The Sciences

Back to The Final Frontier

Neil deGrasse Tyson—the acclaimed astrophysicist, writer, and director of the Hayden Planetarium—lays out what it will take for America to remain the leading superpower in space.

By Neil deGrasse TysonMar 19, 2012 5:00 AM
Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon. | Courtesy: Neil A. Armstrong/NASA


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Spring 2001, amid the manicured lawns of the Princeton University campus, I was recumbent in an office chair with my mind in the universe when the phone rang. It was the White House. They wanted me to join a commission to study the health of the aerospace industry. I agreed, but at first I was indifferent. I don’t know how to fly an airplane. But then I read up on that sector and realized they had lost half a million jobs in recent years. Something bad was going on.

The commission’s first meeting was to be at the end of September. And then came 9/11. I live—then and now—four blocks from Ground Zero. My windows are right there. I was supposed to go to Princeton that morning, but I had some overdue writing to finish, so I stayed home. One plane goes in; another plane goes in. At that point, how indifferent could I be? I had just lost my neighborhood to two airplanes. Duty called. I was a changed person. Not only had the nation been attacked, so had my backyard.

I distinctly remember walking into the first meeting. The 11 other commissioners filled the room with testosterone. There was General this and Secretary of the Navy that and Member of Congress this. It’s not as though I have no testosterone, but it’s Bronx testosterone. The kind where, if you get into a fight on the street, you kick the guy’s butt. This I-build-missile-systems testosterone is a whole other kind. Even the women on the commission had it: A former congresswoman from the South, who had an Air Force base in her district, deployed a vocal tone perfectly tuned to say, “Kiss my ass.” Another one was chief aerospace analyst for Morgan Stanley; having grown up as a Navy brat, she had the industry by the gonads.

On that commission, we traveled the world to see what cultural or economic forces might be influencing the aerospace industry’s stability here in America. We visited China before they put a man in space. I carried with me the common stereotype of everybody’s riding bicycles along broad boulevards, but instead, Audis and Mercedes Benzes and Volkswagens filled the streets. Cars dominated the roads, not bicycles. Then I went home and looked at the labels on all my stuff; half of it had been made in China. Lots of our money was already going there.

On a side tour we visited the Great Wall. A tourist attraction, of course, but in its day, a military project. I looked far and wide but saw no evidence of technology, just the bricks that comprised the wall. As an experiment, I pulled out my cell phone and seamlessly managed to call my mother in New York. “Oh, Neil, you’re home so soon!” was her first remark. No, I was 8,000 miles away, yet that cell phone connection was the best I’ve ever had—ever. Nobody in China is uttering America’s cell phone mantra, “Can you hear me now?”

So when China announced, “We’re going to put somebody in orbit,” sure enough, I knew it was going to happen. We all knew. China says, “We want to put somebody on the moon,” I’ve got no doubts. When they say they want to put somebody on Mars, I’m certain of it. Mars is, of course, already red, so that could work well for Chinese marketing and public relations.

After China we visited Star City in Russia, outside Moscow, the administrative center of Russia’s space program. We all crammed into the office of the head of the center, and halfway through the morning he said, “Time for vodka.” The glass was so tiny that not all my fingers fit on it, and so my pinky stuck out. Apparently, in Russia you don’t drink vodka with your pinky sticking out. So once again, I was in the vicinity of a higher stratum of testosterone.

But I didn’t feel that way after our visit to Brussels. That’s where we met with European aerospace planners and executives. They had just published a document describing their 20-year aeronautics vision, plus they were working on Galileo, a satellite navigation system that would compete directly with our GPS. So we were kind of worried: What happens if they finish Galileo, equip European planes with it, and announce that we must have it to fly into European airspace? We already had an ailing industry here, and retrofitting all our airplanes just to fly over Europe would be an unwelcome financial burden. As things stood, the Europeans could use our system for free.

So while we were trying to understand the situation, the Europeans were sitting there looking fairly smug, especially one particular guy. I’m pretty sure our chairs were a little lower than theirs, because I remember looking up at them. Considering my torso length, I should not have been looking up. And then I got livid.

The Apollo 11 crew parades through New York in 1969. | Courtesy: NASA

Why was I livid? Because we were sitting around a table talking about aerospace product as though it were soybeans—what are the trade regulations, the tariffs, the restrictions; if you do this, then we’ll do that. There was something wrong here. Aerospace is a frontier of our technological prowess. If you’re truly on the frontier, you don’t sit at a table negotiating usage rights. You’re so far ahead of everybody that you’re not concerned about what they want. You just give it to them. That’s the posture Americans had for most of the 20th century. In the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, part of the ’80s, every plane that landed in your city was made in America. From Aerolineas Argentinas to Zambian Airways, everybody flew Boeings. So I got angry—not with the guy sitting across from me, but at us. I got angry with America, because advancing is not just something you do incrementally. You need innovation as well, so that your advances are revolutionary, not merely evolutionary.

Almost a decade has passed since that commission published its final report, with the optimistic title 

Anyone, Anything, Anywhere, Anytime

(pdf). Flying in the face of the title, page one of the report’s executive summary announces in large type: “The Commission’s urgent purpose is to call attention to how the critical underpinnings of this nation’s aerospace industry are showing signs of faltering—and to raise the alarm.” With every passing year, the urgency has mounted and the alarm has gotten louder, yet I can’t be certain that the right people are feeling and hearing the effects.

Not surprisingly, other countries have not been asleep at the wheel. China sent up its first astronaut in 2003; India plans to do the same in 2015. The European Union sent its first probe to the moon in 2003; Japan sent its first in 2007; India sent its first in 2008. Russia plans a return visit this year. On October 1, 2010, the 61st National Day of the People’s Republic, China carried out a flawless launch of its second unmanned moon probe, whose job was to survey possible landing sites for China’s third moon probe, scheduled for 2013. Brazil, Israel, Iran, South Korea, and Ukraine, as well as Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and the U.K., all have well-
established, highly active space agencies. Some four dozen countries operate satellites. South Africa has recently formed a national space agency; someday there will be a pan-Arab space agency. Multinational collaboration is becoming de rigueur.

China’s swift rise as not only an economic powerhouse but also an imminent space and naval superpower is particularly notable. Asked in mid-2011 by the Pew Research Center whether China has already or will eventually replace the United States as “the world’s leading superpower,” two-thirds of the Western Europeans surveyed said yes. Residents of the United States were split down the middle: 46 percent yes, 45 percent no. On the space front, the People’s Republic’s list of achievements—and stated ambitions—is long indeed. Andrew S. Erickson, a China-in-space expert at the U.S. Naval War College, called its progress “relentless” in a recent New York Times article.

The Chinese have three widely dispersed launch facilities and will soon complete a fourth one close to the equator. That’s just where you want to be to exploit Earth’s rotational speed to the maximum in a west-to-east launch. The country’s global Beidou satellite navigation and positioning system will be finished by 2020, comprising five geosynchronous satellites (in 24-hour orbits that keep them always over the same spot) and 30 non-geo satellites. It is likely to far supersede the U.S. GPS system on which we and the world have long depended.

Just a glance at the past few months gives some idea of the level of China’s commitment and activity: In September 2011, China’s first space laboratory—the uncrewed, 10-meter-long spacecraft Tiangong 1 (“Heavenly
Palace 1”)—achieved low Earth orbit. In early November 2011, another uncrewed craft—Shenzhou 8 (“Vessel of the Gods 8”)—mated in space with Tiangong 1. In late December 2011, the Information Office of the State Council published a detailed five-year plan listing the space program’s many goals and many successes (67 successful launches, 79 spacecraft sent into planned orbits, initiation of a high-resolution Earth-observation satellite network) since 2006, the date of the country’s previous five-year plan. The preface notes that “the Chinese government makes the space industry an important part of the nation’s overall development strategy.” Who could deny that?

China has been sailing and rocketing ahead. Meanwhile America has been bemoaning its disintegrating infrastructure.

I’ve been watching and listening as China has been marching, sailing, and rocketing ahead—and also stockpiling cash. Meanwhile, America has been bemoaning its disintegrating infrastructure, its mounting levels of public and private debt, its shortcomings in education, and its general failure to uphold the image of sole superpower.

For many Americans, the end of the space shuttle program—the final launch and return of Atlantis in July 2011—embodies that sense of failure and dismantling. As I tweeted on the morning of Atlantis’s launch, “Apollo in 1969. Shuttle in 1981. Nothing in 2011. Our space program would look awesome to anyone living backwards thru time.” By contrast, nobody bemoaned the end of the Gemini mission in 1966, because Apollo was all set to go. The laments we hear today are for the absence of a newer, better American vehicle to continue the adventure that the space shuttle began.

So I’m angry that aerospace has become a bargaining commodity. Also, because I’m partly an educator, when I stand in front of eighth-graders I don’t want to have to say to them, “Become an aerospace engineer so that you can build an airplane that’s 20 percent more fuel efficient than the ones your parents flew on.” A laudable goal, for sure. But to attract the best students in the room, what I should be saying is, “Become an aerospace engineer so that you can design the airfoil that will be the first piloted craft in the rarefied atmosphere of Mars.” “Become a biologist because we need people to look for life, not only on Mars but in the subsurface oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa, and elsewhere in the galaxy.” “Become a chemist because we want to understand more about the elements on the moon and the molecules in space.” You put that vision out there, and my job becomes easy; I just have to invoke the familiar vision, and kids’ ambitions rise up within them. Their engines get lit, and they become self-
propelled on the path to the frontier.

If I were the pope of Congress, I would deliver an edict to double NASA’s budget. That would take it to around $40 billion. Well, somebody else in town has a $30 billion budget: the National Institutes of Health. That’s fine. They ought to have a big budget, because health matters. But most high-tech medical equipment and procedures—MRIs, pet scans, ultrasound, X-rays—work on principles discovered by physicists and are based on designs developed by engineers. So you can’t just fund medicine; you have to fund the rest of what’s going on. Cross-
pollination is fundamental to the enterprise.

What happens when you double NASA’s budget? The vision becomes big; it becomes real. You attract an entire generation, and generations to follow, into science and engineering. You know and I know that all emergent markets in the 21st century are going to be driven by science and technology. The foundations of every future economy will require that. And what happens when you stop innovating? Everybody else catches up, your jobs go overseas, and then you cry foul: Ooohh, they’re paying them less over there, and the playing field is not level. Well, stop whining and start innovating.

Let’s talk about true innovation. People often ask, If you like spin-off products, why not just invest in those technologies straightaway, instead of waiting for them to happen as spin-offs? Answer: It just doesn’t work that way. Let’s say you’re a thermodynamicist, the world’s expert on heat, and I ask you to build me a better oven. You might invent a convection oven or an oven that’s more insulated or that permits easier access to its contents. But no matter how much money I give you, you will not invent a microwave oven. Because that came from another place. It came from investments in communications, in radar. The microwave oven is traceable to the war effort, not to a thermodynamicist.

Fear and loathing may be what drives America’s space future, just as it did during the Cold War. Cislunar space–the region surrounding Earth between Earth’s surface and the moon’s orbit–is seen by the military as the new high ground. Today we have halcyon memories of the Space Age, cleansing that golden era of its military drivers and allowing us to say of ourselves, “Back then, we were explorers and risk takers.” Yes, war and competition are effective ways to advance a space frontier. But another is economics.

In fact we may be entering a new age of geopolitics, in which economic strength wields greater power than military strength. If that’s the case, we shouldn’t need reminders that innovations in science and technology drive tomorrow’s economies. That’s been true since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. And so healthy investment in space exploration—something we saw 50 years ago, and something many other countries have just figured out—is like a new force of nature operating on a nation’s economic prosperity.

As nothing else does, the frontier of space exploration, which draws upon a dozen fields of science and engineering, attracts the ambitions of those who are still in the educational pipeline. It is they who become the scientists and technologists. It is they who invent tomorrow.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. This article is freely adapted from his book

Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier

(W. W. Norton, 2012, ed. Avis Lang).

The Emergent Space Powers

America has reigned as the world’s leading space power since the early 1960s, but it faces renewed competition.

CHINA Last year China announced plans to launch a space lab and gather moon samples with rovers by 2017. The country also performed its first space docking, an essential skill for a manned orbital station. China’s centralized power provides an advantage, former NASA astronaut Steven Hawley says: “If the government wants to do it, the government will make it happen.”

RUSSIA Russia’s space agency has sent regular manned Soyuz missions to the International Space Station and launched RadioAstron, a space telescope with 10,000 times Hubble’s resolution. But disasters, including the 2011 explosion of a space freighter and the recent failure of a Martian moon probe, have tainted the program’s standing.

JAPAN Since its first launch in 1970, the country has lofted numerous Earth-observation satellites, a spacecraft powered by a solar sail, and SELENE, a lunar orbiter that mapped the moon’s surface. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s visionary plan slates an independent manned space mission and establishment of an international lunar base by 2025.

INDIA Following the 2008 launch of the Chandrayaan-1 probe, which orbited the moon and found water there, the Indian Space Research Organization tested a ballistic missile-based defense system in 2011. On deck: India plans an autonomous vehicle designed to blast a couple astronauts into low Earth orbit within 12 years. “They’ve been a sleeper,” Hawley says, “but they have real capability.”

IRAN Last year Iran reported the successful launch of its first imaging satellite, Rasad-1, and the country does not want for motivation. “They want to be able to keep Israel worried about space-based surveillance,” says John Logsdon, former director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. In 2010 Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced plans to send a manned vehicle into space by 2020.—Elizabeth Svoboda

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