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Review: Space Chronicles


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Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier
by Neil deGrasse Tyson (edited by Avis Lang)
W.W. Norton & Co., 2012
hardcover, 384 pp.
ISBN 978-0-393-08210-4
US$26.95

Over the last several years Neil deGrasse Tyson has become arguably not just the best-known communicator of astronomy to the general public, but also of science overall. His essays and books, his work as the host of PBS’s NOVA scienceNow, and his various media appearances, have made him one of the leading voices of science to the American public today. His wit, intelligence, and media savvy demonstrate that he is the natural heir to the late Carl Sagan and the natural choice to host the remake of Sagan’s iconic Cosmos series that is currently under development.

One might expect Space Chronicles to be a tightly argued monograph explaining why there should be such a quantum leap in NASA’s budget. That’s not the case.

Even for someone like Tyson, though, the last week has been a whirlwind. He made appearances from NPR (twice, both on Morning Edition and, later, the full second hour of Science Friday) to Fox Business, and from CBS This Morning to Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, among others. These were all tied to the publication of his latest book, Space Chronicles, but also allowed him to express his views on space policy, most notably a call for doubling NASA’s $17.8-billon budget and setting bold new goals over shorter timeframes in order to spur innovation and interest in space. “I realized that the way you succeed, something that requires that much money over that much time, is to have it embedded in the zeitgeist of the nation, and then we then hold our leaders accountable for those goals rather than one leader or the next using it as a campaign slogan,” he said on NPR’s Science Friday.

Given those interviews, one might expect Space Chronicles to be a tightly argued monograph explaining why there should be such a quantum leap in NASA’s budget. That’s not the case. Instead, the book is a collection of essays and other material (including speeches and interview transcripts) by Tyson about space that’s he’s produced over the years, divided into three parts: Why, How, and Why Not. As their titles suggest, the first section covers some of the reasons for space exploration, including the search for life beyond Earth and protecting humanity from the threat of asteroid collisions; the second examines the technological and other issues of spaceflight; and the final section explores some of the obstacles to that vision of space. Tyson includes a lot of reference material in the book’s appendices, including the full version of the National Aeronautics and Space Act and related legislation: a curious choice, since Tyson doesn’t refer to it in the body of the text and also because that information is readily available online.

That means the points Tyson makes tend to get diffused, rather than strengthened, through the mix of material in the book. The “How” section of the book, for example, includes sections on deep space propulsion and Lagrange points—immediately followed by back-to-back essays on Star Trek and “How to Prove You’ve Been Abducted by Aliens”. One of the key arguments Tyson makes in his latest interview sprint, about doubling NASA’s budget, is, in fact, rarely mentioned in the book itself. And, as it turns out, it’s not a new argument: one of the few places he discusses it in the book is in an essay adapted from a speech he gave in 2005, saying if he was “the pope of Congress” (!) he would double the agency’s budget. “What happens when you double the NASA budget? The vision becomes big; it becomes real.” The vision, of course, at that time was the Bush Administration’ Vision for Space Exploration.

Tyson, in a prologue written specially for the book, claims that space policy has become more partisan in the last decade. “I began to notice a pall of party partisanship descending on NASA and on the nation’s space policy” after being tapped to join the Aldridge Commission in 2004, after Bush announced the Vision, he writes. That, he said, is based on his perceptions of Democratic reactions to Bush’s plan and Republican responses to the Obama Administration’s own proposals. But that assessment ignores the fact that debates on space policy are rarely partisan even today. One of the biggest proponents in Congress for the current administration’s commercial crew program is a conservative Republican, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, who agrees with the president on little else. The NASA Authorization Act of 2010 cleared the Senate by unanimous consent, thanks to the efforts of Republican and Democratic members, and passed the House by a wide margin. Yet one of the members who spoke out against the bill—which had the backing of the White House—during the debate on the House floor in September 2010 was a Democrat: Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona. And just in the last few weeks two members of Congress, Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and John Culberson (R-TX), have teamed up to oppose the administration’s proposed cuts to NASA’s planetary science programs.

Space Chronicles, despite the hype from the flurry of interviews Tyson has performed in the last week, doesn’t make a strong case for doubling NASA’s budget, especially given current concerns about budget deficits and the national debt. It is, instead, a more generic paean to the wonders of space and the importance of exploring it.

We also have recent evidence—after the book went to press—of what happens when someone proposes a bold goal for space exploration. Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s plan to establish a permanent base on the Moon by the end of his second term met Tyson’s requirement for a goal that could be carried out within a single administration, and its cost might well have required a doubling of NASA’s budget. But that plan failed to win the support of the public, and instead became the subject of criticism and even ridicule, as well as weapon used against him by his fellow candidates (see “Campaign lunacy, revisited”, The Space Review, February 13, 2012).

Gingrich, though, while an experienced politician, doesn’t have the same science communication skills as Tyson; could he have done a better job selling the plan to the public? Perhaps, but it’s likely a moot point now, given the fading fortunes of the Gingrich campaign and lack of interest in similar audacious goals from the other candidates. Space Chronicles, despite the hype from the flurry of interviews Tyson has performed in the last week, doesn’t make a strong case for doubling NASA’s budget, especially given current concerns about budget deficits and the national debt. It is, instead, a more generic paean to the wonders of space and the importance of exploring it: a fine book in that respect, but one unlikely to alter the discourse on space policy in Washington today. Tyson, though, will give it a shot with a different kind of interview later this week: an appearance before the Senate Commerce Committee on “Priorities, Plans, and Progress of the Nation's Space Program” this Wednesday. That may be the toughest challenge yet for his science communications skills.


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