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Tyson
Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about Apollo worship, the perceived lack of public interest in spaceflight, and what motivates large-scale projects like space exploration during a May 29 speech in Washington. (credit: J. Foust)

A skeptic’s guide to space exploration

For years, many have bemoaned the void created by the untimely death of Carl Sagan in 1996. Sagan is missed not just for his scientific contributions but arguably more for his gifts as a scientific communicator, one who could share the mysteries and wonder of the universe with the general public (see “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?”, The Space Review, July 26, 2004). However, that void has been filled, at least partially, in recent years by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. He has the academic credentials (director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York), several books and scores of magazines articles, and numerous television appearances, becoming a go-to guy for the mainstream media when they want to know more about the latest mission to Mars or whether Pluto should be considered a planet.

However, Tyson is not a carbon copy of Sagan, and addresses these issues in his own style. It is difficult, for example, to envision Sagan giving the same after-dinner speech that Tyson did at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference in Washington on May 29. Tyson spoke for a full 90 minutes (plus several minutes of Q&A afterwards) on “A Skeptic’s Guide to Space Exploration”. It was a speech laced with humor, popular culture references, and give-and-take with the audience. And, while Tyson is clearly a believer that humanity—and humans, not just robots—should explore space, he offered up a bit of tough love to the space enthusiasts in the audience on some issues so near and dear to their hearts.

Apollo “necrophilia”

One of those issues Tyson addressed early on was the reverence for which the space community almost universally demonstrates for the Apollo program, including the Saturn 5 rocket. Tyson knew he was treading on dangerous ground—especially since Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin was sitting at the head table—he took some time to establish his own credentials on the subject. He noted that he recently served on a panel for ABC’s “Good Morning America” to select the “7 Wonders of America”. “Now, I love the Saturn 5,” Tyson said, and suggested to his fellow panelists that it be included. “I put up the Saturn 5 and they all looked at me and went ‘hunh?’” he recalled. However, after giving “my most impassioned plea” for the Saturn 5, he said, he won over the panel and the rocket—specifically, the one recently restored in Huntsville—made the final cut.

“You don’t want the first of anything technological to be what you genuflect in front of,” Tyson explained. “That’s the wrong thing to do with your technology.”

Having said that, he then took aim at the “Apollo worship” or “necrophilia” he finds among space enthusiasts. “You genuflect when you pass the Saturn 5, you can’t help not to,” he said. “I ask you, why aren’t you genuflecting when you pass the Mercury Redstone? You don’t even pause in front of that. Why not?” The reason, he said, he that we went on to something bigger and better. “If we stopped at the Mercury Redstone with suborbital flights, and never did anything after that, you’d be genuflecting in front of the Mercury Redstone.”

“You don’t want the first of anything technological to be what you genuflect in front of,” Tyson explained. “That’s the wrong thing to do with your technology.” He cited examples ranging from cars to cell phones to computers where the first of each had long since been surpassed by more advanced versions, making the originals of only historical interest. Yet, Apollo is still treated with reverence, as a technological marvel, he said. “The necrophilic part of it is that we’re worshipping something that we should not be worshipping because we should be somewhere else by now and we’re not, and that concerns me.”

Public interest or the lack thereof

Tyson later turned to another issue where he clashed with the conventional wisdom of the audience: the apparent lack of public awareness of and interest in spaceflight in the US. He noted that he and Aldrin has written about the same poll results, where most of the Americans surveyed could not name any astronaut in orbit, and reached vastly different conclusions. Aldrin, like many other space enthusiasts, believes that lack of knowledge is a sign of a lack of interest in space among the public. Tyson, though, notes that Aldrin “remembers an era when every single astronaut was a household name,” the subject of intense publicity.

“The public is as interested as ever,” Tyson countered, “because this space enterprise, where no one can recite the names of the astronauts, has become a part of our culture. And when something is a part of your culture, you no longer take daily notice of it.”

As an analogy, he recounted a visit to an Italian supermarket, where he was stunned to find an entire aisle filled with nothing but different varieties of pasta; similarly, he was surprised to find a wide range of different types of rice in a Chinese store. These things may seem unusual to an outsider like himself, he said, but are considered a normal part of those cultures. (What sets apart American supermarkets, in the eyes of foreigners? Whole aisles devoted to soda and breakfast cereal, Tyson said, which most Americans, naturally, would not find extraordinary.)

“The challenge will be to convince Congress that you could take away the Hannah Montana Fan Club and the identity of the nation will not be adversely affected,” he said. “Whereas, if you take away the space industry, we don’t go into space.”

You don’t notice these things until they’re taken away, he said, and cited the intense media coverage of the Columbia accident as an example: “That is not a sign of a country that is apathetic about the space program.” Likewise, the strong support given to the Vision for Space Exploration by Congress in 2005, when it overwhelmingly passed a NASA authorization bill that endorsed the exploration effort, is another sign of the deep support for space by the American public. “The evidence that our space legacy is part of our culture is that no one any longer actually pays attention to it, but the moment you take it away, [people ask], ‘What have you done with it?’”

A bigger concern, he said, is the relatively small size of the space community. Advocacy groups like the NSS and The Planetary Society have, combined, fewer than 100,000 members, while the overall space community, counting those who work at NASA and in space companies, numbers only a few times greater, Tyson estimated. By comparison, the fan club for television character/pop star Hannah Montana has about one million members. “The space community is statistically insignificant in our numbers.”

“The challenge will be to convince Congress that you could take away the Hannah Montana Fan Club and the identity of the nation will not be adversely affected,” he said. “Whereas, if you take away the space industry, we don’t go into space. If we don’t go into space, we don’t inspire the next generation to be scientists and engineers… We are not a special interest group, we’re a fundamental part of the identity of our nation.”

Why we explore

So how does one convince Congress to continue to support, or to increase its support, of space exploration? Space enthusiasts, as well as scientists, often argue for rationales that Tyson described as “wonderment”, “the next frontier”, and “the urge to explore”. Those, he argued, are not effective for truly large-scale projects, and cited the cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider in 1993 as an example. “The project gets cut because it was only driven by science and nothing else,” he said. “That’s the reality of it. I wish it weren’t the case, but that’s what it is.”

Tyson also reminded the audience that President Kennedy’s interest in space in the early years of the Space Age was driven not out an innate interest in space or a vision for spaceflight, but because of the superpower competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. “We have this memory of the period where a visionary leader challenges us to go to space, rather than is scared to death of the Commies and wants to beat them out to the Moon.”

“So I submit to you that unless China decides that they want to build military bases on Mars… there better be some kind of economic incentive to pull this off,” he concluded.

So if science and curiosity aren’t sufficient reasons for funding major new space exploration efforts, what are? Tyson explained he looked back through history to examine why societies invested in large-scale projects of any kind. He found that those explanations could be lumped into three categories: war, praise of royalty or deity, and the promise of economic return. Apollo, for example, was driven by the first reason, the Cold War conflict between the US and USSR.

Of those three, the second—praise of royalty and deity—is effectively defunct today, leaving war and economic benefit as the primary rationales for investing in large-scale space projects. “So I submit to you that unless China decides that they want to build military bases on Mars… there better be some kind of economic incentive to pull this off,” he concluded. “If going to Mars is expensive, and none of these three is in the service of that driver, then we’re never going to go to Mars.”

Yet, despite that cold calculus, Tyson still believed that there was an innate human drive to explore, and that it should play a role in the expansion of humanity into the universe. Rejecting suggestions from the likes of Stephen Hawking that humanity should become a multiplanet species to avoid extinction, he said that a better reason is that, as a species, “we actually do like to explore.”

“We’re the only mammal comfortable sleeping on our backs, which means that if you wake up in the middle of the night, you’re looking up,” he said. “Maybe that fact has imbued us with a sense of wonder that no other mammal can even approach. So maybe it’s kind of our obligation to ourselves and our species to explore where we haven’t been before.”


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