First aired on Quirks & Quarks (24/03/12)
If asked to name a famous scientist, most people would be hard-pressed to come up with anyone besides Stephen Hawking. But astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson might be giving him a run for his money. After all, how many scientists are regular guests on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show? How many astrophysicists guest star on sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory? Or dramas like Stargate Atlantis? Or tour the TV talk show circuit? In fact, Dr. Tyson, who is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in New York, has become the "face of space" in a way that has probably only been equalled by the much-missed Carl Sagan.
Tyson spoke with Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald over the weekend about his new book Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier in which he makes the case for a new age of space exploration.
So why (aside from his job) does Tyson think that space exploration is so important? "I wouldn't have known what to say about how important space exploration is if we didn't already have evidence of how important it once was," said Tyson. He cites the golden age of space exploration in the 1960s, in which the Apollo race to the moon took place amid one of the most turbulent decades the United States has ever faced. "We were fighting a Cold War with the Soviet Union, and a hot war in Southeast Asia. That was a bleak decade. Meanwhile, people are still dreaming about tomorrow, they're thinking about what a new world might be," he said. "All this is going on while we're going to the moon, a historically unreachable goal...if you can go to the moon, you can probably do anything. Well, we went to the moon and all of the science and technology trappings that accomplishing that feat could bring became part of our expectations of the future of our nation."
But what is space travel good for, other than inspiration regarding what the human race can accomplish? "When you innovate, you pump an ecomony like no other force of nature can," Tyson said. In the '60s, the American space program was driven almost entirely by competition with the Soviet Union. "War is the number one driver of the expenditure of human capital in the history of the world. Once you understand that about the Apollo program, it's obvious why we didn't continue on to Mars."
But Tyson doesn't want an international threat or conflict to be the driver for going back into space. "The way to do it is to recognize how it can pump and stoke an economy. And if you're not seduced by the urge to discover, I'm not going to twist your arm," he said. "But I will tell you that if you don't discover, you are mortgaging the future of your country and its financial health. Because you're not embracing the force that innovations bring to the economy."
In his book, Tyson talks about a trickle-down effect of investing in space exploration - all the designers and scientists and engineers and manufacturers whose abilities would be called upon. But there are many areas of research that arguably could be more beneficial to life on this planet: sustainable technologies or medicine, for example. But Tyson doesn't see space exploration as taking away from those other industries. "That's a common reaction that people have who aren't enamoured with space travel and want to keep that innovative money here on Earth," he said. "But that assumes that the most innovative solutions to problems happen when you throw money at them, which is almost never the case. I assert that if our nation goes to space in a big way, and innovates in a big way, we create a culture of innovation."