Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson addresses the present and future of space and science worldwide

Up until the early 1950s, space was a foreign and unreachable concept to most people. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium, illustrated this with a series of quotes from media to respected scientists during this time period. All of them indicated in some fashion that science had nothing left to discover and there only remained insurmountable barriers that man could not possibly hope to cross. One such quote came from F.R. Moulton, a University of Chicago Astronomer, in 1932, “There is no hope for the fanciful idea of reaching the moon, because of insurmountable barriers to escaping the earth’s gravity.”

However, in 1952 Sputnik launched and the world view of space shifted. Now the comments on space exploration were exaggerated in the other direction. Rocket engineer Robert Traux claimed “By the year 2000, fifty thousand people will be living and working in space.” In the year 2000, there were about three people working and living in space.

When it comes to the space race, America has a faulty memory about the country’s role. Many Americans considered America to be a pioneer in the space race. America was the first to conduct a space dock, travel past the asteroid belt, obtain hyperbolic velocity, and land on the moon.

However, the Soviet Union’s list of space “firsts” includes, among other accomplishments, inventing the rocket formula for escaping Earth’s gravity, sending a satellite into orbit, doing a space walk, visiting Venus and Mars, photographing the far side of the moon, and sending a human (woman, white, and black) into space.

Americans also consider themselves leaders and visionaries of the space race. How can that be true when President Kennedy told James Webb, the director of NASA at the birth of the Apollo Program, “I’m just not that interested in space.” It was not until the Soviet Union began making major technological advances in space that President Kennedy, and the rest of America, took notice, “Everything we do ought to… be tied in to getting on to the Moon ahead of the Russians… we hope to beat the USSR to demonstrate that instead of being behind by a couple of years, by God, we passed them.” Nowhere in that quote is the motivation to get into space based on science, destiny or curiosity.

Once the seventies came along, all of a sudden space exploration came to a screeching halt. The shuttle program continued for another forty years, ending with Atlantis’ final mission in 2011. During that time, NASA accomplished many technological breakthroughs except in the development of spacecraft. Take a look at the first internal combustion engine and the thing looks nothing like the car engines developed today. The first computers had a whole room dedicated to cooling the room with the actual computer, whereas now there are laptops thinner than notebooks, which are prevalent even among the middle class.

However, the Saturn V rocket looks more or less the same today than it did when it first launched four decades ago. When one looks at the Saturn V rocket, the first instinct is to admire or be struck with awe and wonder how exactly something like that was accomplished. Instead of marveling at it, Tyson argues we should be showcasing it in a museum alongside pictures of more sophisticated spacecraft as if to boast this is how America used to get to the moon and look at how it is done now. Because we are still in awe of the antique, it is strong evidence that we as a nation have stopped innovating.

This lack of progress exists not only in the space program but in science overall. Tyson put up a world map and augmented each country’s area according to how many scientific papers were published in peer review journals in the year 2000. The three biggest regions were America, the European Union and Japan. Coincidentally, the results are similar to comparing economic strength in the world. Tyson then showed a map of the trend line of scientific publishing over an approximately ten year period. The European Union and Japan got bigger. Brazil became noticeable on the map. Africa practically disappeared. China grew to roughly Japan’s size. America faded fast into the global background.

Even if most of the population is not made up of scientists or engineers, Tyson argues a society that is scientifically literate can accomplish almost anything. The earthquake in Haiti resulted in over half a million deaths while the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor failure in Japan resulted in around fifty thousand deaths. What happened in Japan was terrible, but as Tyson points out, it could have been a lot worse. When a culture supports scientific thinking, it encourages a country not to run from disaster but to figure out a way to use it to their benefit.

One of the main problems for America’s lack of scientific development is the development of xenophobia in American culture. Of the main contributors to the Manhattan project, only two were born in the US and one got his doctorate at an American institution. With the development of xenophobia, that disconnect with the rest of the world leads to a standstill in development. They focus on trade regulations. They negotiate. Tyson argues there is no stronger evidence of a country that has stopped innovating than one that has settled to negotiate. Tyson argues that America used to be an economic powerhouse because we had industries the rest of the world had not figured out yet.

“When a country dreams big, its citizens dream big.” Tyson showed a newspaper clip with a science fiction style rendition of a world of tomorrow. In the sixties and seventies, it was not uncommon for an article like that that to appear every week or so. While the comments in such articles were lofty and ambitious, Tyson claimed it was better than the America now where there are dozens of books on surviving 2012 and how to defend yourself against alien abduction.

This concept of dreaming big has been lost and according to Tyson, it is because of the numbers. The entire space community, including NASA, Boeing, Lockheed, and Space Societies, has about seven hundred thousand people. The National Society of Bird Watchers has more than that. Combined with a dismal budget and the space community will lose every argument in Congress. One solution was to shift the space pioneer to industry, to which Tyson laughs and said, “It’s completely delusional.” One of history’s main economic drivers is some sort of promise of an economic return. An investor will never invest when the risks are too high or worse unknown with no promise they will get their money back one-hundred-fold. A frontier has never been explored by industry, whether by land or by sea. Christopher Columbus had to go to the royalty in Spain to get his expedition funded. Privatization might as well be the death of the space frontier.

So what does Tyson suggest? “Double NASA’s budget to a penny on the dollar… Fund an expedition to Mars.” Tyson went and researched all the main economic drivers for the greatest technological, intellectual, and scientific achievements known to mankind. The three that came up were war or defense Projects, praise of deity or royalty, and promise of economic return. Ignoring the second, outdated motivator, that leaves war and economic return. If any country does not go to Mars for those reasons, then they are not going, period.

Of course there is a matter of the money to fund a mission like this. Many question the reasoning to spend money up in space when it could be used in education or social programs. According to Tyson, the federal government spends about half a penny on the dollar on NASA and about fifty times that on education and social programs. Another two percent on the education and social programs budget is not going to be solving problems anytime soon. Assuming the government can double NASA’s budget, some argue the risks are too high. Tyson quoted that the Shuttle program had a two percent fatality rate in its lifetime while the Apollo program had an eight percent fatality rate. However, who wants to risk their life “going boldly where hundreds have gone before… fund the mission to Mars and there’ll be a line of volunteers around the block… risk takers do live among us.”

The future risk takers, the astronauts, the mechanical engineers, the biologists, the electrical engineers, and the physicists are in schools across America. Tyson maintained it is not enough to get better math and science teachers because once the students come out of college, there are no jobs waiting for them. After all, who gets excited for a career in aerospace when the highlight of that career is to build a plane that is maybe ten percent more efficient? If a mission to Mars is funded, America can mold the future scientists and engineers and transform from a culture that is math and science hostile to one that is scientifically literate. The new wealth of jobs creates new industries that, because no other country has figured out, brings new wealth back to a nation.



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