by Neil deGrasse Tyson
With his signature wit and thought provoking insights, one of our foremost thinkers on all things space brilliantly reminds us why NASA matters now as much as ever.
For millennia, people have looked up at the night sky and wondered about our place in the universe. But not until the seventeenth century was any serious thought given to the prospect of exploring it. In a charming book published in 1640, A Discourse Concerning a New World & Another Planet, the English clergyman and science buff John Wilkins speculates on what it might take to travel in space: “Yet I do seriously, and upon good grounds, affirm it possible, to make a flying chariot, in which a man may sit and give such a motion unto it as shall convey him through the air; and this, perhaps, might be made large enough to carry divers men at the same time. . . . We see a great ship swim as well as a small cork; and an eagle flies in the air as well as a little gnat. . . . So that notwithstanding all [the] seeming impossibilities, tis likely enough there may be a means invented of journeying to the Moon; and how happy they shall be that are first successful in this attempt.”
Three hundred and thirty-one years later, humans would indeed land on the Moon, aboard a chariot called Apollo 11, as part of an unprecedented investment in science and technology conducted by a relatively young country called the United States of America. That enterprise drove a half century of unprecedented wealth and prosperity that today we take for granted. Now, as our interest in science wanes, America is poised to fall behind the rest of the industrialized world in every measure of technological proficiency.
In recent decades, the majority of students in America’s science and engineering graduate schools have been foreign-born. Up through the 1990s, most would come to the United States, earn their degrees, and gladly stay here, employed in our high-tech workforce. Now, with emerging economic opportunities back in India, China, and Eastern Europe—the regions most highly represented in advanced academic science and engineering programs—many graduates choose to return home.
It’s not a brain drain—because American never laid claim to these students in the first place—but a kind of brain regression. The slow descent from America’s penthouse view, enabled by our twentieth-century investments in science and technology, has been masked all these years by self-imported talent. In the next phase of this regression we will begin to lose the talent that trains the talent. That’s a disaster waiting to happen; science and technology are the greatest engines of economic growth the world has seen. Without regenerating homegrown interest in these fields, the comfortable lifestyle to which Americans have become accustomed will draw to a rapid close.
Before visiting China in 2002, I had pictured a Beijing of wide boulevards, dense with bicycles as the primary means of transportation. What I saw was very different. Of course the boulevards were still there, but they were filled with top-end luxury cars; construction cranes were knitting a new skyline of high-rise buildings as far as the eye could see. China has completed the controversial Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, the largest engineering project in the world—generating more than twenty times the energy of the Hoover Dam. It has also built the world’s largest airport and, as of 2010, had leapfrogged Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy. It now leads the world in exports and CO2 emissions.
InOctober 2003, having launched its first taikonaut into orbit, China became the world’s third spacefaring nation (after the United States and Russia). Next step: the Moon. These ambitions require not only money but also people smart enough to figure out how to turn them into reality, and visionary leaders to enable them. In China, with a population approaching 1.5 billion, if you are smart enough to be one in a million, then there are 1,500 other people just like you.
Meanwhile, Europe and India are redoubling their efforts to conduct robotic science on spaceborne platforms, and there’s a growing interest in space exploration from more than a dozen other countries around the world, including Israel, Iran, Brazil, and Nigeria. China is building a new space launch site whose location, just nineteen degrees north of the equator, makes it geographically better for space launches than Cape Canaveral is for the United States. This growing community of space-minded nations is hungry for its slice of the aerospace universe. In America, contrary to our self-image, we are no longer leaders, but simply players. We’ve moved backward just by standing still.
But there’s still hope for us. You can learn something deep about a nation when you look at what it accomplishes as a culture. Do you know the most popular museum in the world over the past decade? It’s not the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It’s not the Uffizi in Florence. It’s not the Louvre in Paris. At a running average of some nine million visitors per year, it’s the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, which contains everything from the Wright Brothers’ original 1903 aeroplane to the Apollo 11 Moon capsule, and much, much more. International visitors are anxious to see the air and space artifacts housed in this museum, because they’re an American legacy to the world. More important, NASM represents the urge to dream and the will to enable it. These traits are fundamental to being human, and have fortuitously coincided with what it has meant to be American.
When you visit countries that don’t nurture these kinds of ambitions, you can feel the absence of hope. Owing to all manner of politics, economics, and geography, people are reduced to worrying only about that day’s shelter or the next day’s meal. It’s a shame, even a tragedy, how many people do not get to think about the future. Technology coupled with wise leadership not only solves these problems but enables dreams of tomorrow.
For generations, Americans have expected something new and better in their lives with every passing day—something that will make life a little more fun to live and a little more enlightening to behold. Exploration accomplishes this naturally. All we need to do is wake up to this fact.
The greatest explorer of recent decades is not even human. It’s the Hubble Space Telescope, which has offered everybody on Earth a mind-expanding window to the cosmos. But that hasn’t always been the case. When it was launched in 1990, a blunder in the design of the optics generated hopelessly blurred images, much to everyone’s dismay. Three years would pass before corrective optics were installed, enabling the sharp images that we now take for granted.
What to do during the three years of fuzzy images? It’s a big, expensive telescope. Not wise to let it orbit idly. So we kept taking data, hoping some useful science would nonetheless come of it. Eager astrophysicists at Baltimore’s Space Telescope Science Institute, the research headquarters for the Hubble, didn’t just sit around; they wrote suites of advanced image-processing software to help identify and isolate stars in the otherwise crowded, unfocused fields the telescope presented to them. These novel techniques allowed some science to get done while the repair mission was being planned.
Meanwhile, in collaboration with Hubble scientists, medical researchers at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, DC, recognized that the challenge faced by astrophysicists was similar to that faced by doctors in their visual search for tumors in mammograms. With the help of funding from the National Science Foundation, the medical community adopted these new techniques to assist in the early detection of breast cancer. That means countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope.
You cannot script these kinds of outcomes, yet they occur daily. The cross-pollination of disciplines almost always creates landscapes of innovation and discovery. And nothing accomplishes this like space exploration, which draws from the ranks of astrophysicists, biologists, chemists, engineers, and planetary geologists, whose collective efforts have the capacity to improve and enhance all that we have come to value as a modern society.
How many times have we heard the mantra “Why are we spending billions of dollars up there in space when we have pressing problems down here on Earth?” Apparently, the rest of world has no trouble coming up with good answers to this question—even if we can’t. Let’s re-ask the question in an illuminating way: “As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?” Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar. At that level, the Vision for Space Exploration would be sprinting ahead, funded at a level that could reclaim our preeminence on a frontier we pioneered. Instead the vision is just ambling along, with barely enough support to stay in the game and insufficient support ever to lead it.
So with more than ninety-nine out of a hundred cents going to fund all the rest of our nation’s priorities, the space program does not prevent (nor has it ever prevented) other things from happening. Instead, America’s former investments in aerospace have shaped our discovery-infused culture in ways that are obvious to the rest of the world, whether or not we ourselves recognize them. But we are a sufficiently wealthy nation to embrace this investment in our own tomorrow—to drive our economy, our ambitions, and, above all, our dreams.