After decades of global dominance, America's space shuttle program ended last summer while countries like Russia, China and India continue to advance their programs. But astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, author of the new book Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, says America's space program is at a critical moment. He thinks it's time for America to invest heavily in space exploration and research.
"Space exploration is a force of nature unto itself that no other force in society can rival," Tyson tells NPR's David Greene. "Not only does that get people interested in sciences and all the related fields, [but] it transforms the culture into one that values science and technology, and that's the culture that innovates," Tyson says. "And in the 21st century, innovations in science and technology are the foundations of tomorrow's economy."
He sees this "force of nature" firsthand when he goes to student classrooms. "I could stand in front of eighth-graders and say, 'Who wants to be an aerospace engineer so you can design an airplane 20 percent more fuel-efficient than the one your parents flew?' " Tyson says. "That doesn't usually work. But if I say, 'Who wants to be an aerospace engineer to design the airplane that will navigate the rarefied atmosphere of Mars?' because that's where we're going next, I'm getting the best students in the class. I'm looking for life on Mars? I'm getting the best biologist. I want to study the rocks on Mars? I'm getting the best geologists."
But spending for space programs isn't where Tyson would like it to be. In just one year, Tyson says, the expenditure of the U.S.'s military budget is equivalent to NASA's entire 50-year running budget.
"I think if you double [the budget], to a penny on the dollar, that's enough to take us in bold visions in a shorter time scale to Mars, visit asteroids, to study the status of all the planets," he says. On Venus, for example, scientists have observed a "runaway greenhouse effect," Tyson says. "I kind of want to know what happened there, because we're twirling knobs here on Earth without knowing the consequences of it."
Today, Mars is bone-dry; it once had running water. "Something bad happened there as well," he says. "Asteroids have us in our sight. The dinosaurs didn't have a space program, so they're not here to talk about this problem. We are, and we have the power to do something about it. I don't want to be the embarrassment of the galaxy, to have had the power to deflect an asteroid, and then not, and end up going extinct. We'd be the laughing stock of the aliens of the cosmos if that were the case."
The possibility of asteroids hitting Earth is actually a reasonably serious problem that does need a solution, Tyson contends. The asteroid Apophis, named for the Egyptian god of death and darkness, has a very slim chance of striking Earth in 2036. Tyson says some researchers have advocated for blowing up the football stadium-sized object.
That could create a bigger problem, though: "If you blow it up and it becomes two pieces, and now one is aimed for each coast of the United States, it's just doubled the emergency status of that call," he says.
Another option is what he calls a "gravitational tractor beam." A space probe would be parked a fixed distance away from the asteroid. Gravity would tend to pull the objects together, but by firing rockets on the probe, the asteroid would actually be "towed" away.
Tyson admits that such a space tow truck would be a tough sell for a president asking for more money for NASA.
He proposes this tack: "What [the president] needs to say is, 'We need to double NASA's budget because not only is it the grandest epic adventure a human being can undertake, not only would the people who led this adventure be the ones we end up building statues to and naming high schools after and becoming the next generation's Mercury 7 as role models, not only will there be spinoff products from these discoveries, but what's more important than all of those, what's more practical than all of those, is that he will transform the economy into one that will lead the world once again rather than trail the world as we are inevitably going to be doing over the next decade.' "