Boosting NASA's Budget Will Help Fix Economy: Neil deGrasse Tyson
by Denise Chow, SPACE.com Staff WriterDate: 17 April 2012 Time: 03:20 PM ET
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Reinvigorating space exploration in the United States will require not only boosting NASA's budget but also getting the
public to understand how pushing the boundaries of the space frontier benefits the country's innovation, culture and economy, said renowned astronomer
Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York and an outspoken space advocate, delivered the opening address this morning (April 17) here
at the 28th National Space Symposium.
"Space is a $300 billion industry worldwide," Tyson said. "NASA is a tiny percent of that. [But] that little bit is what inspires dreams."
He spoke about how space has influenced culture — ranging from how the fins on early rockets inspired fins on automobiles in the 1950s, to how the
Apollo 8 mission's iconic picture taken in 1968 of Earth rising above the horizon of the moon led to a greater appreciation for our planet and the
need to protect it. Yet, many people outside the space community see itas a special interest group, Tyson said.
"Innovation drives economy," he said. "It's especially been true since the Industrial Revolution."
Tyson advocated doubling NASA's budget — which President Barack Obama set at $17.7 billion in his 2013 federal budget request — and then laid out
a different approach to space exploration that he called somewhat "unorthodox." Rather than focusing on one destination at a time, Tyson promoted
building a core fleet of launch vehicles that can be customized for a variety of missions and for a range of purposes. [Future Visions of Human
"We're kind of doing that now, but let's do that as the focus," Tyson said. "One configuration will get you to the moon. Another will get you to a
Lagrangian point. Another will get you to Mars."
Having an available suite of launch vehicles will open up access to space for a wider range of purposes, which will, in turn, benefit the country's
economy and innovation.
Tyson compared it with the country's system of interstates, which helped connect cities across the country and made travel more efficient.
"When Eisenhower came back from Europe after he saw the [German] autobahn, and how it survived heavy climactic variation and troop maneuvers, he said,
'I want some of that in my country,'" Tyson explained. "So he gets everyone to agree to build the interstate system. Did he say, 'you know, I just
want to build it from New York to L.A., because that's where you should go?' No. The interstate system connects everybody in whatever way you want.
That's how you grow a system."
Furthermore, this type of capability can be used for a myriad of purposes, including military endeavors, science missions, commercial expeditions and
"Whatever the needs or urges — be they geopolitical, military, economic — space becomes that frontier," Tyson said. "Not only do you innovate,
these innovations make headlines. Those headlines work their way down the educational pipeline. Everybody in school knows about it. You don't have to
set up a program to convince people that being an engineer is cool. They'll know it just by the cultural presence of those activities. You do that,
and it'll jump-start our dreams."
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Currently, NASA’s Mars science exploration budget is being decimated, we are not going back to the Moon, and plans for astronauts to visit Mars are
delayed until the 2030s—on funding not yet allocated, overseen by a congress and president to be named later.
During the late 1950s through the early 1970s, every few weeks an article, cover story, or headline would extol the “city of tomorrow,” the
“home of tomorrow,” the “transportation of tomorrow.” Despite such optimism, that period was one of the gloomiest in U.S. history, with a
level of unrest not seen since the Civil War. The Cold War threatened total annihilation, a hot war killed a hundred servicemen each week, the civil
rights movement played out in daily confrontations, and multiple assassinations and urban riots poisoned the landscape.
The only people doing much dreaming back then were scientists, engineers, and technologists. Their visions of tomorrow derive from their formal
training as discoverers. And what inspired them was America’s bold and visible investment on the space frontier.
Exploration of the unknown might not strike everyone as a priority. Yet audacious visions have the power to alter mind-states—to change assumptions
of what is possible. When a nation permits itself to dream big, those dreams pervade its citizens’ ambitions. They energize the electorate. During
the Apollo era, you didn’t need government programs to convince people that doing science and engineering was good for the country. It was
self-evident. And even those not formally trained in technical fields embraced what those fields meant for the collective national future.
For a while there, the United States led the world in nearly every metric of economic strength that mattered. Scientific and technological innovation
is the engine of economic growth—a pattern that has been especially true since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. That’s the climate out of
which the New York World’s Fair emerged, with its iconic Unisphere—displaying three rings—evoking the three orbits of John Glenn in his
Friendship 7 capsule.
During this age of space exploration, any jobs that went overseas were the kind nobody wanted anyway. Those that stayed in this country were the
consequence of persistent streams of innovation that could not be outsourced, because other nations could not compete at our level. In fact, most of
the world’s nations stood awestruck by our accomplishments.
Let’s be honest with one anther. We went to the Moon because we were at war with the Soviet Union. To think otherwise is delusion, leading some to
suppose the only reason we’re not on Mars already is the absence of visionary leaders, or of political will, or of money. No. When you perceive your
security to be at risk, money flows like rivers to protect us.
But there exists another driver of great ambitions, almost as potent as war. That’s the promise of wealth. Fully funded missions to Mars and beyond,
commanded by astronauts who, today, are in middle school, would reboot America’s capacity to innovate as no other force in society can. What matters
here are not spin-offs (although I could list a few: Accurate affordable Lasik surgery, Scratch resistant lenses, Cordless power tools, Tempurfoam,
Cochlear implants, the drive to miniaturize of electronics…) but cultural shifts in how the electorate views the role of science and technology in
our daily lives.
As the 1970s drew to a close, we stopped advancing a space frontier. The “tomorrow” articles faded. And we spent the next several decades coasting
on the innovations conceived by earlier dreamers. They knew that seemingly impossible things were possible—the older among them had enabled, and the
younger among them had witnessed the Apollo voyages to the Moon—the greatest adventure there ever was. If all you do is coast, eventually you slow
down, while others catch up and pass you by.
All these piecemeal symptoms that we see and feel—the nation is going broke, it’s mired in debt, we don’t have as many scientists, jobs are
going overseas—are not isolated problems. They’re part of the absence of ambition that consumes you when you stop having dreams. Space is a
multidimensional enterprise that taps the frontiers of many disciplines: biology, chemistry, physics, astrophysics, geology, atmospherics, electrical
engineering, mechanical engineering. These classic subjects are the foundation of the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—and
they are all represented in the NASA portfolio.
Epic space adventures plant seeds of economic growth, because doing what’s never been done before is intellectually seductive (whether deemed
practical or not), and innovation follows, just as day follows night. When you innovate, you lead the world, you keep your jobs, and concerns over
tariffs and trade imbalances evaporate. The call for this adventure would echo loudly across society.
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Astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson was asked by a reader of TIME magazine, "What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the
Universe?" This is his answer.
The most astounding fact, is the knowledge,
that the atoms that comprise life on Earth,
the atoms that make up the human body,
are traceable to the crucibles,
that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core under extreme temperatures and pressures.
These stars, the high mass ones among them went unstable in their later years,
collapsed and then exploded scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy,
guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself.
These ingredients become part of gas cloud that condense, collapse,
form the next generation of solar systems stars with orbiting planets,
and those planets now have the ingredients for life itself.
So that when I look up at the night sky and I know that yes,
We are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts; is that the Universe, is in us.
When I reflect on that fact, I look up
– many people feel small because they’re small and the Universe is big
– but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars.
There’s a level of connectivity.
That’s really what you want in life, you want to feel connected,
you want to feel relevant you want to feel like a participant,
in the goings on of activities and events around you; That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive…
Neil DeGrasse Tyson – The Most Astounding Fact.
When I look up at the night sky and I know that yes,
we are part of this universe,
we are in this universe,
but perhaps more important than both of those facts,
is that the Universe is in us.
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