Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Space as Culture Speech

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Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Space as Culture Speech


I'm telling you that the man space program is a force on the educational pipeline of America. It is the force that excites people want to become scientists in the first place. This is not just for America, this is deeply embedded in our DNA as human beings, we have been exploring ever since we left the cave. Not everyone leaves the cave, but those that do make great discoveries.

The 850 billion dollar bailout of the banks? That sum of money is greater than the entire 50 year running budget of NASA. So when someone says we don’t have enough money for the space program I say no, it's just that the distribution of money you are spending is warped, in a way that you are removing the only thing that gives people something to dream and hope about tomorrow.

Let me make sure we are all on the same pager. Space, is a 3 billion dollar industry worldwide. NASA is actually only a tiny percentage of that. Interesting how smaller percentage NASA is to the total world spending. That little bit, however, is what inspires dreams. Every corporation in here with representatives in here, if you ever touched a science mission you would lead off with that in your quarterly reports, because it inspires, it is the act of discovery that empowers nations in the world to undertake these activities. We know this.

Here’s the problem. As far as I can judge people outside the space community see the space community by and large as special interest group. In the following way. So moneys get distributed to districts, so representatives fight for that money so they can get special interest in their district. How much fighting do other representatives do for NASA or space industry, if they don’t space industry or a NASA centre in their district; hardly at all.

So NASA is kind of lucky that it’s got ten centres across eight states.

It’s not clear what NASA survival factor would have been over the decades if it didn't have that breadth of representation, not only that but those states in which it is represented typically flip back and forth between republican or democrat. So if you look at the balance over the years it's typically about 50/50. So there is even partisan balance between the parties when it's there, but none the less it is seen as special interest.

And here what’s interesting. There’s space tapped heavily in the service of the military, there's space tapped heavily in terms of weather satellites and communication. But you know something? If you do your job perfectly it’s the kind of job where nobody notices. If we are protected by a web of space Borne military satellites and we are not attacked, that goes unnoticed. If we are using GPS and we are driving down the road and it's working, we are trying to find our destination, nobody is thinking about satellites. They are just thinking did I get to my destination on time.

It's like shaving. No one will come up to you and say “hey you shaved real well today!” The act of doing it perfectly is the measure of it going unnoticed. Mowing your lawn, you can mow your lawn perfectly, that means nobody is going to notice it. So there is a hidden dimension that space plays in our culture that nobody notices, or at least is just taken for granted.

I have more evidence of this.

I recently delivered a testimony to the senate to the subcommittee on commerce transportation and science. It was about NASA, really about space and our ambitions. That committee has two dozen senators, three showed up. That’s in my expectation that not a complaint I’m launching here it’s an observation I’m sharing with you. Who were those three senators? Senators with the three most important NASA headquarters in their state. To me that's a measure that the senate thinks of space as special interest, as only the senators that had direct interest were there for the hearing.

And I kept thinking to myself; really that’s not who I should be speaking to. You guys stay home, bring me everybody else who doesn't understand what the role of this epic adventure is. Fortunately somebody later posted the video on YouTube, thus it’s reaching the people for whom the senate and congress and president works. The president works for us. Congress works for us. So when someone asks me if I want access to a senator, I say no, give me access to the people.

So that's actually not what I came here to talk about.

I want to talk about space, not as spin offs, not as weather satellites, no.

I want to talk to you about space as culture.

Space, as culture.

You know the first hunk of hardware that had the power to exit earth atmosphere was the V2 rocket. Verner Von Brown and everyone knew that if we have any future in space it will have to borrow some of that technology if not all of it.

The 1950s descends upon us. You remember the v2 rocket, it was kind of bullet shaped, had these huge fins? Fins. CARS had fins in the 1950s! Where do you think those fins came from? I propose a test, you could probably dig up the designers of those cars and they would probably just say “well fins just look cool” they are probably not even thinking about the v2 rocket, even if they are it's probably not in their frontal lobe. But our cars had fins. When did the fins go away? When we learned that the v2 shape and the fins is not the shape we are going to need to get to the moon.

Saturn five emerges, the fins go away. What happened to the fins? So maybe the designer thought it's played itself out. Or maybe deep down inside space was operating on their creativity.

So what happens, the 60s are underway. We are going to the moon, everybody knows it. Everyone is innovating, we have an innovative culture, and you know this because every day a space story garners the headlines. Something new to think about daily. Each mission previously more adventurous than the previous one.

So when did we go to the moon? That was 1968. Everyone was dreaming about tomorrow, that’s what the world fair was all about. It wasn't about yesterday, or today, but about tomorrow. The kind of tomorrow that could only be brought into the present by scientists and engineers. And people knew this.

How else is space influencing, ok how about the uni-sphere. Gorgeous Earth just sitting there. It's got three rings around it. Ask the designers, they will probably say that the three orbits of John Glenn did not influence them, but the rings are there, and they are going polar, not equatorial.

The 1960s is the bloodiest decade in American history since the civil war since the 1860s. Servicemen are killed weekly, reported in by the papers, the civil rights movement playing out, campus unrest.

The bloodiest year in that most bloody of decades? 1968. The Tet offensive. Martin Luther King assassinated. JFK assassinated. Yet somehow we were still able to dream about tomorrow. It was still in us, it still mattered. It's what birthed the star trek television series.

The twilight zone was also heavily influenced by space. Our presence in space is effecting not only the engineers and the mathematicians and the scientists, it's effecting the creative dimension of that which we call culture. We are living it at every turn. Hardly what I would call special interest.

What happens December 1968, how do you cap off that year? Apollo 8. A lot of people have never heard of it, it's a very unappreciated mission. Excuse me that was the first time anyone ever left Earth, with a destination in mind. Figurating around the moon. The photo of Earth rising over the lunar landscape is iconic.

That photo, we all know it, Earth Rise over the Moon. There was Earth, not as the map maker would have you identify to it as, and no it was not colour coded with boundaries. It was seen as nature intended it to be viewed. Oceans, land, clouds.

We went to the moon; and we discovered Earth.

And I claim we discovered Earth for the first time.

How does that effect culture? I've got a list. You could probably take apart this list and probably come up with an explanation for each and reference a reason not related to space. You could probably do that. But I take a step back and look at that list and say, wait a minute, how is it.

Let’s back up to 1962, Rachael Carlson publishes silent spring. The green movement typically credits that as the birth of ecology, the birth of caring about the environment, it was a bestselling book. I have a different view, maybe it planted a few seeds and tilled the landscape; but stuff did not really start happening until that photo of Earth rise over the moon was published.

1968, the whole Earth catalogue was published. There is a version before that version was printed, but since that picture it was the entire identifying cover for the preceding releases. Thinking of Earth as a whole, not thinking about the Earth not as a place where nations war, but as a whole.

Seven months later we land on the moon. In 1970 we are still going to the moon, we are still going till 1972, so watch these sequence of events. In 1970, the comprehensive Clean Air Act is passed. There were two other versions of that before in the 60's, but the most important rendering of that act came in 1970. Earth day was birthed in March 1970. The environmental protection agency was founded in 1970. The Hellstrom chronicle was the first documentary to hit the cinemas, it was a scare movie about insects, but it got us thinking. The organization Doctors Without Borders was founded in 1971. WHERE DO YOU EVEN GET THAT PHRASE FROM?! No one thought of that phrase before that photo was published. Because every globe in your classroom has countries painted on it.

DDT gets banned in 1972, we are still going to the moon we’re still looking back at Earth. The clean water act 1971, 1972 the endangered species act, the catalytic converted gets put in in 1973, and unleaded gas gets introduced in 1973. We are still at war in Vietnam, there is still campus unrest, yet we found the time to start thinking about Earth. That is space operating on our culture and you cannot even put a price on that. That is a nation and world reacting to a new perspective about what it is to be alive on this planet we all share.

And out of that era and entire generation of people, they think they feel they intellectualize about space, we see it in the art, the movies, the science, storytellers. That's because the space frontier was crossed weekly. You know back then you didn't need special programs to convince people that engineering and maths are useful to society, because the headlines that were writ large in that era had built into them that innovation created those headlines. Innovation brought to you by a community of scientists engineers and mathematicians.

So what happens? The mid 1970's come, it all ends. I have a collection of newspaper issues back from that era and they all talk about tomorrow, it was all about the innovations of tomorrow, the possibilities, the technology of tomorrow, it was in our culture it was in our mindset it was in our zeitgeist.

That all ended, the space frontier stopped being breached. We did other things, by the way there was an engineering frontier that took off. How do you make a renewable spacecraft? How do you build something in zero g? That’s advancing an engineering frontier, it's not advancing a space frontier. If I may put some of this in perspective, remember the maps I was telling you about? How far away is Mars on that scale? It's a mile away. How far away is the moon? Thirty feet away. Most people get that distance wrong because in textbooks they have to fit the Earth on the same page.

So mars is a mile away, the moon thirty miles away, the international space station is orbiting Earth at three eights of an inch above its surface. That’s not advancing a space frontier but some kind of other frontier, I assert.

By the way the thickness of Earth’s atmosphere on that scale is the thickness of the lacquer on the Globe. That’s how thin this air is that we breathe, but we figure there is an o0cean of air. It is as thin to Earth as the skin of an apple is to an apple.

So you've gotta love the space entrepreneurs that are taking people into space out of the atmosphere, but we are kind of telling them that is space. And I look at earth and I look at it as an astrophysicist and see the rest of the cosmos, and I think you've got some more work to do, keep at it guys.

The problem with this definition of space is that it's a function of the thickness of our atmosphere, if we had half the amount of atmosphere you would only need to half that distance. If we had no atmosphere you could just stand there, and you’re in space.

So what are the current problems here in America? Not in other parts of the world. Our economy is in the toilet. Hardly anyone is interested in the stem fields, meanwhile our best minds are going overseas. Politicians are pretty sure they have a solution to that, let’s get better science teachers, how about our jobs going overseas, how about moving some tariffs and contracts? People are not innovating so we put money in innovative initiatives. There things are all band aids people. They don't work.

Here's what we do. And I've said this a billion times. We double NASAs budget, right now it's half a penny on the dollar that pays for the lot, every single mission. Double it to a penny. That’s all I'm saying. And here what you do. I'm quite unorthodox in my views, but I'm not trying to twist people’s arms with it, I'm just putting it out there. I don't want to be driven by one space destination or another, I don't want to say “the next thing we are going to do is go to mars”, it’s like, excuse me, how about the rest of space?

You know what I would do if you double the budget, lets create a suite of launch vehicles, with strap-ons and all sorts of configurations. One will get you to the moon. Another will get you to a Lagrangian point. Another will get you to Mars. There might be an asteroid heading our way, we might want to do something about that. We've got another special configurations of rockets that can get you there.

So we create a suite of vehicles that gives us access to space. When Eisenhower came back from Europe after he saw the autobahn and saw how it survived heavy climatic variations and manoeuvres he wanted one in this country. Did he say I want to build a road from New York to LA, because that's where you should go? No. The interstate system connects everybody in whichever way you want. / That’s how you grow a system. Hell, I’m going to discriminate, if there is a military reason to go the the moon we have the launch vehicles to do it, if there is a tourist reason that’s another one, if scientists or biologists want to study life on mars they can do that, you want to mine the moon that's another one.

Everyone’s space interests get served by this capacity. And when you do this you guarantee that you are advancing a space frontier every week, and as you do this I can guarantee there will be innovative new headlines 'Astronauts found a way to extract rocket fuel and water from rocks on mars' we now have a filling station on mars so you don't have to carry all the fuel with you. We are mining helium three on the lunar surface, I'm not sure if it's cheap enough to bring it back to Earth but set it up somewhere else, in a nuclear reactor in space.

Whatever the motives, be they geopolitical, military, economic, space becomes the frontier, and you know every week that some new innovation is going to be proposed, new patents are going to accepted. Space is exciting. These innovations make headlines, and these articles filter down the educational pipeline, everybody in school knows about it. You don't have to set up programs to convince people that being an engineer is cool, they will know it just by the cultural presence of those activities.

You do that it will jump start our dreams. And you know that innovation drives economies, especially true since the industrial revolution.

Double NASAs budget, it’s not a handout, that’s what everyone thinks today, 'it's a handout for special interest'. You know what Mitt Romney got wrong when he had a go at Neuit Gingringe for pandering to Florida by saying all these nice things for NASA. If you went to New Hampshire you would be saying something different about what they want. There is a deep misunderstanding there. The very statement that talking about NASA is pandering omits the fact that NASA DRIVES our economy. The culture of NASA drives the culture of innovation, and it's the culture of innovation that drives the economies in the 21st century. That’s what is missing.

Even if there is pork spending on NASA what comes out of that spending benefits the nation in ways that a power plant or bridge or road does not. I can be honest about that, because you’re in it and you’re too close for objectivity. You know what happens? The jobs do not go overseas, you do not have to set up tax benefits, because we are innovating and they have not found out how to do it yet. They will eventually catch up, Fine hand it to them. You cannot simultaneously assert that we are in a global economy and then cry foul when a corporation takes jobs overseas. That's kind of how it works.

So the solution is not just trying to prevent that with laws, you innovate so it doesn't happen in the first place. Teacher training? We need that, it's a necessary but insufficient condition to make this happen. You can have an awesome teacher in high-school, now you want to be a scientist, but you come out the other end of that pipeline and what do you do? We lost an entire generation of scientists and smart people who became investment bankers and lawyers as there was no place to take their interest in science. If we have big bold ambitious projects you get them all.

Especially since the NASA portfolio includes biologists, we are looking for life. Geologists. Chemists. Astrophysicists. The NASA portfolio touches all of these. Not only that but we need the electrical engineers, the mechanical engineers, the structural engineers. NASA is a one agency showdown.

If we have an innovation culture, we will resurrect some of that culture we had in the 1960s. Except this time it will be without the tandem offensive war.

By the way, a sneaky thought, if China wants to put military bases on Mars, we will be there in ten months. You just have to leak that memo. Doesn't even have to be true. One month to fund design and build the craft, we will be on mars in nine months. We already understand our resolve when we feel threatened.

That mentality will remain, the difference is we need to look at NASA not as a handout, but as an investment.

Because I can tell you, that as goes the health of space fairing ambitions, so to goes the spiritual, the emotional, the intellectual, the creative and the economic ambitions of a nation.

So goes the future of America.

Thank you.

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