Author Topic: Neil DeGrasse Tyson on Space Mining, NASA's Future, & American Space Exploration  (Read 931 times)

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Neil DeGrasse Tyson on Space Mining, NASA's Future, and American Space Exploration

Astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson has amassed a lengthy number of distinctions few have achieved: He is director of the Hayden Planetarium and is a college professor. In 2004, Dr. Tyson was awarded the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal. He has served in many government advisory positions. He testified before Congress on the behalf of NASA on March 7 for the "Priorities, Plans, and Progress of the Nation's Space Program." He's made countless appearances on educational programs, including the relaunch of Carl Sagan's Cosmos television series on FOX. His service to the public goes on and on. A few months ago, he published a book, "Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier," which nods to one of the crossroads our space industry is facing in just the past week. I spoke with Dr. Tyson last week.
Good morning, Dr. Tyson.

Good morning... hi!

Dr. Tyson, if it wasn't enough that your job is unlocking the universe one secret at a time, you seem to have also added a certain celebrity status to being an astrophysicist not seen since the late, great Carl Sagan. How is the fame treating you?
[laughs] Well, I think of myself as a servant to the public interest. I think there are two kinds of fame. One of them is people sort of rush up to you to get your autograph and want to take a picture of you now that everyone's cellphone has a camera built into it; but there is another dimension of it that is more fulfilling to me as an educator. That's when they come up to me and ask, "Are you Tyson, the astrophysicist?"
I'll say "Yes! Yes!" They'll say, "Tell me more about black holes or the end of the universe or the search for life." When that is the reaction, I'll feel like I've accomplished something as an educator because I am not the object of their interest or affection; the subject matter that I bring to the public is. So I am really just food for them to continue their quest to understand more about the universe. That is very fulfilling when they act in that way, but otherwise I think I'm the same person that I've ever been. Maybe I'm not the one to be judging that.
Certainly it has something to do with your willingness to facilitate the education and advancement of people's thoughts and what they are exploring?
Well, I think there is something built into us that makes it easy to embrace cosmic discovery. I don't have to twist people's arms to get them to think about this. People credit me for making the universe interesting when in fact the universe is inherently interesting and I'm merely revealing that fact. I don't think I'm anything special for this to happen.
I think it's not an accident that some of the most popularized science there ever has been -- holding aside medicine or health sciences -- has been the universe... astrophysics. Even physicists who write for the public, their most popular books are about the universe itself. In Stephen Hawkins famous book, "A Brief History About Time," is about the universe. He didn't say "A Brief History about Quantum Physics." There are a lot of books he could have written about physics... and has, but the ones that do the best are the ones that tap the universe.
I think it's really that I'm working with good material.

You recently put out a book called "Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier."
Correct, I did a couple of months ago, that's right.

You have been working hard to raise public awareness of NASA and the importance of space travel, taking an aggressive approach it seems like...
Well, that's because the book came out so there is a huge media footprint. There is a tremendous interest in the book, not only from the traditional venues that like to talk about space; but also I was called into interviews with financial news programs and political programs. I think it was because the book gave significant attention to the geopolitics of space and the economics of space rather than the traditional "oh, space is our destination; and it is a frontier, and we must do it."
There have been a lot of arguments used for why we should go into space that, from my read of the past century, have failed from every turn. I don't think the cause and effect of why we go into space have been well understood by space enthusiasts.
In fact, the original title of the book was rejected by the publisher. "Failure to Launch: The Dreams and Delusions of the Space Enthusiasts" was an attempt to highlight the disconnect on why people think we go into space and why we actually go into space.
It's every thought I ever had about our past, present, and future in space. Those thoughts came out in many different ways -- in the speeches I've given, the essays I've written, even tweets that I've posted. There are several dozen tweets in there. The tweets are like treats that you come upon. You earn your way through a chapter and then are rewarded with a tweet. What I find tweets do, for me, is it allows me to convey perspectives in very efficient ways. After that, they stimulate someone to think deeply or differently about science, science literacy, and about our place in space.
It seems to be relevant to what's going on in the news currently with the direction NASA and our space industry here in America is going to go.
Well, yeah. The situation is ripe, I think, to receive the messages contained within it.
Tuesday, Planetary Resources announced their goal of extraterrestrial mining, targeting near-earth asteroids, and possibly the moon and Mars?
It's primarily asteroids at this point, the moon is in the mix... and Mars is certainly in there; but asteroids are the ones where the mineral content has been presorted for us. There are rocky asteroids, metallic asteroids, there are actually asteroids that actually have an imbedded water content; so you hand-pick your asteroids for your needs of the moment and exploit that fact with some kind of extraction method or mining operation. Yeah, it's ambitious and just the right amount of crazy to get people's attention; but just the right amount of doability to say, "You know, maybe this can happen."
Does this make a moon base a prospect more difficult to ignore?

Yeah, and the people who sort of mocked Newt Gingrich when he mentioned it in one of his campaign speeches in Florida, I think they were sort of anti-Gingrich to begin with. But space people took note it. Plus, if we have a moon colony, it shouldn't be on the whim of a politician; it should be because the people want to do it and the politician should just execute this directive.
That's why I don't spend much time thinking about what politicians think about. As an educator, I care about what the electorate thinks. If the electorate can be convinced of why space is important for our economy, our identity, and our future, then it's not up to the political whims. It's not up to who we elect. Everyone we elect will have to follow this mandate that we set as an electorate.
It would seem Americans have forgotten where many of their modern conveniences and life-saving technological advancements came from. What would you say is the single most abundant piece of NASA technology that Americans would be lost without?
See, I don't read with that. NASA has spin-offs, and it's a huge and very impressive list, including accurate and affordable LASIK eye surgery. There was a day when LASIK was rare, dangerous, and expensive, and it got perfected because of the activities of the NASA docking the space shuttle to the space station that required algorithms, methods and tools for that to happen with precision and without damaging the craft. So some of that has been borrowed into the effort of those who perform LASIK surgery.
Then with power tools, there was a day when you were building a house, there was a long cord dangling down off of you as you were roofing or putting up 2x4s, and now it just sits in your holster. We take it for granted that this thing works and that was developed for NASA, by NASA.
There is miniaturization of electronics and space itself in general, and that's not just NASA, but space in general that gives us GPS. Many people, myself included, would find it hard to live without. Go back to a time without GPS and see in terms of how you conduct your lives. Now GPS is on your hip in your smart phone. So the list goes on, and that's not even the best reasons. Those are spin-offs. The best reasons is that NASA helps create an innovation culture; and in an innovation culture, people innovate whether or not they are doing work related to NASA. The whole nation benefits. You benefit even if you're not even in the field directly related to NASA like science, engineering, and math.
Journalists, if you're in an innovation culture, you do more articles on innovation. If you're an artist, you're inspired by the fruits of innovation. If you're an attorney, you might be interested in space law. When innovation becomes a part of your culture, it influences the behavior and conduct of everyone in it. Helping NASA has just such a power and influence, and that's the world we need to think about for ourselves going forward if we want to enter the 21st century with any kind of economic strength or expectations.
This "#penny4NASA" is going around and even seems to be attached to a petition or two. How can people who wish to see America climb back up into the dreams of tomorrow best express this demand and take an active role?
I was impressed with that grassroots movement, and I think it derives from my call for doubling NASA's budget from one half of a penny on a dollar to one penny on the dollar; which would be enough for NASA to go into space in a big way to return to the moon, on to Mars, on to asteroids, and Lagrangian points. That would lead the way for what could be supplemental business interests so that the space program morphs into a space industry. Then you have whole economic consequences of that will get us out of our doldrums that we've been in since the beginning of this century. I think we have been on a kind of slide, and 2008 was the final expression of that slide.
I see that people are starting to take an interest at that base level. It only bodes well for the future of how this turns out. And, yes, petitions got signed. I don't start petitions, I don't lead movements. I just try to educate people in terms of what can be good for the country and let them take ownership of that urge. I don't want them to say, "We're doing this for Tyson says so." I want them to say, "We're doing this because it's a damn good idea, and I embrace it."
So the "#penny4NASA" as the expression of this initiative and interest, so I think it's great and it should continue if we care about the health of our economy going forward.
Most recently, the carbon nanotube biocapsule was created by NASA. This was originally created to deal with radiation poisoning for the extended trip astronauts but almost immediately, its terrestrial application has become numerous, including a form of treatment for diabetes that would possibly be management free for 2-3 years. What would be the odds that this would have been pioneered without a real interest in seeking exploration on Mars?
What you don't know in advance is what a new discovery in the hands of a clever person becomes. About 80 years ago, Albert Einstein wrote down an equation for the stimulated emission of radiation. It's a really obscure effect in quantum mechanics that was of great interest to physicists, but no one else cared or thought much of it. We would later learn that it's the founding principle of lasers. When Einstein wrote down this equation, he wasn't thinking "bar codes." That wasn't his first thought. He wasn't thinking, you know, a laser pointer. [chuckles] This is not what was going through his mind.
So, one shouldn't approach this and say, "Give me the list of how these discoveries will help us on Earth." We don't know that in advance. Nobody knows it. You have to make sure you are advancing that frontier and try to simplify what could be that tech transfer of that frontier so it can become products and services that help us here on Earth.
That takes the efforts of engineers... clever engineers and entrepreneurs. You don't hide the patents, you let everyone know they exist so they can be tapped. So, no, we can't just give you a list. You know there will be a list because that is the history of this exercise. To give a list claims a level of foresight that we don't have.
I have a "write-in" question for you: Deven, age 12 and in the 7th grade, would like to thank you for writing your book (Space Chronicles) in a way that she can understand while still being challenged. She is taking advanced science and English and wants to go into either space or animal biology. She asks:
"How can we persuade our youth to get excited when the teachers are blank faced?"
[laughs] Yeah, the adults are always ruining things for kids. [chuckles] Kids are born excited and they're born enthusiastic. The way it has to happen, because you can't pick your teachers... at least not in K-12. If you double NASA's budget [and] NASA goes into space in a big way, then comes the call for scientists and engineers […] And among scientists we're looking for biologists because we're looking for life. We need chemists because we're rummaging the soils of these planets, and geologists because we're looking at the rock formations. We need structural engineers, mechanical engineers, aerospace engineers, and of course mathematicians. These are great adventures that will be conducted daily with headlines weekly. The kids see the headlines, and the headlines stoke the kids' interests, not the teacher.
Ideally, you want a good teacher. But if you don't have a good teacher, you don't want that to be the exit ramp for their interests in science. You don't have to worry about the exit ramps when the nation is conducting it on a large scale because it's the state of mind of the nation itself that's doing the attracting. Your interests in science under those situations transcend enthusiasm of the teacher you have at the moment. That's the solution that I can see.


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