings between sending humans and sending robots.

The difference is, when you send people, no one has ever, for example, that I know of named a high school after a robot. No one’s ever built a statue to a robot. When you put all this together and recognize that, if the humans are advancing a frontier, people don’t pay attention to the robots. That’s the difference here. We have evidence of this.

In the 1960’s, there were missions to the moon to photograph the lunar surface. Russia had a Rover. There were all manner of robotic missions that were on the moon. Did you hear about them? Did you know anything about them? You might have found it on page 50 of your newspaper. What you did hear about are the humans that were advancing a frontier.

So I claim that all these years that we’ve been celebrating robots, it’s because – and I love celebrating robots. Don’t get me wrong – but it’s because the human frontier was not advancing. For the last 30 years, we’ve been, as I said, boldly going where hundreds have gone before, the low earth orbit mission of the shuttle.

Now the shuttle was brought into service to build the space station. It’s a remarkable piece of engineering, but the space frontier has not been advanced, so you drift in your attention.

The press doesn’t have enough; they can’t talk about it. The press can’t talk about we were in a new place today compared with yesterday. Here’s a new unknown frontier just revealed that we didn’t know about yesterday.

These kinds of advancing frontiers are not available to us at all because we’re not advancing. Each mission was the same as the previous one and that’s the important difference.

Tavis: Tell me why I should not believe – and I was fascinated to read this part of the book, at least your feelings about it.

Tell me why I should not believe that space exploration as we have known it, that is to say, financed and supported and led and cheerleaders being the U.S. government, why should I believe that that’s going to continue?

Because as I follow this debate – and you’re obviously much closer to it than I am – it seems like so many other government services that are being privatized, it seems like that’s happening to the space program, that what we’re going to see in the coming months and years is privatizations.

Let me ask you a two-part question, which I try not to do, am I right in my read that space exploration is increasingly being privatized, that the government is pulling back? Am I right or wrong about that? And if I’m right about it, what does that mean for space exploration that is being so privatized?

Tyson: Okay. So you’re right, but not probably in the way that you think.

Tavis: Okay.

Tyson: NASA has had a relationship with private industry from the very beginning. In fact, more than two-thirds of all the NASA money that they receive in their annual budget ends up in the hands of private corporations in the service of the NASA missions.

So, for example, take the LEM. That’s the module that landed on the moon, the Lunar Excursion Module. That was manufactured at Grumman, Grumman on Long Island here in New York. So NASA’s always had a long and deep and significant relationship with the, if you want to call it, the space industry. That’s always been.

So what’s new coming forth is the drive to get private enterprise to ship astronauts and cargo back and forth into low earth orbit. Low earth orbit is a couple of hundred miles up where the space station flies. So I’m perfectly fine with that. That’s not a frontier. That’s not space exploration.

That’s taking the routine efforts which was once a frontier. You know, we once didn’t really know what’s gonna happen in orbit. Can you swallow in zero G? What happens to your body? It was a mystery back in the 1960’s. That’s all been figured out.

Low earth orbit, while it can still have its dangers, the risks are pretty much mapped and understood. That’s the natural progression of when a government project gets seeded to private enterprise. That’s been going on since the beginning.

Go back to the voyages of Columbus funded by Spain. He was the first European to cross the Atlantic. Is the earth gonna end? Where are the danger zones? Where are the trade winds? Are there dangerous people where you land? What are the risks? All of this gets mapped, assessed, risked. Are there riches there? Those get predetermined.

Columbus goes back, you do this a few more times, then private enterprise comes in. Think of the Dutch East India Trading Company. They weren’t the first Europeans to cross the Atlantic. Government-funded missions were.

You look at the railroads which Gingrich mistakenly asserted that they blazed the frontier to the west coast. That was after Lewis & Clark, after the maps were drawn, after you found out which Indians were hostile and which were not.

So private enterprise will never be in a position to advance an expensive dangerous frontier because the capital markets can’t value that.

Only when the risks are assessed do they come in behind, and that’s what’s going on with low earth orbit, I would then say freeing NASA to then advance the frontier that it’s charged to do.

Tavis: How popular are these flights that Americans are told in the not too distant future they’ll be able to take into space? What’s your sense of what a growth industry that might become, or not?

Tyson: Everybody’s got money for vacation time. Look at how much we all spend just to get – well, I get sick on the loop-the-loop roller coasters. People pay money for that kind of experience.

So I would certainly save up money, save several vacations worth of money, to go on a suborbital flight or any one of these rocket flights. The difference is – and there’s a little bit of delusional marketing here, not completely up front honest marketing.

Currently, these joy rides are what we call suborbital, which means you go up, you pass the thickest part of the atmosphere and, in broad daylight, the stars come out. That’s about at 100 kilometers, about 60 miles. So that’s sort of our functional threshold definition of space.

These tourist companies are trying to take rockets up to that threshold. You make a nice arc, you check out what’s going on, you’re weightless for a bit there and then you come back. That is nothing whatever related to the speed and energy and technology and spacecraft you need to achieve orbit.

When NASA says they’re going into space, they don’t mean up and back. They mean orbit. When you go into orbit, you’re going 18,000 miles an hour sideways and you need huge rockets to do that. And when you come back, you need heat shields to prevent you from vaporizing on return.

So the tourism that is now being discussed is not orbital tourism. It’s just the up and back. It’s fine, but don’t think that now it’s just up and back, but tomorrow we’re going to orbit. It is a qualitatively different kind of enterprise.

Tavis: I’m not so sure that there is the – I could be wrong about this, but it doesn’t seem to me that there is the enthusiasm and the excitement that there was when Kennedy gave his great speech and put us on this path to put a man on the moon.

So I’m wondering whether or not the people actually getting a chance, everyday people, getting a chance to save some money to do this might in fact bring about a new level of enthusiasm. You tell me.

Tyson: Another way to do this, by the way, let’s say it costs a million dollars. Another way that people can participate in this is to buy a lottery ticket and, if you’re the winner of the lottery ticket, you get to take the ride. In that way, everyone is participating, so everyone else helped to pay for your ride [laugh]. That’s what happens in any lottery, right?

Tavis: Exactly.

Tyson: Everyone else is paying for your win. That can surely drive an aspect of this space frontier, but space tourism is only a small part of it.

What I’ve been trying to convey since the release of the book, which was only just a few days ago, is that space, whether you go for the adventure, whether you want to do it because we have great scientific discoveries that come our way, whether you do it because there are spin-off technologies – and I hope we have time for me to detail a few of those – whether you do it for any of those reasons, there’s a bigger reason to do it.

That is when a nation invests in a major frontier to advance that frontier – in this case, we’re talking about space – tomorrow when you advance a frontier, you’re doing something that no one has done before. Every time that happens, you have to innovate.

You have to think in new ways that hadn’t been thought before. You have to invent a new piece of hardware, a new concept, a new law of physics, a new material, a new construction material to enable you to accomplish what it is that you chose to reach for by dreaming about tomorrow.

I claim that, if NASA doubles its budget, if we as a nation double NASA’s budget, right now it’s half a penny on your tax dollar. That’s not very much. Take it to a penny. Go on, take it to a penny and then Mars becomes real. It becomes big. It becomes a near-term goal and it energizes the nation because then we’re gonna pick who’s gonna go to Mars.

You know how old they are today? They’re in middle school. Let’s find the middle schoolers who we’re gonna pre-select who’ll be the new Mercury 7. When they get old enough, that’s about when the rockets will be ready to go to Mars. Choose them.

“Teen Beat” will write about their lives. We’re all gonna ask, “Are they eating well? Are they healthy? How they doing on their math class?” And the nation becomes a participant once again in an epic adventure that requires innovation.

I claim that that shift is a cultural shift in how a nation views itself and how a nation views its future. It’s that cultural shift that’ll stimulate innovation across all sectors. That’s what happened in the 1970’s.

In the ’70s, no one was talking about jobs going overseas because we were innovating at a pace that jobs couldn’t go overseas because they didn’t figure out how to do it yet. And if they don’t know how to do it, we keep all the jobs. Here we are with a failing economy, jobs going overseas, and people only thinking about today, nobody dreaming about tomorrow.

Tavis, you’re old enough to remember the ’60s and early ’70s. I think you’re old enough [laugh] where people were – how long did you have to wait before there would be a magazine article about the city of tomorrow, the home of tomorrow, transportation of tomorrow.

The World’s Fair was all about tomorrow. This is an attitude; this is a perspective, that rose up out of a fertilized landscape made rich from our efforts to go to the moon.

By the way, the moon voyage was, of course, militaristically driven, no doubt about that. We were at war with the Russians. Let’s not try to sweep that under the rug. That was real. But the payout was a strong, healthy, economically vibrant nation.

So I’m claiming that you double NASA’s budget. Don’t tell me you don’t have enough money for that. But, of course, there’s money for it. Just rearrange the shelves that contain the pockets of money beneath them. We have a $3 trillion dollar budget.

Of course, you’ve got one percent to go into space if it’s gonna galvanize a nation into being one who dreams about tomorrow once again. So it’s an investment in the future.

Tavis: We talked earlier, at least just hit upon the well-known legacy of JFK relative to space exploration. So to your point now, which I accept and it makes perfect sense to me, assess for me what President Obama’s legacy is going to be, helping us or not.

You tell me, make that jump of that half a cent to that full penny?

Tyson: So here’s the talk. It’s natural to think we need the presidential leadership to make this happen. I’m saying it’s not even about the president. It’s about the motivation of the electorate to require it of the leader to make this happen. That’s how I view it.

Tavis: But somebody’s got to motivate them to do that, though, Neil.

Tyson: Well, I’m trying [laugh]. What do you think I’m trying…[laugh].

Tavis: All right. I didn’t mean it like that [laugh]. I was just saying a brother could use some help. That’s all I’m saying.

Tyson: Yeah, exactly. Now here’s the problem. When Kennedy said let’s go to the moon, we didn’t yet have a vehicle that wouldn’t kill you on launch. He said we’ll land a man on the moon in eight years and bring him back. That was an audacious goal to put forth in front of the American people.

By the way, when Gingrich said in his campaign speech in Florida, “Let’s put a colony on the moon,” many people said let’s put Gingrich on the moon, he’s out of touch, what is he doing? Well, we’ve already been to the moon. He wants to put a colony there in the eight years – at the end of this second term. That’s not more audacious than what Kennedy said.

With Obama, we now live in an era – and Bush who preceded him. They each made space promises that would have to be fulfilled by a president to be named later because the baseline of time was longer than their term in office.

That worries me deeply because Obama, yes, Obama has plans now. He wants to leapfrog the moon. By the way, that sent 10,000 people out of work who were ready to create the shift that will go to the moon in the near term. He said we’ve been to the moon, let’s go to Mars.

Well, that’s a longer baseline. We don’t have the rocket yet. So NASA’s budget has been reduced so that we can just do the background check on what technologies we need, what propulsions we need, what rocket designs we need.

Presumably, the budget will come back up, but once again, that’s from a president to be named later. He’s talking about going to Mars in the 2030’s by a president to be named later on a budget not yet established. Where’s Obama gonna be in 2035? He’s gonna be on the beaches of Hawaii by then. That’s where I would be if I were him [laugh].

So we need a way for these directives to be so much a part of who and what we are as a nation that the president doesn’t even matter. And there are other projects such as that like the interstate system. It doesn’t matter what president there is. We got roads.

We want the roads because we’re a traveling country and we love our cars, so we’ve got roads. So it’s a matter of who owns this adventure. Is it we the people or is it some leader that comes in and out?

Now there’s everybody saying Kennedy was a leader and he inspired us. We were at war. We remember his beautiful words, put a man on the moon, bring him safely to earth, we do this not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard. Go check the rest of those speeches that he gave. There’s paragraphs in there that are essentially battle cries against communism.

Yuri Gagarin had just come out of orbit in Russia. He gave a speech. Said if there’s any indication of the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, then we need to show the world the path of freedom over the path of tyranny. That was his like “kill the Commies” section of his speech. So that was the war driver that put us in contest with the Soviet Union.

In this next round, I don’t want to go into space because of war. I think we would if it was triggered. If China said they want to put military bases on Mars, we’d be at Mars in two years [laugh]. That would be quick. I don’t want that to be the reason.

I’m asserting that, with NASA fully funded at this one cent on a dollar, the return on that investment becomes simply an economic investment. That’s what it is in our future and our economic stability.

Tavis: So let’s try to convince the American public then that the reason to do that would be these spin-off technologies you referenced earlier. So tell me what you’re imagining.

Tyson: All right. So it’s’ not only the spin-off. It’s changing the culture of those even if you don’t become an engineer. You could be a poet, a journalist, a lawyer, but you will be thinking innovation and your actions within society, who you vote for, what you value, all become a participant in an innovation economy.

Right now, we don’t have an innovation economy. But that being said, let’s talk about some NASA spin-offs.

For example, the miniaturization of electronics. Somebody had to have the idea, hey, this radio that’s a piece of furniture in my living room, one day I want to carry that in my pocket. Somebody’s got to think that, all right? Nobody at the time was. NASA said we’ve got to put electronics into space and it’s very costly with regard to fuel.

You remember the Saturn 5 rocket? The astronauts are in the little vessel at the top and all the rest is fuel. There’s a very heavy cost you pay launching things into orbit. Right now, it’s $10,000 a pound into orbit. So the boost was put forward to shave ounces off of electronics. Miniaturize them, but don’t lose any functionality for them.

And the miniaturization of electronics started by NASA’s push became an entire consumer products industry. Now we’re carrying the complete works of Beethoven on a lapel pin listening to it in headphones. That’s one aspect.

Another one, Lasik surgery. It actually predates NASA, but the technology of NASA made it affordable and accurate. That’s kind of important where your eyeballs are concerned. That came about from the docking mechanism between the space shuttle itself and the space station, accurate, affordable, with high precision.

The laser guidance that made these line up was applied to the Lasik surgery. That’s why people today have accurate sight with inexpensive fees. Credit NASA.

Also, there’s low-tech too. The grooves in pavement on turns? That was NASA. You’ve seen this on some particularly slippery roads. You put in the grooves.

No one thought to do that before NASA thought to do it with the landing of the space shuttle on a long runway and the space shuttle can’t reverse its engines, so it really coasts to a stop. You don’t want this sliding off the runway while it’s going down the track.

Other things, the intracochlear device which allows people who are deaf to actually hear because it links to the nerve endings inside your ear, developed by NASA.

Water filtering systems developed by NASA. When you’re up in space, there’s no spigot you can tape that connects to the reservoir. You’re gonna have to be recycling some water [laugh].

My point is, I guess you could try to get someone to invent a water filtering device just on the open market, but the true motivation comes from the urge to – if I go to a classroom and say I need a water filtering system for your refrigerator, no, I need a water filtering system for a space station that’s gonna orbit for a year and, after we filter that water, can you figure out this problem?

Which one of these two problems will create the draw for my eighth graders when I say who’s gonna help invent the future? It’s gonna be with the space station and not just I need a water filtering system for my refrigerator.

That is the power that NASA brings about a culture and a society. When it’s fully funded, I see no reason to think that all of those trappings of the 1960’s wouldn’t come back to us for the 2020’s.

Tavis: And all we have to do is go from a half cent to a cent?

Tyson: Yeah. In fact, most people who say we’re too much money up there, we should spend it down here, by the way, we are spending money down here. I don’t think they actually did their homework on this. I did my homework.

Look at the federal budget. Ask how much money are we spending on social programs and education, two elements that are always contrasted with the money we spend on NASA? Add that up. I did that. It is 50 times what we spend on NASA.

So what are you asking? You want to zero NASA’s budget and hand that money to the rest of these social programs, to up-ticket by two percent? I’m sorry, that’s not gonna work.

If you have problems in your social programs, it’s not because you’re missing two percent of the money. It means you have to rethink it, all right?

So this argument that somehow we can’t afford NASA, the real argument is that we can’t afford to not afford NASA. That’s where it sits.

Tavis: I’m out of time. The most important question, though, that I did not get a chance to ask or haven’t asked as yet. I saw you on TV the other night on my friend Bill Maher’s show.

I was waiting for your tie to just take off [laugh]. You had the rocket tie on the other night. What are you working on tonight? What is that?

Tyson: Okay, tonight this has got a little bit of everything in the universe on it. But this is my favorite tie because, after this, I’m going out to eat dinner at an Italian restaurant and, if you spill some spaghetti sauce, it just becomes another nebula [laugh].

Tavis: [Laugh] Neil, good to have you on the program. Thanks for your time.

Tyson: Ain’t no telling what the rest of this is. I don’t know [laugh].

Tavis: The new book from Neil…

Tyson: …thanks for having me, Tavis.

Tavis: My pleasure. Good to have you on. The new book from Neil deGrasse Tyson is called “Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier.”

Nobody gets me as excited about space as Neil does. Neil, again, thanks for the book. Good to have you back on the program.

Tyson: You got it.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

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Last modified: April 30, 2012 at 1:46 pm