Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Future of U.S. Space Exploration After Curiosity

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Annalee Newitz of with Neil deGrasse Tyson at "First Comes the Dream" at the American Museum of Natural History.

In four days, NASA’s Curiosity rover will hopefully survive its “seven minutes of terror” and land safely on the surface of Mars. What comes next for U.S. space exploration?

Techland decided to ask famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson during Gizmodo and io9’s First Comes the Dream event at the American Museum of Natural History, where Dr. Tyson presides as director of the Hayden Planetarium.

With the success of SpaceX, some people are questioning the need to fund a government space program. Why do we still need NASA?

The people who say that all we need is private space travel are simply delusional. My book on space, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, was originally titled Failure to Launch: The Dreams and Delusions of Space Enthusiasts. Space enthusiasts are the most susceptible demographic to delusion that I have ever seen.

Private enterprise can never lead a space frontier. It’s not possible because a space frontier is expensive, it has unknown risks and it has unquantified risks. Historically, governments have done this. They have drawn the maps, they have found where the trade winds are, they have invented the new tools to go where no one has gone before. Then, when the routines are set up, you cede that to private enterprise.

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That’s why I don’t know what they’re thinking. The first colony on Mars is not going to be built by a private company. How are you going to make money? You’re not.

Look what’s going on now. Private enterprise is giving us access to low-Earth orbit for less than what NASA was providing. That should have been happening decades ago. Why is that happening now? Because low-Earth orbit is no longer the frontier. NASA has been going in and out of low-Earth orbit since 1962.

I see private enterprise as a fundamental part of creating a space industry, but there will always be the frontier.

When Curiosity touches down, will that be enough to inspire young people to go into the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and to get the American people behind a manned mission to Mars?

Anything NASA does in space that has never been done before drums up interest in science. Images from the Hubble Telescope, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, broadcasts from the International Space Station — anything NASA does accomplishes this.

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Whether that’s enough to get humans on Mars, I don’t think so. Curiosity is cheap compared to sending humans out of low-Earth orbit. A different kind of understanding of the value of sending humans into space needs to be had before that happens. I don’t think Curiosity is a stepping stone to that.

Are the barriers to sending humans to Mars political?

No. It’s an understanding — that the public does not yet have — of the role of NASA as a flywheel of innovation, influencing not only direct spin-offs but also the culture itself. When you feel that you are part of an innovation nation, you think innovatively, no matter your field.

You start thinking that the science fiction story you just read or movie you just saw is maybe in reach. Maybe it’s possible. For example, in the movie Prometheus, they have these flying spheres that go up and down caves and use laser tomography to map their structure. We don’t have that, but that’s really cool and I can imagine having that.

That idea might inspire me to try and create it instead of just sitting back and saying, “Oh, that’s the future and it will probably never happen. Now let me go back and watch Snooki.”

I am certain that once that flywheel is set into motion and the discoveries of NASA become writ large in the newspapers, that people will come to understand that innovations in science and technology — brought to you by the force of nature we call NASA — are the engines of 21st Century economies. It’s an investment, not a handout.

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What is it going to mean to the human race if we land on Mars?

Here’s the problem. I don’t know how old you are, but I’m guessing you were born after we landed on the Moon. Now, given that fact, I’m guessing that there is no single event in your life that is positive where you say, “I remember where I was at that moment.” Is there?


I have the benefit of being able to say I know where I was when Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon. You don’t have it. You don’t have that moment. We have bred multiple generations of people who have not experienced knowing where you are the moment a news story broke, with that news story being great and grand and something that elevates society instead of diminishes it. If we land on Mars, you’ll know where you were the day that happened. Landing on Mars expands the space frontier and that makes headlines.

Boldly going where hundreds have gone before does not make headlines. If you make the headlines, that’s what stimulates STEM interest. You won’t need a program to excite people to get into the sciences. You won’t need tariffs to keep your factories stateside, because you’ll be innovating at a pace where you’re making products the rest of the world hasn’t figured out how to make yet.

When an industry matures, it means it’s not advancing and of course the jobs go overseas. That’s the obligation of the multi-national corporation, to put the factory where it can make the widget as cheap as possible. Don’t get angry when a corporation does that, we’ve all bought into this concept. We live in a capitalistic society. That’s how it works.

You don’t complain. You say “Lets innovate so we can make things that [other countries] can’t.” All of that is possible when you have a healthy NASA exploring the cosmos. All of that.

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