The following is an excerpt from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier.
I was born the same week NASA was founded. A few other people were born that same year: Madonna (the second one, not the first), Michael Jackson, Prince, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sharon Stone. That was the year the Barbie doll was patented and the movie The Blob appeared. And it was the first year the Goddard Memorial Dinner was held: 1958.
I study the universe. It’s the second oldest profession. People have been looking up for a long time. But as an academic, it puts me a little bit outside the “club.” Yes, I’ve spent quality time in the aerospace community, with my service on two presidential commissions, but at heart I’m an academic. Being an academic means I don’t wield power over person, place or thing. I don’t command armies; I don’t lead labor unions. All I have is the power of thought.
Spring 2001, there I was, minding my own business amid the manicured lawns of the Princeton University campus — and the phone rang. It was the White House, telling me they wanted me to join a commission to study the health of the aerospace industry. Me? I don’t know how to fly an airplane. At first I was indifferent. Then I read up on the aerospace industry and realized that it had lost half a million jobs in the previous fourteen years. Something bad was going on there.
The commission’s first meeting was to be at the end of September. And then came 9/11. I live — then and now — four blocks from Ground Zero. My front windows are right there. I was supposed to go to Princeton that morning, but I had some overdue writing to finish, so I stayed home. One plane goes in; another plane goes in. At that point, how indifferent could I be? I had just lost my backyard to two airplanes. Duty called. I was a changed person: not only had the nation been attacked, so had my backyard.
I distinctly remember walking into the first meeting. There were 11 other commissioners, in a room filled with testosterone. Everybody occupied space. There was General this, and Secretary of the Navy that and Member of Congress this. It’s not as though I have no testosterone, but it’s Bronx testosterone. It’s the kind where, if you get into a fight on the street, you kick the guy’s butt. This I-build-missile-systems testosterone is a whole other kind. Even the women on the commission had it. One had a Southern accent perfectly tuned to say, “Kiss my ass.” Another one was chief aerospace analyst for Morgan Stanley; having spent her life as a Navy brat, she had the industry by the gonads.
On that commission, we went around the world to see what was influencing the situation here in America. We visited China before they put a man in space. I had in my head the stereotype of everybody riding bicycles, but everybody was driving Audis and Mercedes Benzes and Volkswagens. Then I went home and looked at the labels on all my stuff; half of it was already being made in China. Lots of our money is going there.
On our tour we visited the Great Wall, a military project. I looked far and wide but saw no evidence of technology, just the bricks that made the wall. But I pulled out my cell phone anyway and called my mother in New York. “Oh, Neil, you’re home so soon!” It was the best connection I’ve ever had calling her from my cell phone. Nobody in China is going, “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?” But it’s happening throughout the Northeast Corridor. Every time you get on Amtrak, the signal goes in and out every time you pass a tree.
So when China announced, “We’re going to put somebody in orbit,” sure enough, I knew it was going to happen. We all knew. China says, “We want to put somebody on the Moon,” I’ve got no doubts. When they say they want to put somebody on Mars, I’m certain of it. The thing about Mars is, it’s already red, so that could work well for Chinese marketing and public relations.
After China we visited Star City in Russia, outside Moscow. Star City is the center of the Russian space program. We all crammed into the office of the head of the center, and halfway through the morning he said, “Time for vodka.” The glass was so tiny that not all of my fingers fit on it, and so my pinky stuck out. I don’t think you drink vodka in Russia with your pinky sticking out. Another faux pas: I was just tasting it, not swilling it, because I’m accustomed to sipping wine. So once again, I was in the vicinity of a higher stratum of testosterone.
But the visit that really made the hair rise on the back of my neck was to Brussels, where we met with European aerospace planners and executives. They had just put out their 20-year aeronautics vision document, plus they were working on Galileo, a satellite navigation system that competes directly with our GPS. So we were kind of worried: what happens if they finish Galileo, equip European planes with it and announce that we have to have it to fly into European airspace? We already had an ailing industry here, and retrofitting all our airplanes just to fly there would be an unwelcome financial burden. As things stood, the Europeans could use our system for free.
So, while we were trying to understand the situation, the Europeans were sitting there looking fairly smug, especially one particular guy. I’m pretty sure our chairs were a little lower than theirs, because I remember looking up at them. Considering my torso length, I should not have been looking up. And something gelled in my head. As I said, all I have is the power of thought. And I got livid.
Why was I livid? Because we were sitting around a table talking about aerospace product as though it were soybeans — what are the trade regulations, the tariffs, the restrictions; if you do this, then we’ll do that. And I’m thinking, There’s something wrong here. Aerospace is a frontier of our technological prowess. If you’re truly on the frontier, you don’t sit at a table negotiating usage rights. You’re so far ahead of everybody, you’re not even worried about what they want. You just give it to them. That’s the posture Americans had for most of the 20th century. In the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and part of the 1980s, every plane that landed in your city was made in America. From Aerolineas Argentinas to Zambian Airways, everybody flew Boeings. So I got angry — not at the guy sitting across from me, but at us. I got angry with America, because advancing is not just something you do incrementally. You need innovation as well, so that you can achieve revolutionary, not merely evolutionary, advances.
One day I want to take a day trip to Tokyo. That would be a 45-minute ride if we go suborbital. How come we’re not doing that now? If we were, I wouldn’t have been at that table with the smug guy talking about the Galileo positioning system. We would already have had a pulsar navigation system, and we just wouldn’t have cared about theirs. We would have been too far ahead.
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.” That won’t get them excited. What I need to say 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 on 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, because I just have to point them to it and the ambition rises up within them. The flame gets lit, and they’re guided on the path.
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 it. And what happens when you stop innovating? Everyone 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? The 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.
That’s the kind of cross-pollination that goes on all the time. And that’s why futurists always get it wrong — because they take the current situation and just extrapolate. They don’t see surprises. So they get the picture right for about five years into the future, and they’re hopeless after ten.
I claim that space is part of our culture. You’ve heard complaints that nobody knows the names of the astronauts, that nobody gets excited about launches, that nobody cares anymore except people in the industry. I don’t believe that for a minute. When fixing the Hubble telescope was in doubt, the loudest protests came from the public. When the space shuttle Columbia broke up on reentry, the nation stopped and mourned. We may not notice something is there, but we sure as hell notice when it’s not there. That’s the definition of culture.
This goes deep. Last year on July 1, the Cassini spacecraft pulled into orbit around Saturn. There was nothing scientific about it, just pulling into orbit. Yet the Today Show figured that was news enough to put the story in their first hour—not in the second hour, along with the recipes, but in the first twenty minutes. So they called me in. When I get there, everybody says, “Congratulations! What does this mean?” I tell them it’s great, that we’re going to study Saturn and its moons. Matt Lauer wants to be hard-hitting, though, so he says, “But Dr. Tyson, this is a $3.3 billion mission. Given all the problems we have in the world today, how can you justify that expenditure?” So I say, “First of all, it’s $3.3 billion divided by 12. It’s a 12-year mission. Now we have the real number: less than $300 million per year. Hmmm. $300 million. Americans spend more than that per year on lip balm.”
At that moment, the camera shook. You could hear the stage and lighting people giggle. Matt had no rebuttal; he just stuttered and said, “Over to you, Katie.” When I exited the building, up came a round of applause from a group of bystanders who’d been watching the show. And they all held up their ChapSticks, saying, “We want to go to Saturn!”
The penetration is deep, and it’s not just among engineers. When you take a taxi ride in New York, you’re in the back seat, and there’s a barrier there between you and the front seat, so any conversation between you and the driver has to pass through the glass. On one of my recent rides the driver, a talkative guy who couldn’t have been more than 23, said to me, “Wait a minute, I think I recognize your voice. Are you an expert on the galaxy?” So I said, “Yeah, I suppose.” And he said, “Wow, I saw you on a program. It was the best.”
He wasn’t interested in me because of celebrity. That’s a different kind of encounter; that’s people asking you where you live and what’s your favorite color. But no. He starts asking questions: “Tell me more about black holes. Tell me more about the galaxy. Tell me more about the search for life.” We get to the destination, I’m ready to hand him the money, and he says, “No, keep it.” This guy’s 23 years old, with a wife and a kid at home and he’s driving a taxi. I’m trying to pay him for the ride, and he declines it. That’s how excited he is that he could learn about the universe.
Here’s my best story of all. It happened at the Rose Center for Earth and Space, where I work. There’s a janitor there who I’ve never seen having a conversation with anyone for the three years he’s been working there. You never know who’s who at these entry-level positions: maybe he’s mute, maybe he’s a little slow. I just don’t know. And then one day, out of the blue, he stops sweeping when he catches sight of me; he stands there holding onto his broom proudly, with posture; and he says, “Dr. Tyson, I have a question. Do you have a minute?” I assume he’s going to ask about the employment situation, and I say, “Yeah, sure, go ahead.” Then he says, “I’ve been thinking. I see all these pictures from the Hubble telescope, and I see all of these gas clouds. And I learned that stars are made of gas. So could it be true that the stars were made inside those gas clouds?” This is the janitor who didn’t say a word for three years, and his first sentence to me is about the astrophysics of the interstellar medium. I ran up to my office, grabbed all seven of my books, handed them to him and said, “Here, commune with the cosmos. You need more of this.”
My final quote of the day says it all: “There are lots of things I have to do to become an astronaut. But first I have to go to kindergarten.” — Cyrus Corey, age four.
If you double NASA’s budget, whole legions of students will fill the pipeline. Even if they don’t become aerospace engineers, we will have scientifically literate people coming up through the ranks — people who might invent stuff and create the foundations of tomorrow’s economy. But that’s not all. Suppose the next terrorist attack is biological warfare? Who are we going to call? We want the best biologists in the world. If there’s chemical warfare, we want the best chemists. And we would have them, because they’d be working on problems relating to Mars, problems relating to Europa. We would have attracted those people because the vision was in place. We wouldn’t have lost them to other professions. They wouldn’t have become lawyers or investment bankers, which is what happened in the 1980s and 1990s.
So this $40 billion starts looking pretty cheap. It becomes not only an investment in tomorrow’s economy but an investment in our security. Our most precious asset is our enthusiasm for what we do as a nation. Marshal it. Cherish it.
Excerpted from Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Copyright © 2012 by Neil deGrasse Tyson. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.