As the Canadian government considers what do to about the future of Canada’s space program we thought it might be worth looking back a few years to the same question that was posed in the U.S. This interview by Eva-Jane Lark with Neil deGrasse Tyson discusses how space and the economy are interrelated. The interview first appeared in Space Quarterly Magazine in September 2012.
Space – A Healthy Space Program Equals A Healthy Economy
Eva: While you are primarily an astrophysicist and the Director of the Hayden Planetarium, you are becoming better known for your space policy views and as the go-to-guy when the media solicits opinions on space. In that context, what do you think are the most important issues facing space exploration and space development today?
Neil: By far, it is whether the electorate understands the value of a healthy space program to the health of the economy going forward. That is the biggest challenge. To the extent that the public is unaware of this, it means our elected officials will not care. If the elected officials don’t care, then nothing happens.
Eva: So, the electorate, the individual citizens and voters are the key. How can voters put space on the agenda with their candidates and help to increase spending on, or investment in space?
Neil: Well, once it becomes a fundamental part of the American identity, it’s not even about putting it on the agenda. When politicians run for office at any level, especially the federal level, they don’t say “well, let’s put veteran’s benefits on the table and debate that”. No! It’s not up for debate. Just shut up, put it back in the budget and let’s move on to other topics. There are things that just don’t get debated because it is fundamental to what we know as a nation that we need to supply and provide. The day that happens with people’s understanding and recognition of the value of a healthy space industry, a healthy space vision statement for the country; the day that happens, it’s not on the table. It doesn’t matter who gets elected. They will follow through with the interest of the electorate.
Eva: This isn’t true for this upcoming election, so you are talking about a much longer term change that needs to occur…
Neil: That depends on how long it takes for someone to be absorbed by an argument. It’s a relatively simple argument. It’s just a little bit more complex than some arguments you might typically hear. I think our brain is wired to think of only direct causes and effects. Right? If something is going along with A, then you do B; if C, then you do D. But suppose, suppose if there is something wrong with A, then you have to do B, that leads to C, which influences D, and then it’s E that gets F to fix A. Well that takes a little longer to engage. And that is precisely what is going on here and now. So rather than using letters, let me use actual examples…
Eva: Please do…
Neil: History has shown that a healthy space program will advance a frontier in a way that makes headlines. And when you make headlines with an advanced frontier, people take notice of it, the press takes notice of it. People who are not scientists and engineers take notice of it. Artists take notice of it. Journalists take notice of it. Everyone becomes a participant on that frontier, and you can’t wait to find out what the next discovery is going to be a few weeks later, a couple of months later. It becomes an activity of the culture. When that happens, everyone sees the role and the value of science and technology as a driver of this activity. And you then no longer need programs to convince kids that science and technology is interesting and is something that they should do. It will be manifest and self-evident in the daily papers. They then want to become scientists and engineers and they do become scientists and engineers. And there are places for them to apply their expertise at the end of the educational pipeline. While this is going on, like I said, even people who are not scientists and engineers participate but more importantly, the stimulated interest in how science and technology can bring about a future that we have ever only dreamed about, that culture, I call it an “Innovation Nation” creates the economies of the 21st century. And when you create the economies of the 21st century, you keep your jobs from moving overseas, because they haven’t figured out how to do it yet, because you have just innovated it. You don’t need programs to convince people that science is fun because they will see daily what the fruits of science are bringing, in the newspapers. You’d create whole new economies that stoke your nation’s economic health. And so, all of this unfolds. And, by the way, you have the government leading a frontier and then commercial doing the routine things behind it. That is the space frontier, plus industry, that would bring about what I describe. That takes a little longer than an elevator ride.
Eva: It does indeed.
Neil: Oh, “go to space because you have spin-offs”; oh, “every dollar you spend in space is spent here on Earth”; those are tired arguments and in fact none of them actually work. I’ve been called upon so often, not because I am saying what everyone else is saying but because I am saying something different. And the extent to which I have thought about this problem has led to solutions that I think are overdue for having been put into place.
Eva: Thinking of solutions, is there any way to make an impact when there is only a very short time period between now and the next election?
Neil: There is. You can force them to have a debate on the value of space. The public can be armed with what they know the value of space to be, and you can have the conversation. You can say “this guy doesn’t know jack about anything”, “this person needs to be more educated about it”. Who do I pick? Right? And as sure as day follows night, they are going to do research on what the public wants and they are going to give the public what they want, if we live in any kind of democracy. So, I don’t think it is a ten year plan, I think it is a six month plan. I think with the right constructs, you can make space part of the agenda. Once space is recognized as fundamental to the economy, as they say “it’s the economy, stupid”, if they don’t make a link between space and the economy then they are losing an opportunity to see what role innovations in science and technology can serve in driving the future health of the country.
Eva: It often seems that the connection between space, the innovations in the space industry and their impact on the economy has been poorly communicated. Space exploration and the various space programs (civil/security/international) have historically been incredible drivers of innovation with significant applications beyond the space industry, creating whole new industries and products terrestrially. What do you think is the connection between innovation and prosperity? Are we at risk of affecting our future, and our future prosperity, by cutbacks in our space programs?
Neil: The reason why the previous arguments haven’t been working, with regard to the economy, is because they haven’t made the right leap. This is in my judgment.
Eva: Is it because it is poorly communicated or could language be part of the issue – for example the word “spin-off” has an incidental, unimportant connotation to it?
Neil: Exactly. So first the spin-off and then there are the ancillary industries that grow up around where government monies have gone. I’m not even talking about that. I am talking about a culture, that is exposed daily or weekly to discovery. When you are moving a frontier, stuff gets discovered every day. New ways of doing things happen every day. That culture is what fosters creative thinking in everybody.
Eva: Cultures seem challenging to create. They seem more to develop on their own or evolve…
Neil: You can put in seeds to affect it but it is harder to communicate the value of a culture in an elevator ride. People don’t think of culture. You just live your life. It is. You don’t think of a cultural force. There is a funded program that goes A to B, right? You think of a company that invented things, so that’s just that. And you look at everything under a magnifying glass. You don’t step back and say, “wait a minute, there’s this underlying force operating in all these sectors”. That underlying force which is felt by us all is our culture. Space can create a culture which can transform our economy.
Eva: What do you think an individual can do to enhance that cultural development? You’ve obviously been doing your part, presenting and communicating this…
Neil: There are op-eds, there are letters to the editor, there are YouTube clips, there are web pages. There’s a Facebook page now called “Penny4NASA” which represents the doubling of NASA’s budget. There’s a very popular video that is almost viral that talks about increasing NASA’s budget. And these are very creative videographers. They themselves are not scientists or engineers but they want to still be able to dream about the future. So, you say, what can a citizen do? A citizen can require that their elected officials understand what space means to America. They can require that of their officials. You either vote for them or you don’t. Like I said, of all the ways one might get their views known, there are many that still work. That’s what I would encourage people to do.
Eva: Penny4NASA – I assume that started after you proposed the idea?
Neil: I have had the idea in speeches; it showed up in the book, so I am assuming it started with me. I said “double NASA’s budget” but I started saying it when they were getting seven tenths of a cent on the dollar. When it dropped to half a penny, I figured, well they ought to be able to do what they need to do for a penny. And then all the arithmetic came out clean and easy. That’s part of a grassroots movement that I think is great. What makes it grassroots is that it doesn’t even reference me. That means it’s not some guru’s movement, it’s not some cult. People are taking ownership of that vision statement. That matters deeply to me. If people said “do this because Tyson said”, then what am I creating here? I don’t want it because I said it. I want it because I made an argument that was so compelling to you that you took ownership of that argument yourself and you are sharing that argument with others.
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s testimony entitled “Past, Present, and Future of NASA” at the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing Wednesday, March 7, 2012, “Priorities, Plans, and Progress of the Nation’s Space Program”.
Eva: The argument still has many ears to reach. One thing that comes to many people’s minds when they hear that suggestion is how would we ensure that the extra money NASA receives is invested wisely and effectively so we see the highest return on investment? And what kinds of investments would you like to see more of by NASA?
Neil: That needs to happen for any government agency. It is not a uniquely important concern for NASA versus anyone else. We should have it for the military, for the Department of Education, for the Department of Energy. All government agencies should be efficient.
Eva: Are there specific kinds of investments would you like to see NASA make more of?
NASA, I think, to be as healthy as it possibly can be, should develop a suite of launch vehicles that can be differently configured on a whim; to go where ever anyone wants in the solar system.
Eva: Do you think NASA should build these themselves or through a program like the COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation System) program, creating an incentive for industry to develop this suite of vehicles?
Neil: I think industry has been under-tapped for the last decade. Of course industry has built more things. Grumman built the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module), for goodness sake. So it is not like NASA has not had conversations and relationships with industry before. If you are doing something that has never been done before, it is harder to get industry to do it. It is harder to make a business model. That is when you rely more heavily on the government source of those funds. Once the maps are drawn and the tradewinds are established and you can quantify the risks, then you invite private enterprise to create the capital market valuation of that level of participation. I see industry as a fundamental part of moving forward, but industry can never actually lead an advancing space frontier. It is not economically possible.
Eva: At the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace Business Plan Competition recently, one of the criteria for awarding the $100,000 grand prize was that the business be space enabling. Are there any enabling technologies or businesses that you feel are important to focus on immediately to build this space focused or innovation integrating culture.
Neil: No, it will just happen. The book I came out with in March, it’s called Space Chronicles. The issue here is that anything anyone does that hasn’t been done before is going to involve a discovery, it’s going to involve patents. Period. I don’t have to have a detailed conversation about propulsion systems or solid versus liquid rocket, or number of stages, or is it a space plane. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. You do it because it has never been done before. And it attracts the smartest people in the country to do it. And it makes headlines because when something happens in space, it makes headlines. And when that makes headlines, everyone wants to do it! That is the force that no one has talked about. It’s not that they have tried and failed, they have never even thought about it that way. My book’s original title that I submitted to the publisher, was called: Failure to Launch: The Dreams and Delusions of Space Enthusiasts. The space community thinks they understand the causes and effects of why we go into space. My read of history tell me that they are the most delusionally susceptible bunch. To say “we went to the Moon by 1969, we just need the political will to get to Mars by the 1980s” – No! We went to the Moon because we were at war. That’s why we went to the Moon. Not because it is in our DNA or because we are discoverers, or because Kennedy had charisma; you make your list…, none of those are the reasons why we went to the Moon. So, to say “we should have been on Mars by 1985” – that is delusional. If you sift through all of the delusions and put them in the trash, then you get to the brass tacks… and the brass tacks are: The public has no obligation to care about space, the way space people do. There is no obligation. We are in a free society. We are in a capitalist society as well. No one wants to die so we fund defense programs. No one wants to die poor, so the country ought to do things to keep itself wealthy. And what do you do? You need people around you who invent stuff that makes you wealthy. In the 21st century those are scientists and engineers. NASA is a force of nature, in making people want to become scientists and engineers, whether or not they end up working for NASA. So – I don’t care about the type of program. What is important is that you are going to invent something that will be tomorrow’s headline. That’s the flywheel of innovation and seduction that operates on our culture, and that’s what will bring us into tomorrow.
Eva: The most recent headlines were on Curiosity’s landing on Mars, and hopefully the near tomorrow headlines will be about her discoveries. How important is this to NASA’s budget, especially for science missions.
Neil: It is an example of what should be more, but it is only one at the moment of how activity in space makes headlines. You do something in space and it makes headlines. It makes bigger headlines than anything new done on Earth that has never been done before. I used to think I was biased. I know now that I am not. If you want to become a geologist and study volcanoes on Earth, fine. And say that I am someone who is going to study Olympus Mons on Mars. It is the largest volcano in the solar system. Then I win. I win every time. You could be studying Pinatubo in Chile and it could blow any day – and that’s exciting, right? If I start talking about going to Mars to study Olympus Mons, and it is six times bigger than Mt. Everest – who’s with me? I win. Because space wins. Space connects to us like no other force that I know. That is why NASA is a force of nature unto itself.
You asked “Is this good for NASA’s budget? I am saying – anything NASA does that has not been done before; that triggers a headline and it is the headline that triggers the interest in the STEM field, and it is the STEM field that leads to a healthy economy. It doesn’t matter if you even like Mars rovers, with this argument, you know it will stoke our economy, and you don’t want to die poor, in a nation that’s impoverished that rapidly recedes to a third world status.
Eva: Why do you think then that NASA is not entirely focused on doing new things?
Neil: They don’t have a budget to do it. They have been busy doing things they should have been ceded to private enterprise long ago. The International Space Station is an engineering frontier. It is not a space frontier. Engineering frontiers rarely make the headlines that space frontiers do. That’s the way it is. Let’s exploit that fact for the benefit of our economy. And, by the way, some people along the way will do it because they like to explore.
Eva: So you aren’t recommending specific missions…
Neil: No, I am not. I am saying – Do everything. Period. Have a suite of launch vehicles that will get us anywhere we want with different configurations and propulsion set-ups and there they are available. Oh, you want to do some science? Take 2 from column A, one from column B, put your robot in the payload and off you go. Oh, you want to mine this asteroid? That’s a different configuration. Here you go… Well, I have to invent something if I am going to mine it, there’s five patents awarded for that. By the way, I need lawyers to figure out if that is even legal. There’s a romantic image of prospectors on an asteroid. Novels get written. TV shows get produced. Oh, I want to have a tourist jaunt to the far side of the Moon where you can’t even see Earth. Earth is not in the sky. That is an otherworldly landscape there for you. Oh, I want to go to a Lagrangian point floating in space; maybe I want to do science there or maybe there is a security reason for going there, that’s another configuration. The whole solar system is our back yard. I’m not prioritizing it. Whoever has the need – be it the military, tourists, be it mining, be it scientific, be it security – we can do it. If you double NASA’s budget it puts the solar system into our back yard.
Eva: Earlier we talked about the relationship between innovation, prosperity and space. Can you go expand on that a bit more?
Neil: Sure. There are many contributors to the GDP, in any country. The mixture of what makes up a nation’s GDP versus another is often quite the measure of the identity of that country. It quite often reveals what a country is about. If you look at America’s GDP and you ask – “which of these are things we can sustain”? Agriculture – can we grow more? The farming industry has made extraordinary and persistent incremental advances over the century, so today’s farming is unlike anything that has happened before. It can still grow but likely in an incremental way. You want to look at the economy and say “what sector will create an entire economy that didn’t exist before”? You aren’t going to look to farming. You aren’t going to look to the music industry. You’re not going to look to the arts or many other parts of our GDP. While those industries can get better and they can grow a little bit, they are not going to birth an entirely new industry. Only science and technology, science has shown, has the power to do that. Innovation in science and technology in the 21st century would be the only hope to revolutionarily grow an economy.
Eva: Neil, is your whole day, outside of the museum, spent writing and thinking about these issues and how to convey them more widely?
Neil: No, definitely not. I would rather, at all times, just stay home and play with my kids. In expressing these thoughts, I feel I am a servant. I am a servant of the public appetite for the cosmos. I am offering information so people can judge the consequences of action or inaction based on an informed state of mind. Once I present them, I go home.
Eva: What do your kids think of space?
Neil: I think they think of it as a natural part of their landscape growing up and that it is part of their culture.
Eva: What a lively and informative discussion, Neil! Thank you so much.