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Neil deGrasse Tyson Says Space Ventures Will Spawn First Trillionaire

A passion for exploration is the fuel to an innovative economy, says astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
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/ Source: NBC News

A passion for exploration is the fuel to an innovative economy, says astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

In an interview with CNBC's On the Money, the host of the new National Geographic Channel show StarTalk — based on Tyson's podcast and Sirius XM radio show of the same name — described the dynamic implications of scientific discovery.

"You have to innovate," said Tyson, arguably the most famous astrophysicist in America. When "an engineer comes out with a new patent to take you to a place — intellectually, physically … that has never been reached before, those become the engines of tomorrow's economy."

When it comes to space innovation, many of the headlines about exploration beyond Earth have been generated by private enterprises like Elon Musk's SpaceX, tech giant Google and even Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Separately, Sir Richard Branson founded Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures, companies that offer tourism opportunities for non-scientists.

Space tourism is expected to grow into a $1 billion sector over the next several years, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Meanwhile the National Space Society estimates the industry's size could eventually swell to as high as $1 trillion, with the proliferation of satellites, global positioning systems and other technology already giving consumers a taste of space's vast reaches.

Still, boldly going where no one has gone before is expensive, time-consuming and potentially rife with numerous dangers, Tyson says. He believes it could limit the long-term interest of private enterprise.

He suggests, "If you're a business person, what's the first thing you're going to ask? 'What's my return on investment?'"

The question is a legitimate one, as the government reduces its investment in space exploration. NASA's budget is less than 0.5 percent of the total federal budget, topping out at $17.5 billion in the Obama administration's FY 2015 budget proposal. According to figures from the Office of Management and Budget, the high point of NASA expenditure was during the Cold War years of the space race in FY 1966, when it accounted for 4.5 percent of national spending.

Re-thinking exploration as part of the national interest is part of what Tyson suggested is key to revitalizing enthusiasm about the universe — and getting humans out into it.

"The first Europeans to the New World were not [part of] the Dutch East India Trading Company," he says. "It was Columbus — paid by Spain. It was a national initiative."

The astrophysicist added: "Once he drew the maps and knew where the trade winds are and (where) the friendlies and the hostiles were, then commercial enterprise can come in."

Much like the universe itself, Tyson sees the opportunities for commercial enterprise to be endless, but he has one idea for a starting point. "The first trillionaire there will ever be is the person who exploits the natural resources on asteroids," he says.

There are millions of these odd-shaped rocks orbiting in space, and many are packed with carbon-rich chemicals, water and even rare metals. Those alloys, a series of chemicals limited in minable concentration on Earth, are key to the production of many modern technologies — everything from smart phones to fighter jets.

"There's this vast universe of limitless energy and limitless resources," Tyson says. "I look at wars fought over access to resources. That could be a thing of the past, once space becomes our backyard."

Tyson has been the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History since 1996. A best-selling author and radio host, his role in popular culture was cemented with the 2014 broadcast of a revitalized "Cosmos" series on the Fox television network, a combination homage and update to the 13-episode PBS series hosted by Carl Sagan in the 1980s.

Tyson's version consistently attracted more than 3 million viewers in the U.S. each week of its run.

StarTalk airs on Monday nights at 11 pm, and features the scientist interviewing cultural and political figures like George Takei of the original Star Trek series, film director Christopher Nolan and former President Jimmy Carter. His slate of high-profile visitors almost makes Tyson a science geek's version of Oprah Winfrey.

"In many ways, I see myself as a servant of people's cosmic appetite," he said.