The coincidence of Shuttle Discovery flying over Washington monuments to be retired and go on public display, with today’s 28th National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, provides a good contrast regarding the country’s plans and ambitions with space and earth observation. Most of the speakers at this opening day of the symposium made some mention of budget and affordability, with budget dollars for NASA under threat, and with a need to transition to a next vision for the space program.
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, American astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium, gave the opening keynote this morning, with a focus on space as inspiration. He started off lamenting that the space industry is thought of as a special interest, going unnoticed unless something goes wrong. He asserted that NASA has survived well, because it is spread out among many states, but it does get buffeted by politics.
When Newt Gingrich talked of moon colony ambitions, he was criticized by Mitt Romney of pandering to the local Florida audience where he was speaking. Tyson said that this criticism was all wrong, because our ambitions in space are an issue of national ambition, where investment in space has broad implications for our economy.
Tyson discussed the Apollo 8 image of Earth from space where we saw our planet not as a mapmaker would have you identify it, with political boundaries, but as without boundary and as a whole entity. We went to the Moon, and we discovered Earth.
That image and mission had broad impact on culture, being credited as the birth of ecology, as inspiration for the Whole Earth Catalog, launching global initiatives such as Doctors Without Bborders, leading to such policies as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. It prompted us to start thinking about Earth, impacting what it means to be alive on this planet that we all share. Out of that era, an entire generation was spurred to intellectualize about space.
Tyson asserted that space spending is not a hand-out for special interest. Talking about NASA as pandering, omits the fact that the culture of NASA drives our economy. Even if there’s pork, what comes out of that spending impacts the nation in the way that local infrastructure spending does not. The jobs don’t go overseas — we’re innovating, and the technology has to happen here, because others don’t understand it yet. Tyson asserted that with globalization, innovation is the means for our economy to thrive — we need to look at NASA as an investment rather than as a handout.
Asked if space entrepreneurs will lead the frontier in space rather than NASA, Tyson answered that no, that cannot happen, it’s dangerous, the risks are unquantified, there’s no business model where that makes sense. The governments takes that responsibility of risk, then the investors jump in, after the initial risk has played out. NASA is about going some place beyond.
Tyson said that the objective is to convince the public that the right NASA budget will get us out of economic doldrums. By doubling the budget — we’re everywhere — asteroids, tourist jaunts to the moon, missions to Phobos and Demos (Mars’ moons), Mars, and observation capabilities on the far side of the moon where it’s free of radio noise. Space shouldn’t be about the political world, but about the economic benefit.
Tyson closed by saying that not everyone wants to leave the cave, but some of us do. However, those that leave the cave are leaders that bring opportunity for all. That’s a central dimension of space culture that so much of us take for granted, and we must resurrect it once again.