So I’m angry that aerospace has become a bargaining commodity. Also, because I’m partly an educator, when I stand in front of eighth-graders I don’t want to have to say to them, “Become an aerospace engineer so that you can build an airplane that’s 20 percent more fuel efficient than the ones your parents flew on.” A laudable goal, for sure. But to attract the best students in the room, what I should be saying is, “Become an aerospace engineer so that you can design the airfoil that will be the first piloted craft in the rarefied atmosphere of Mars.” “Become a biologist because we need people to look for life, not only on Mars but in the subsurface oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa, and elsewhere in the galaxy.” “Become a chemist because we want to understand more about the elements on the moon and the molecules in space.” You put that vision out there, and my job becomes easy; I just have to invoke the familiar vision, and kids’ ambitions rise up within them. Their engines get lit, and they become self-
propelled on the path to the frontier.
If I were the pope of Congress, I would deliver an edict to double NASA’s budget. That would take it to around $40 billion. Well, somebody else in town has a $30 billion budget: the National Institutes of Health. That’s fine. They ought to have a big budget, because health matters. But most high-tech medical equipment and procedures—MRIs, pet scans, ultrasound, X-rays—work on principles discovered by physicists and are based on designs developed by engineers. So you can’t just fund medicine; you have to fund the rest of what’s going on. Cross-
pollination is fundamental to the enterprise.
What happens when you double NASA’s budget? The vision becomes big; it becomes real. You attract an entire generation, and generations to follow, into science and engineering. You know and I know that all emergent markets in the 21st century are going to be driven by science and technology. The foundations of every future economy will require that. And what happens when you stop innovating? Everybody else catches up, your jobs go overseas, and then you cry foul: Ooohh, they’re paying them less over there, and the playing field is not level. Well, stop whining and start innovating.
Let’s talk about true innovation. People often ask, If you like spin-off products, why not just invest in those technologies straightaway, instead of waiting for them to happen as spin-offs? Answer: It just doesn’t work that way. Let’s say you’re a thermodynamicist, the world’s expert on heat, and I ask you to build me a better oven. You might invent a convection oven or an oven that’s more insulated or that permits easier access to its contents. But no matter how much money I give you, you will not invent a microwave oven. Because that came from another place. It came from investments in communications, in radar. The microwave oven is traceable to the war effort, not to a thermodynamicist.
Fear and loathing may be what drives America’s space future, just as it did during the Cold War. Cislunar space–the region surrounding Earth between Earth’s surface and the moon’s orbit–is seen by the military as the new high ground. Today we have halcyon memories of the Space Age, cleansing that golden era of its military drivers and allowing us to say of ourselves, “Back then, we were explorers and risk takers.” Yes, war and competition are effective ways to advance a space frontier. But another is economics.
In fact we may be entering a new age of geopolitics, in which economic strength wields greater power than military strength. If that’s the case, we shouldn’t need reminders that innovations in science and technology drive tomorrow’s economies. That’s been true since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. And so healthy investment in space exploration—something we saw 50 years ago, and something many other countries have just figured out—is like a new force of nature operating on a nation’s economic prosperity.
As nothing else does, the frontier of space exploration, which draws upon a dozen fields of science and engineering, attracts the ambitions of those who are still in the educational pipeline. It is they who become the scientists and technologists. It is they who invent tomorrow.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. This article is freely adapted from his book Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier (W. W. Norton, 2012, ed. Avis Lang).
America has reigned as the world’s leading space power since the early 1960s, but it faces renewed competition.
CHINA Last year China announced plans to launch a space lab and gather moon samples with rovers by 2017. The country also performed its first space docking, an essential skill for a manned orbital station. China’s centralized power provides an advantage, former NASA astronaut Steven Hawley says: “If the government wants to do it, the government will make it happen.”
RUSSIA Russia’s space agency has sent regular manned Soyuz missions to the International Space Station and launched RadioAstron, a space telescope with 10,000 times Hubble’s resolution. But disasters, including the 2011 explosion of a space freighter and the recent failure of a Martian moon probe, have tainted the program’s standing.
JAPAN Since its first launch in 1970, the country has lofted numerous Earth-observation satellites, a spacecraft powered by a solar sail, and SELENE, a lunar orbiter that mapped the moon’s surface. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s visionary plan slates an independent manned space mission and establishment of an international lunar base by 2025.
INDIA Following the 2008 launch of the Chandrayaan-1 probe, which orbited the moon and found water there, the Indian Space Research Organization tested a ballistic missile-based defense system in 2011. On deck: India plans an autonomous vehicle designed to blast a couple astronauts into low Earth orbit within 12 years. “They’ve been a sleeper,” Hawley says, “but they have real capability.”
IRAN Last year Iran reported the successful launch of its first imaging satellite, Rasad-1, and the country does not want for motivation. “They want to be able to keep Israel worried about space-based surveillance,” says John Logsdon, former director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. In 2010 Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced plans to send a manned vehicle into space by 2020.