Neil DeGrasse Tyson Seeks New Inspiration for Space

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Neil deGrasse Tyson isn't pleased with NASA's current situation. As funding for the agency dwindles, more exciting missions are canceled and public interest in space wavers and evaporates. He offers a solution: Double NASA's funding.

Fifty years ago, Americans were wrapped up in the drama as NASA pursued a manned lunar landing. Forty years ago, with Apollo over and the space race winding down, everyone was dreaming about a tomorrow where grand adventures in space would be the norm.

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Unfortunately, today is not the tomorrow we dreamed about yesterday. Goals in space have shifted and public enthusiasm has waned. NASA's great interplanetary journeys have been robotic missions that have largely failed to capture the public's attention. The one exception is the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. When they landed, the mission's webpage got more than 500 million hits in three days, making Mars briefly more popular than pornography.

In his recent book, The Space Chronicles, Tyson argues that NASA is a worthy investment whose utility has never played a role in funding decisions. Scientific gains and societal benefits typically take a    backseat to maintaining the appearance of NASA's technological dominance.

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Doubling NASA's funding could ensure NASA's position as the major player in space while at the same time recapturing and holding on to public appreciation of spaceflight. With one penny for every tax dollar, NASA could embark on Apollo-type grand endeavors, spur technological advances, energize the economy, and inspire the younger generation to pursue careers in math, science and engineering.

It would, in short, lead to a snowball effect of interest — headlines creating excitement that leads to jobs. He points to the array of technologies that better all our lives that are spinoffs from NASA. The wheels for such a change are in motion. The grassroots startup Penny 4 NASA, inspired by Tyson’s call for action, is collecting signatures for a petition to get the space agency one penny for every tax dollar instead of the half it currently gets.

Funding is only half of the equation; the other part is an idea and a solid goal to inspire and unite people behind NASA. Convincing space enthusiasts is easier than convincing the general public since non-space people, as Tyson calls them, don't feel the same way about exploration. Curiosity isn't enough, and philosophical and intellectual pursuits aren't the ones that get funding. Arguments for the pursuit of spaceflight — exploration, science and even spinoff technologies that make life better for everyone on Earth — aren't working. "We need new arguments," says Tyson.

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Malcolm Gladwell has said it, and Leonardo DiCaprio's character in Inception said it very well — an idea is like a virus, resilient and highly contagious. We need a new idea to focus on in space, one that will spread through and grasp the country. Mars, says Tyson, is a poor choice. The 20-year time frame associated with a mission is too long for the average attention span. He wants quicker implementation of a fleet of launch vehicles that can travel to many different space destinations and serve many different applications for many different industries. Just where those destinations and what those applications are remains to be seen.

Looking to the past to inspire the future, Tyson points to the iconic earthrise photo taken from Apollo 8. The mission's commander, Frank Borman, has said (as have others) that they went to explore the moon but ended up discovering the Earth. It's a wonderful sentiment but brings up an awkward question: If we've already discovered our own planet, what else is there that the average citizen will want to find?

Photo: Neil deGrasse Tyson answers science questions from the crowd at the Williamsburg Waterfront on July 29, 2011, in New York City. Credit: Mike Lawrie/Getty Images.