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Reaching for the Stars: America’s Choice

By Neil deGrasse Tyson

Natural History Magazine

Instead of counting smart bombs, perhaps we should count smart scientists.

In the months that have passed since the Space Shuttle Columbia’s fatal re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere, it seems that everyone has become a NASA critic. After an initial period of shock, followed by genuine mournful expression, no end of journalists, politicians, scientists, technologists, policy people, and ordinary taxpaying citizens have debated with passion and persuasion, the past, present, and future of America’s presence in space.

Among the complaints is the perennial lament that people no longer get excited about the space program. But this is not a measure of apathy, as many would claim. It’s instead, an indicator that space exploration has passed seamlessly into our culture. A nation’s culture is what permeates life so thoroughly that its residents no longer take notice. We now pay attention only when something goes wrong.

By contrast, space in the 1960s was an exotic frontier; traversed by the few, the brave, the lucky. Every gesture NASA made toward the heavens caused a spike in the media—the surest evidence that space was not yet familiar. Back then, as you would expect, many of us could recite the monikers of the “Mercury Seven” astronauts. Today, as you would expect, the Columbia Seven became similarly well-known, but only in death. With the space shuttle, America had launched more astronauts in the eighteen months preceding the Columbia tragedy than were launched in all Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions during the 1960s.

What does all this mean?

For many, especially in the aerospace industry and among NASA enthusiasts, the 1960s was a golden era for American space exploration. The run of space missions, each more ambitious than the one before it, ultimately led to men walking on the Moon, just as we said we would. Mars was surely next. These adventures spawned a level of public interest in science and engineering that was without precedent in American history, pumping the entire educational pipeline with eager and inspired students. What followed was a domestic boom in technology that would shape our lives for the rest of the century. A beautiful story. But let us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discovers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do.

Just weeks after the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit Earth in 1961, President Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress and uttered words that still resonate today:

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.

But hardly anyone remembers the sentence that followed, which was a powerful appeal to defeat communism:

If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.

This was not, of course, the first time that significant monies were spent on military programs. Kennedy knew, if only implicitly, that while bravery may win battles, science and technology provide security. Science and technology win wars.

From my reading of history, human discovery and exploration have never driven the funding of truly expensive projects, even if our sanitized memories tell us so, and even if the people doing the discoveries are themselves, discoverers. This fact argues strongly against those who suggest we have not yet walked on Mars because today we have no leaders, or we have lost our drive to explore, or we no longer take risks.

If you want exploration alone to promote spending, consider that any foreseeable mission to Mars will be long and immensely expensive. We are a wealthy nation. We have the money. The needed technology is imaginable. These aren’t the issues. Expensive projects take a long time and must be sustained across changeovers in political leadership as well as through downturns in the economy. With no immediate military benefit or economic driver (like space tourism), images of astronauts frolicking on a planet’s surface juxtaposed with that of hungry, unemployed factory workers make a powerful anti-funding force.

A review of history’s ambitious projects—those that have garnered an uncommonly large fraction of a nation’s gross domestic product—demonstrates that only three drivers have been sufficient to create them: defense (e.g., Great Wall of China, Manhattan Project, Apollo Project), the promise of economic return (e.g., Columbus Voyages, Magellan Voyages, Tennessee Valley Authority), and the praise of power (e.g., Pyramids, Cathedrals, Palaces). For expensive projects that satisfy more than one of these criteria, money flows like rivers. The Eisenhower Interstate highway system makes a crisp example: conceived in the post World War Two era to move materiel and personnel for the defense of the nation, yet used heavily by commerce. That’s why there’s always money for roads.

Low earth orbit is still a frontier, of sorts. Although today’s astronauts are boldly going where hundreds have gone before, the empirical risk of death remains high. With two lost shuttles out of a hundred launches, an astronaut’s chances of not coming home are about two percent. If those were your chances of death every time you drove your car, you would never drive your car. The Columbia astronauts were not unmindful of this risk, yet they took it anyway. They went because the return outweighed the risk itself. I am proud to be part of a species where a subset of its members willingly put their lives at risk to push the boundaries of our existence. They were the first to leave the cave and see what was on the other side of the cliff-face. They were the first to scale the mountains. They were the first to sail the oceans. They were the first to touch the sky. And they will be the first to land on Mars. But somebody has to write the check. When nobody writes the check, we stall on the last broached frontier.

Rhetoric won’t get us there. Nor am I convinced that the fundamentals of human decision-making are different today than they have ever been. So, unless space travel becomes so cheap it’s not worth a congressional debate, or unless we have investors lined up to sink venture capital into space hotels, or unless we have the reprise of a Sputnik-like assault on our national security, we will simply never go anywhere else.

Actually, there may be a way. But it involves a slight shift in what we have traditionally called national defense. If, in fact, science and technology wins wars, as the history of military conflict suggests, then, instead of taking count of our smart bombs, perhaps we should be taking count of our smart scientists and engineers. In the Second World War, those who cracked the German code, who invented radar, and who enabled the Manhattan Project were all drawn from their academic labs where they had been conducting curiosity-driven research on the frontier of science and technology.

To attract the most talented students, you need the best projects—not military projects, but pure, curiosity-driven projects. We should search Mars for water, fossils, and life. Liquid water once ran on its surface. No longer. As earthlings who live on a fragile, wet planet we ought to make this study a high priority. We should visit an asteroid or two and learn how to deflect them. When one is discovered headed our way, how embarrassing it would be for us big-brained, opposable-thumbed humans to meet the same fate as the proverbially pea-brained dinosaurs. We should drill through the kilometers of ice on Jupiter’s moon Europa and explore its subsurface liquid ocean for living organisms. We should explore Pluto and its newly discovered family of orbiting icy bodies in the outer solar system—they contain clues to our planetary origins. We should probe Venus and its atmosphere. Its runaway greenhouse effect tells us that something went horribly wrong. Using people as well as robots, no part of the solar system should sit beyond our reach. No part of the universe should hide from our telescopes, launched into orbit around Earth, the Sun, and elsewhere.

With mission plans and projects such as these, I, as an educator, can guarantee you an academic pipeline stoked with the best and the brightest, biologists, chemists, physicists, geologists, astrophysicists, and engineers. And yes, they will collectively form a new kind of silo—one filled with intellectual capital—that will be available when called, just as the nation’s best have come when called before.

To die on the frontier without hope that others will follow, because nobody would write the check, is to move backwards just by standing still. None of us want our descendants to reflect fondly on a time-passed when America once shined in the timeline of cosmic discovery.