Astrophysicist star Neil deGrasse Tyson calls for Mars mission

If there’s a rock star among astrophysicists today, his name is Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Well, perhaps comedy star is more like it. Tyson, displaying the comic chops and timing of Chris Rock (with fewer — OK, none — four-letter words and more references to “mathematical distributions” pictured on German currency), Tyson kept a capacity crowd in Cullen Performance Hall at the University of Houston laughing over two hours while making the serious case for a sustained U.S. effort to send astronauts to Mars.

Tyson, the director of New York’s famed Hayden Planetarium (where, he told a young girl in the audience, he first became “starstruck” and found his life’s calling when he was nine years old) and host of PBS’s NOVA ScienceNOW program, spoke on “America’s Past, Present and Future in Space.”

Sporting black cowboy boots (sometimes with a matching hat) and a tie featuring a Saturn V rocket purchased from the visitor’s center of the Johnson Space Center, Tyson underscored the theme of his talk by sending, live, onstage, a tweet: ” For some people, space is irrelevant. But when the asteroid comes, I bet they’ll think differently.”  (His Twitter handle is @neiltyson)

Tyson said his motive was to issue a “reality check” about America’s space program: why it began, what’s its goals have been, and what are the primary motivators that drive its funding.

He told the Houston audience (by nature and economic lifeblood, a NASA-backing city) that Americans have a faulty memory of the country’s preeminence as “space pioneers.” Noting the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s launch of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin as the first human space, Tyson said that in almost all major milestones, America followed the Russians’ lead in space exploration.

When Americans recall President John F. Kennedy’s famous 1961 speech to Congress calling for a manned mission to the Moon before the end of the decade, they rarely remember that Kennedy obliquely referenced Gargarin’s flight just weeks before as a primary  motivating factor, with space as another front in the Cold War. Earlier, Tyson said, JFK had privately told NASA administrator James E. Webb, “I’m not that interested in space.”

Tyson said history and human nature indicated it’s “inevitable” that space — particularly Cislunar space, between the earth and the moon — will become a militarized sphere, since nations always seek to protect their assets wherever they are.

Pointing to his Saturn V tie, Tyson said that Americans also have “a dose of Apollo worship.” When he suggested that to Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, he said, the second man on the moon took umbrage. “Buzz’ll deck you,” he joked.

“Why do we genuflect before the Saturn V?” Tyson asked, showing a photo of the segmented rocket laying on the grounds of Johnson Space Center. While technologies like cars, cell phones and personal computers have advanced tremendously over the years, the lack of advancement in manned space exploration since Apollo indicates that space has not been “an expanding frontier.”

Tyson said Aldrin has written that the American public has lost interest in space exploration, but that he disagrees. Rather, he said, space exploration is so ingrained in the United States’s identity that only rarely — like when something like the 2002 Columbia disaster occurs — does the public at large take notice.

He said the entire population of people directly involved in space exploration, from NASA employees to contractors to advocacy groups, numbers around 700,000 people. That’s a very small special interest group, he noted, as compared to the National Rifle Association (4.3 million members), Alcoholics Anonymous (1.8 million) and the Hannah Montana Fan Club (1 million).

And while many presume that NASA has not made more significant progress in space exploration since the glory days of Apollo because of less funding, Tyson said that except for the costs of building the infrastructure in the early 1960s (even before the Apollo 11 moon landing), NASA’s budget has remained fairly constant — at about $19 billion annually in today’s dollars — over the years.

While many of his colleagues believe NASA should focus on robotic missions to space over manned ones, Tyson said that as “a public scientist,” he’s come around to the view that people are more prone to support massive funding for human exploration. The only profession for which people line up to get autographs, even if they don’t know who the individual is, is astronauts, he said.

But there’s the problem of politics, Tyson said. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush proposed a $500 billion program (over 30 years) to send a manned mission to Mars. And even though that amounted to about $17 billion a year, the proposal was “dead on arrival” when it went to Congress.

The critical difference between JFK’s 1961 speech and Bush’s 1989 proposal is that in the latter year, “peace broke out.” Lacking the Cold War mentality that led to the Apollo program, the Mars mission idea died on the vine.

Later, in 2004, President George W. Bush also called for a renewed space program that would ultimately lead to Mars, echoed in 2010 by his successor, Barack Obama. But in the ensuing years, the partisan divide had become wider, complicating matters even more.

Tyson said history shows only three “funding drivers” that inspire people to support massive governmental projects:  improving war and defense capabilities; paying homage to deities or royalty; and economic returns. In today’s world, the second has been largely eliminated, he said. And there’s little chance that Mars has the kind of mineral wealth or other natural resources that would make the third a driving factor. (“If there were a lot of oil there, George Bush would have known it and we’d have been there already,” he joked.)

As for the first, there’s little possibility that humans need to defend themselves against a race of Martians, Tyson said, despite having admitted earlier to buying this book. (“I bought it, and I heeded its advice.”)

But, Tyson said, America can embrace a cause-and-effect mindset that can provide all the justification a Mars mission needs. By doubling NASA’s budget (to 0.8 percent of the national budget), the country could provide funding for scientists of all kinds of disciplines. That would help build the scientific literacy of the nation as a whole (something that’s now woefully lacking, he noted) and inspire today’s youngsters to go into those fields. That would lead to both unmeasurable economic boons and enhanced national security, since the most dangerous threats we now face are those best dealt with by scientists.

Tyson’s speech was the latest in the University of Houston’s Elizabeth Rockwell Lecture series, the first since its namesake benefactor died in January. The speech coincided with a weeklong conference of the International Academy of Astronautics also hosted by the university.

RELATED:  Apollo 13’s Gene Kranz: No room for failure and Star-struck

Copyright © 2011 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.

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About Ken Fountain

I'm a journalist and writer in Houston, Texas. My areas of specialty include law and courts, local government and industry and environmental issues. You can follow me on Twitter at @twitter.com/kenfountain and email me at kenfountain1 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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  1. Astrophysicist star Neil deGrasse Tyson calls for Mars mission (via Fountain's Pen) « The EastEnder Notes - April 19, 2011

    […] Ken meets Tyson. If there's a rock star among astrophysicists today, his name is Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Well, perhaps comedy star is more like it. Tyson, displaying the comic chops and timing of Chris Rock (with fewer — OK, none — four-letter words and more references to "mathematical distributions" pictured on German currency), Tyson kept a capacity crowd in Cullen Performance Hall at the University of Houston laughing over two hours while making the serious … Read More […]

  2. Star-struck | Fountain's Pen - April 14, 2013

    […] of this blog (and I know you’re out there!) no doubt are aware of my lifelong interest in space and the manned space program. In the past couple of  weeks, I’ve had the chance to hear two […]

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