Commentary by Michael Mackowski, 6/30/13
I recently finished reading the latest book from astrophysicist and space advocate, Neil deGrasse Tyson, entitled “Space Chronicles”. The contents are not really new, as they are a compilation of articles and commentaries he has published over the last ten years or so. The material is still relevant, however, as his intent is to explain why space exploration is important, and the reasoning has not fundamentally changed in quite some time.
The book includes essays and interviews about space policy, history, astronomy and the physics of space flight. For space advocates, the book contains great examples of how to explain to the public the importance of space exploration. There is also an appendix of NASA documents and reference material.
One of Tyson’s main points is that a nation will only proceed on an extremely large and expensive project (like a major manned space mission) if it meets one or more of the following criteria:
- It is motivated by global military issues (Apollo)
- There is a clear economic (profit) case (not yet)
- The praise of power/royalty/deity (but publicly funded cathedrals and pyramids are out of favor)
Projects that merely involve the quest to discover or explore have a low cost threshold, such that a manned Mars mission is above the threshold to get funded. Robotic missions are much more affordable, and hence, readily supported by the public and Congress (to a degree). He points out the 20:1 to 50:1 cost ratio of manned versus unmanned space missions and as a scientist he admits he would rather have 20 robotic Mars probes than one mission with a crew. But he also states that we need astronauts as heroic role models to inspire us and provide the human element to space technology. They don’t name high schools after robots.
He notes that too many space advocates forget that Apollo was driven by global politics and hence was not the start of a grand era of exploration, despite having wished it be so. He then makes it clear that we currently do not have a similar geopolitical case for a $100 billion Mars program (he hints the Chinese could push us but I personally don’t see that as likely) and the business plan for going to Mars is also nonexistent. Since governments don’t build pyramids anymore, without the geopolitical case we will never leave earth orbit. Yet Tyson tries to plead that funding missions of exploration is critical and will have all sorts of wonderful inspirational benefits that will keep the US a leading innovator. Without a vigorous space program, we will no longer be the leaders.
Tyson hints that perhaps we need to redefine what is a war imperative. In the perspective of global economics, a technologically educated populace may be as critical to the security of America as a well-equipped military force. He suggests that the decline in America’s global technical leadership can be reignited by a vigorous space program. Otherwise we will continue to lose pace to the Chinese and India and Japan as they continue to out-innovate and out-educate us. That may all be true but so far that argument has been insufficient to get America’s space program into a real exploration mode.
In summary the book is a nice collection of Tyson’s essays on space exploration. His passion is evident and the ideas and explanations are useful to the rationale space advocate. He tries to be cosmic and visionary, and he presents good arguments and a forward looking viewpoint. But the structure of a collection of essays makes it a bit of work to extract a course for getting America out of the rut of low Earth orbit. I had a difficult time finding a succinct argument that would convince the average taxpayer to shell out $50 billion or more to make that vision come true. This is not a knock against Tyson or this book, it’s just the reality that this is a difficult case to make.