Q&A with Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and author

Acclaimed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recently released book, Space Chronicles, outlines why America’s space program is at a crucial turning point after decades of international dominance.

The director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium tells The Hill how looking to the solar system could help solve some of our nation’s greatest problems.

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Q: You testified before the Senate earlier this month on the benefits of a more robust American space program. Why are you pushing for increasing the NASA budget?

I don’t view what I’m doing as pushing, because that implies there’s some kind of lobbying effort to get my views across to lawmakers. What I’m doing is highlighting a state of America that existed 40 years ago and the state of America that exists now, and I’m offering a solution to take ourselves out of these doldrums that we’re in.

We’re in economic doldrums, we’re in cultural doldrums as well as technology doldrums, and you can measure this by how competitive we are relative to other nations that are investing heavily in science and technology. 

So all I’m saying is here’s a way to jump-start America, for very small cost. And the return on that cost isn’t simply pretty pictures of the universe … The return on that is an actual boost to the American economy, because innovations in science and technology that you require of yourself when you advance a frontier drive the economies of the 21st century.

Q: Is the current economic climate blinding lawmakers to that?

Yes. I would say when you are in serious times, it is hard to think about the longer-term future. I would say it’s almost impossible to. 

Yet somebody has to do that — otherwise you’ll go day to day putting Band-Aids on problems, believing that you’re actually solving it. … We’re in serious debt, we’re reducing our manufacturing base, we need more science literacy in society, the educational pipeline needs a stronger presence of science and technology because science and technology creates jobs.

Q: And space exploration can help?

If you’re in a culture of innovation, then you invent new things daily. And when you invent new things and you manufacture them, your jobs can’t go overseas because no one has figured out how to do it yet. So it’s a much deeper solution to the problem of jobs going overseas.

No one complained about jobs 
going overseas in the 1960s, or even the early ’70s, because we were innovating. … You will innovate if you advance the space frontier.

The space frontier is big and bold and audacious. Then everybody feels the importance of that innovation, and it leaks out of the walls of NASA and into Western society, and that’s what it did back in the 1960s.

Q: But war spurred America to reach the moon in the 1960s. What should motivate us now?

To do it to pump the economy — that’s a perfectly noble effort for a free market democracy; that’s a perfectly natural goal … to present in front of ourselves.

My big concern is there I am in the Senate, and they serve for six years so they’ve got a little bit of a time horizon, but they’re saying, “We can’t afford this.”

No, Senator, you can’t afford to not do this.

The investment time horizon is something that will enable America to stay competitive and lead the world throughout the 21st century. Without it, you might as well slide back to the cave, because that’s where we’re moving, that’s the direction we’re headed without such investments.

Q: Is funding for NASA a partisan issue?

The issue for me was never the politics of NASA; it was the concern that in recent years, there’s been a level of partisanship that I think has not been healthy. It was hard enough for NASA to get the budget it wants. Now they have parties bickering over what should happen to NASA. That’s as unhealthy a state as I have ever seen. ... That should never be a partisan divide because NASA is an American identity; it’s not a partisan identity. And what NASA brings back to the nation, everybody benefits.

Q: Does the current crop of GOP presidential candidates give you hope for NASA’s future? Concern?

I try not to distract myself with the opinions of one leader or another because if they’re going to represent us, they will do what we want them to do. For me the challenge is not to convince the leader of what the plan should be, the challenge is to convince the public. … At the end of the day, the president works for you and the president works for me. 

So if the public can be compelled to want this goal, I think the lawmakers have to follow.

But the public needs to see it in order to be excited about it, and you need funding from Congress in order to get these programs up and running. How do you break that logjam?

You just have to convince people that it’s an investment. You pay a penny now and you get five pennies later. Any investor understands that metric, understands that state of mind. It’s not an investment in keeping scientists employed, it’s not an investment in pretty pictures, it’s an investment in the health of the entire economy. It’s an investment in keeping our jobs here, it’s an investment in getting out of debt. It’s an investment in having China not eat our lunch. It’s an investment in the urge of the pipeline of students to take an interest in and/or embrace the fruits of innovations in science and technology. It’s an investment, that’s what it is.

Q: Do we need an Occupy NASA movement?

[Laughs] I think lawmakers aren’t stupid. If they see that a video that says, “Let’s fund NASA” has a million hits, somebody’s got to take note of that. That matters. You look at the pulse of an electorate, because in the end no politician wants to be de-elected, so at some point, they have to be resonant with the electorate. Otherwise they lose their power, they lose their job.

Q: What about that large asteroid hurtling toward Earth and threatening to hit us in 2040? Should that be motivating Congress to increase funding?

Given that we went to the moon because we were driven by war, another way to think about war is to say, “I don’t want to die.” … So the same driver that enables you to spend money because you fear for the security of your nation, an asteroid would be the security of the world, depending on how large it is. 

I think, by the way, it would be embarrassing if humans went extinct from an asteroid when we had a space program with the power to actually deflect it. We would be the laughingstock of aliens of the galaxy. 

So sure, that would and could be a reason to go to space.