NASA's dwindling budget: Why has America stopped reaching for the stars?

Space travel inspires us to dream about tomorrow, says Neil deGrasse Tyson. So why did we give up?

Doubling NASA's budget will attract an entire generation into science and engineering, which helps not only space exploration but also Earth-bound developments too, says Neil deGrasse Tyson.
(Image credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team)

I STUDY THE universe for a living. I've served on two presidential commissions that studied space exploration, but at heart I'm an academic. Being an academic means I don't wield power over person, place, or thing. I don't command armies; I don't lead labor unions. All I have is the power of thought.

And here's my thought: As a nation, we need to keep reaching for the stars, to push back our boundaries and stake out new frontiers. In the current economic and political climate, it might be difficult to imagine much support for a renewed commitment to space — even in the face of a direct challenge from China. Many will ask, "Why are we spending billions of dollars up there in space when we have pressing problems down here on Earth?"

That question should be replaced by a more illuminating one: "As a fraction of one of my tax dollars today, what is the total cost of all U.S. space-borne telescopes and planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the recently terminated space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?" The answer is one half of one penny. During the Apollo era, peak NASA spending — in 1965 and 1966 — amounted to a bit more than four cents on the tax dollar. If the United States restored funding for NASA to even a quarter of that level — a penny on the tax dollar — the country could reclaim its pre-eminence in a field that shaped its 20th-century ascendancy.

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What happens if you double NASA's budget to, say, $40 billion? The vision becomes big; it becomes real. You attract an entire generation, and generations to follow, into science and engineering. We 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 it. And what happens when you stop innovating? Everyone 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.

Let's talk about true innovation. Many of our most innovative products are spin-offs from something else. So 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?" The 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.

That's the kind of cross-pollination that goes on with space exploration. And that's why futurists always get it wrong — because they take the current situation and just extrapolate. They don't see surprises. So they get the picture right for about five years into the future, and they're hopeless after 10.

SPACE IS PART of our culture. You've heard complaints that nobody knows the names of the astronauts, that nobody gets excited about launches, that nobody cares anymore except people in the industry. I don't believe that for a minute. When fixing the Hubble telescope was in doubt, the loudest protests came from the public. When the space shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry, the nation stopped and mourned. We may not notice something is there, but we sure as hell notice when it's not there. That's the definition of culture.

On July 1, 2004, the Cassini spacecraft pulled into orbit around Saturn. There was nothing scientific about it, just pulling into orbit. Yet the Today show figured that was news enough to put the story in the first hour — not in the second hour, along with the recipes, but in the first 20 minutes. So they called me in. When I get there, everybody says, "Congratulations! What does this mean?" I tell them it's great, that we're going to study Saturn and its moons. Matt Lauer wants to be hard-hitting, though, so he says, "But Dr. Tyson, this is a $3.3 billion mission. Given all the problems we have in the world today, how can you justify that expenditure?" So I say, "First of all, it's $3.3 billion divided by 12. It's a 12-year mission. Now we have the real number: less than $300 million per year. Hmmm...$300 million. Americans spend more than that per year on lip balm."

At that moment, the camera shook. You could hear the stage and lighting people giggle. Matt had no rebuttal; he just stuttered and said, "Over to you, Katie." When I exited the building, up came a round of applause from a group of bystanders who'd been watching the show. And they all held up their ChapSticks, saying, "We want to go to Saturn!"

When you take a taxi ride in New York, you're in the backseat, and there's a barrier there between you and the front seat, so any conversation between you and the driver has to pass through the glass. On one of my recent rides, the driver, a talkative guy who couldn't have been more than 23, said to me, "Wait a minute, I think I recognize your voice. Are you an expert on the galaxy?" So I said, "Yeah, I suppose." And he said, "Wow, I saw you on a program. It was the best."

He wasn't interested in me because of celebrity. That's a different kind of encounter; that's people asking you where you live and what's your favorite color. But no. He starts asking questions: "Tell me more about black holes. Tell me more about the galaxy. Tell me more about the search for life." We get to the destination, I'm ready to hand him the money, and he says, "No, keep it." This guy's 23 years old, with a wife and a kid at home, and he's driving a taxi. I'm trying to pay him for the ride, and he declines it. That's how excited he is that he could learn about the universe.

At the Rose Center for Earth and Space, where I work, there was a janitor I'd never seen having a conversation with anyone for the three years he'd been working there. You never know who's who at these entry-level positions: Maybe he's mute, maybe he's a little slow. I just don't know. And then one day, out of the blue, he stops sweeping when he catches sight of me; he stands there holding onto his broom proudly, with posture, and he says, "Dr. Tyson, I have a question. Do you have a minute?" I assume he's going to ask about the employment situation, and I say, "Yeah, sure, go ahead." Then he says, "I've been thinking. I see all these pictures from the Hubble telescope, and I see all of these gas clouds. And I learned that stars are made of gas. So could it be true that the stars were made inside those gas clouds?" This is the janitor who didn't say a word for three years, and his first sentence to me is about the astrophysics of the interstellar medium. I ran up to my office, grabbed all seven of my books, handed them to him, and said, "Here, commune with the cosmos. You need more of this."

I WISH I had a nickel for every time someone said, "Why are we spending money up there when we have problems down here?" The first and simplest answer to that concern is that one day there'll be a killer asteroid headed straight for us, which means not all your problems are Earth-based. At some point, you've also got to look up. Under President Barack Obama's space plan, NASA will be promoting commercial access to low Earth orbit. The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 makes NASA responsible for advancing the space frontier. And since low Earth orbit is no longer a space frontier, NASA must move to the next step. The current plan says we're not going to the moon anymore and recommends we go to Mars someday.

I'm worried by this scenario. Without an actual plan to go somewhere beyond low Earth orbit, we've got nothing to shape the career dreams of young America. As best as I can judge, NASA is like a force of nature unto itself, capable of stimulating the formation of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technologists. You nurture these people for the sake of society, and they become the ones who make tomorrow happen.

America is fading right now. Nobody's dreaming about tomorrow anymore. NASA knows how to dream about tomorrow — if the funding can accommodate it, if the funding can empower it. Sure, you need good teachers. But the teachers come and go, because kids go on to the next grade and then the grade after that. Teachers can help light a flame, but we need something to keep the flame fanned. And that's the effect of NASA on who and what we are as a nation, what we have been as a nation, and perhaps for a while took for granted as a nation. Today the most powerful particle accelerator in the world is hundreds of feet underground at the border between France and Switzerland. The world's fastest train is made by Germans and is running in China. Meanwhile, here in America I see our infrastructure collapsing and no one dreaming about tomorrow.

Everybody thinks they can put a Band-Aid on this or that problem. Meanwhile, the agency with the most power to shape the dreams of a nation is currently underfunded to do what it must be doing — which is to make those dreams come true. And doing it for half a penny on a dollar.

IF WE DOUBLE NASA's budget, legions of students will fill the research pipeline. Even if they don't become aerospace engineers, we will have scientifically literate people coming up through the ranks — people who invent stuff and create the foundations of tomorrow's economy. But that's not all. Suppose the next terrorist attack is biological warfare? We want the best biologists in the world. If there's chemical warfare, we want the best chemists. And we would have them, because they'd be working on problems relating to Mars, problems relating to Jupiter's moons. We would have attracted those people because the vision was in place. We wouldn't have lost them to other professions. They wouldn't have become lawyers or investment bankers or derivatives analysts.

Even in troubled economic times, the United States is a sufficiently wealthy nation to embrace an investment in its own future in a way that would drive the economy, the country's collective ambitions, and, above all, the dreams of coming generations. Looked at this way, $40 billion starts looking pretty cheap. It becomes not only an investment in tomorrow's economy but an investment in our security. Our most precious asset is our enthusiasm for what we do as a nation. We should marshal it and cherish it.

Excerpted from Space Chronicles, by Neil deGrasse Tyson. ©2012 by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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