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Astronomer fleshes out space vision

From Neil deGrasse Tyson, member of a panel on NASA's new exploration policy, discusses his personal views about the future.
People magazine once named Neil deGrasse Tyson the sexiest astrophysicist alive. Now he's involved in space policy as well.
People magazine once named Neil deGrasse Tyson the sexiest astrophysicist alive. Now he's involved in space policy as well.Delvinhari Productions
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is not just the sexiest astrophysicist alive, as People magazine concluded a few years back. He is also one of the most publicly visible, as a book author, lecturer, researcher and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.

And now he has the ear of President Bush.

Tyson was appointed in late January to serve on a nine-member commission that will report back to the White House in four months on how NASA should go about getting astronauts back on the Moon by 2020 and then sending them on to Mars. The had its first meeting Monday, an all-day affair in Virginia.

I caught up with Tyson last week to discuss his personal views on how NASA should proceed, why the money needed to get to Mars shouldn't be spent finding a cure for cancer, and why neither he nor anyone else has been able to fill Carl Sagan's shoes.

Tyson also shared his views on the importance of going back to the Moon first and why the initial Martian astronaut corps ought to be made up of teenagers. The space program has been in the doldrums since the end of the Apollo era. Is NASA finally at a turning point?
Tyson: Yes, unquestionably.

Since the end of Apollo we have not left low-Earth orbit. And during that time there has been no shortage of people with strong emotions about what NASA's next steps should be. What makes now different from these past 30 years is that the debate has reached much, much deeper into the population, showing up on op-ed pages, in letters to the editor and in the attention given to it by politicians. We haven't had that level of penetration since the 1960s.

So I see this time as an important moment where we either do it or just give up. What is the charge to this presidential commission?
Tyson: It is to navigate a path of engineering, science, politics and economics that can allow the president's vision to become a reality. Our task is not to come up with another vision or even to reshape the president's vision, but to find a way to make that vision work.

If people hope we'll skip the moon and go directly to Mars, that's not going to come out of this commission.

In fact, I don't have a problem with going back to the moon. Our first time out of low-Earth orbit in 30 years, I want to go someplace nearby, to make sure the rockets work. But we should make sure we don't get bogged down there, because the solar system is vast. What is the biggest challenge for the commission?
Tyson: It is not the engineering or a prioritizing of the science. Those problems are an investment of intellectual capital and are simple compared with the real challenge. The vision must sustain public support longer than a presidential election cycle or political cycles in general, as well as economic cycles. Some astronomers yearn for another Carl Sagan to get the public excited about space, and your name often comes up. Why has no one emerged to popularize space exploration the way Sagan did?
Tyson: Sagan was at his highest prominence in the early 1980s, during the era of his Cosmos series — 13 parts on PBS with an accompanying best-selling book. He was also making appearances on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. Back then, what else was on TV? There was a test pattern on the remaining four stations.

Carl Sagan was in a position to have a unique and singular influence on the public's exposure to and appreciation of science.

Today, with the hundreds of television stations, with the Internet, with, the ways that a person can touch the universe are many and varied and beyond comparison to the time that Sagan achieved prominence. It was necessary back then to have an individual guide the public's experience. It's not necessary anymore. The number of people who are now delivering science to the public is without precedent.

No longer is it a stigma to be interviewed by the newspapers or to appear on television. We credit Carl Sagan for being the first to broach that wall.

Where is the next Carl Sagan? Carl Sagan is distributed among the countless colleagues and science writers who are delivering the message. NASA's 2005 budget request is for $16.2 billion, including nearly $1 billion in new funding to explore getting humans to the Moon and Mars. Why should we spend this kind of money on space exploration when there's no cure for cancer and unemployment is high?
Tyson: America is arguably the wealthiest nation the Earth has ever seen. And one of the advantages of living in a wealthy nation is you get to spend money on all kinds of things that contribute to the quality of life in your country.

Quality of life is not only whether you are free from disease or free from poverty — those are important — but quality of life is also the support of art, the support of music, the support of science, and the support of all else that rounds out a culture.

It is always a question of what is the right distribution of monies in one pot versus another. NASA moneys tend to be the most visible. I never hear people asking, "We haven't cured cancer yet, so why are there farm subsidies?" Farm subsidies aren't as visible as NASA. When NASA fails or succeeds it makes front-page headlines.

It costs about $1 per week, per person to sustain NASA. Is it worth that much to do the exploration NASA wants? I'd say hell, yes. I'd say it's even worth $10 a week. But a dollar a week? Sure.

America spends more on makeup than it spends on the space program. But I don't hear anyone asking, "Should we spend money on cosmetics or cure cancer?"

Meanwhile, visionary programs allow educators to attract the best students to become engineers, physicist and biologists. It's these folks who make tomorrow come. These are the folks who invented the Internet, the PC, the cell phone, the microwave oven -- all the trappings of modern living come from countless scientists and engineers who were attracted in the first place because there was an irresistibly seductive goal. It's often debated whether humans or robots are best for exploring the cosmos. Robots are more cost-effective. Humans are more adept. So what do we do?
Tyson: Send both. But if I were to wear a pure science hat, it's obvious that you just send robots. Humans want to eat and want to come back usually, and they don't want to freeze to death. So you protect them in ways that cost you much more than it costs to protect a robot.

We all agree that there are certain things a human can do that we have not yet been able to program a robot to do. Yet to send people costs at least 10 times as much as to send a robot, in some cases 50 times as much.

Now let's put on the hat of the public. The public has never given a ticker-tape parade for a robot.

Many colleagues of my generation say, "Only send robots because people are too costly and it's too dangerous." Those same people, if you ask what got them interested in science, eight times out of 10 they'll say it was the manned space program of the 1960s. It was a grand vision and they each had heroes. How does NASA recover the sort of excitement that propelled public support in the Apollo era?
Tyson: It must have a vision. There's not been a grand vision since the Apollo era. I think it's that simple. In the recent past, what did you expect people to say about NASA's shuttle and space station vision, "Oh this is great, we're driving around the block for 30 years"?

The astronaut corps that is slated to go to Mars could be selected as teenagers, then 10 years out they'll be the right age for landing on Mars.

I can guarantee you those teenagers would be written about in every teen magazine that's out there. They'll be heroes in the same way the Mercury 7 were heroes to their generation. They're going to supplant rock stars as who are the coolest people to be in society.

And now we have women astronauts, and astronauts of color, something that was unthinkable in the sixties. So there's a previously disenfranchised subset of Americans who will want to become scientists and engineers. Can NASA afford to lose the Hubble Space Telescope, given the public fascination with it?
I think it would be a costly loss. We've almost come to expect to be beamed a new Hubble image every couple of weeks to remind us of the majesty of the cosmos. It comes almost as regular as the sports scores. It's something we will all notice when it's gone.

Hubble has this legacy because it is practically branded. It's a household term.

I think NASA needs to think seriously about the value of Hubble to the agency's support that it has enjoyed in the recent past and the support it might need going forward. Fast forward to the year 2030. What should America be doing in space that will engage the public and generate a wise return on taxpayers' money?
Tyson: Once the Apollo program was announced, every mission was conceived to do what the previous mission had done, and incrementally add a next challenge that would be necessary to ultimately land on the moon. Every mission was more ambitious than the previous.

The approach was not only technologically sensible, but it created a sense of suspense. That hasn't happened for 30 years.

What we need going forward are very real, very measurable milestones — light-year-stones if you will — that tell us we are now farther into the frontier than we were yesterday. That should happen before 2030 and continue beyond that. As long as that is happening, I think you can always sustain the interest of the next generation. Space exploration is traditionally a governmental function. Will there be a role for corporate advertising, space reality shows or cosmic vacations?
Tyson: I like to take a broader view. Early pilot-engineers, who invented or designed their own airplanes, were supported by the government in the form of a guaranteed load of airmail. That enabled these people to be more and more innovative, to be more competitive to try and get the government contract. What emerged from this were airplanes that no longer required the government support because they could then fly paying passengers.

In developing all the technology necessary to go to Mars, stuff is going to get invented. Look at the government investment in the Global Positioning System (GPS). It was initially a military utility, but now there are commercial GPS receivers in cars and even in wristwatches.

These are whole industries that have been spawned and given unto private enterprise to then make money and create jobs.

If it means we can one day get into space so cheaply that you can set up a hotel, fine, let it be so. If it's a hotel with a zero-g theme park, fine. Business will go wherever it thinks it can make a buck. Right now space is kind of expensive, so only governments can do it.