As Star Trek reminds us, space is the final frontier. But is it the "final frontier"' of earthbound conflict - perhaps a power struggle between the United States and China?
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson spends a lot of time looking and thinking about space. He is the author of Space Chronicles and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. Neil and I spoke about geopolitics and space.
Here's the transcript:
Fareed Zakaria: In this article in Foreign Affairs you talked about the fact that we were withdrawing from space - limiting our ambitions at the very moment that China was amping up its program. Are you really worried that we will actually lose the kind of leadership of space?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Well, yes, but more important, space is like proxy for a lot of what else goes on in society, including your urge to innovate. I mean, if you remember back in the 1960s and early 1970s where it was just expected that innovations would sort of transform the world.
People dreamed about tomorrow and who brings tomorrow into the present, if not the technologists, the scientists and the engineers? So that was coincident with the time and we had these great ambitions and a rather turbulent decade, of course.
The 1960s, the most turbulent since the civil war, for sure, with the Civil Rights Movement and the assassinations, hot war, cold war. The once shining beacon in that period was the moon missions. And everything was possible.
The World Fair was in that decade. That was all about tomorrow. So if you lose your space edge, my deep concern is that you lose everything else about society that enables you to compete economically.
Of course, we went to the moon because of a military motivation and that's why we stopped going anywhere beyond the moon because we saw that Russia was done. They were not going to go to the moon.
The dreamers back then were thinking that we went to the moon because we were explorers and if that were the case, of course, we would have continued on to Mars, but we didn't. It was obvious in retrospect why we didn't.
I would argue that today if we think of China as competition, economic competition, which they surely are, then to pull back on our space ambitions is a direct sort of lever arm on our capacity to compete economically.
Fareed Zakaria: One of the things you talk about in that article is that this is part of a general decline in science and engineering and decline of the kind of sexiness of science, but also the amount of time, energy we're putting into it. My question to you is why should we use this indirect path to science? If we want to fund science, why not fund science?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: That's a common question that always gets asked. What happens is when you approach the world that way, you find a problem, and you say, "Well, let's put some money to do more what the solution is to that problem."
What they amount to are like Band-Aids on each little problem. So today we need more scientists so let's make better science teachers. Put a little Band-Aid there. We want to keep our jobs. So let's make incentives for corporations to not move their manufacturing plant, a little Band-Aid there.
You go around and you put all these Band-Aids down, and you are ignoring a deeper engine that could be operating that would solve all those problems simultaneously.
Fareed Zakaria: You worry a lot about the fact that people are getting very cost conscience and really cutting back, and you tell the story about the Hubble Telescope. Explain why it's important and what happened.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Well, in that particular case, the Hubbell telescope as you may remember, when it was launched, the mirror had the wrong curvature to it. Images were fuzzy. So it would be a little while before we could get that repair with corrective optics. So what do you do?
Fareed Zakaria: Because it's up there in space.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: You got to mount a mission to go work on it. Be clever about how you design the corrective because that problem was not anticipated before Hubbell was launched. So you had to be really clever about what you pulled out and what you swapped in.
And so there was some time - downtime, if you will - where you could get data, but it was kind of fuzzy data. What do you do? You don't want to waste it. So an algorithm was invented - developed to extract as much information as you possibly can from these fuzzy images of stars.
And that exercise, that was shared with a medical doctor who specialized in breast cancer research, and he noted that finding these dots of light in an otherwise sort of fuzzy environment was exactly what he does visually when he is looking for early detection - early detection of breast cancer in the mammograms.
So check this algorithm, apply it and now they are finding early detection of breast cancer doing a better job than the human eye was able to do. You can't script that. That happens all the time - this cross pollination of fields, innovation in one, stimulating revolutionary changes in another.
If you only want to put money to a problem, you can tend to make evolutionary changes, small increments, but the big changes come about when all the - I'm not saying just through space: You need all the sciences. Quick note, all the machines in a hospital that have an on- off switch brought into the service of diagnosing the condition of the human body without cutting you open? They're all based on a principle of physics discovered by a physicist who had no interest in medicine. From the x-ray machine, one of the earliest of these diagnostic tools, to the entire Department of Radiology, to –
Fareed Zakaria: It's all about light waves.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: That and energy out of the atom. With MRI, the CAT scans, physicists just doing physics. If you say, " I want to be healthier, let's put more money in the medical community." No, you have to put money everywhere, but in the school system and in the culture of society, what drives ambitions?
There's nothing that drives ambitions the way NASA does and today's NASA portfolio taps biologists because we're looking for life on Mars, chemists and physicists and electrical engineers, mechanical engineers.
All the traditional stem fields - that is science, technology, engineering and math - are stoked when you dream big in agencies such as NASA, and it's not that much money. Right now, it's a half a penny on your tax dollar. I say double it to a penny.
Then we go to Mars in a big way in the short-term. It becomes a big, visible project. School kids know about it, and who is that first astronaut class. Today in middle school, why select them now, and then we all concentrate and see how they're eating well or getting through grades. That's tomorrow's Mercury 7.
Fareed Zakaria: What would we learn? What is your hope about the Mars mission? I mean, part of it is symbolic, but part of it you think there's a lot to learn by going to Mars.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Well, as a scientist, I want to go to Mars and back to asteroids in the moon because I'm a scientist, but I can tell you I'm not so naive a scientist to think that the nation might not have geopolitical reasons for going into space.
NASA was created in a geopolitical climate. We were spooked by Sputnik. Sputnik itself was a hollowed out intercontinental ballistic missile with a radio transmitter. Everybody said, "It's going beep." The military knew the implication of this.
The space station itself - the initial impetus was "Russia is building their own space station." So don't have a problem with geopolitical arguments for going into space. Let all the reasons reveal themselves. Tourism, let the private sector go take care of that. I don't have any problems with that. Scientists, send me to Mars.
Fareed Zakaria: Would you go?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: I would so go to Mars - to low-earth orbit, no. Boldly going where hundreds have gone before? No. If you are going to go where nobody has gone before, sign me up. I'll bring my whole family and sign me up.