March 22, 2005

Blue Ribbon Buoyancy

In Part Four in the series on stellar and terrestrial evolution, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium and host of the PBS/NOVA Series "Origins", discusses his role in the President's Commission on the Moon, Mars and Beyond, and the surprising things he learned from testimony presented to the commission.

Astrobiology Magazine -- Neil deGrasse Tyson is the Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and also a Visiting Research Scientist at Princeton University's Department of Astrophysics. He writes a monthly column called "Universe" for Natural History magazine, and is the author of several books, including "One Universe: At Home in the Cosmos" and "The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures in an Urban Environment".

His most recent project is the NOVA four-part series, "Origins." As host of the PBS miniseries, Tyson guides viewers on a journey into the mysteries of the universe and the origin of life itself.

In this interview with Astrobiology Magazine editor Leslie Mullen, Tyson discusses his role in the President's Commission on the Moon, Mars and Beyond, and the surprising things he learned from testimony presented to the commission.


Astrobiology Magazine (AM): You had, I don't know how many people presenting to the commission over weeks and weeks

Neil deGrasse Tyson (NT): There were even more than were presented publicly.

AM: Oh, you had private closed meetings?

NT: We had non-public briefings, just because we couldn't fit everything in. The testimonies were all public. The briefings were, "what has NASA done lately with regard to this idea of that plan," and we'd get someone from NASA to tell us what their plans were.

AM: Did you find any of the briefings or testimony to be especially interesting?

NT: Yes, something I hadn't fully appreciated was the net impact of prize money for innovation. The human and financial capital invested in trying to win the prize money exceeds the actual amount of the prize money by a factor of ten or more. So entrepreneurs spend all this money to get the prize money, and then when somebody succeeds, we've all benefited from the success of that effort.

I hadn't fully appreciated the force that prize money brings to bear on people's creativity. I had known it existed in the dawn of aviation, but I just viewed it as a way for somebody to get rich, or a way to create personal incentive. I didn't view it as an economic plan.

Rather than paying a single company to invent some new propulsion system, or some new piece of hardware that exploits resources at the landing site of some cosmic object, you just hold up the prize money and then everyone competes for it. Whether or not we'd like to admit it, competition brings out the most creative side of everyone who participates. I found the testimonies regarding that to be especially enlightening.

I also found enlightening testimonies regarding the next frontier of robotic exploration. I never stopped to think about what kinds of things robots can do. When I think of robots, I think of them doing things that are simply extensions of what a human would do. But there are whole new frontiers that only robots can do.

AM: Can you give an example?

NT: The rovers on Mars do everything a field geologist would do. Geologists would walk around with a hammer, break open a rock, test them for their composition, analyze the content, and take pictures.

But we heard testimony, for example, of a robot that could run on solar power on the moon. Beginning at the pole, this robot would move in circles around the moon, going at a rate so that it's always in sunlight. In this way, it could topographically map the entire surface of the moon. I thought that was a really cool idea! So that's an example of a robot doing things that a human wouldn't do.

AM: Speaking of the moon, since it is part of the "Moon, Mars and Beyond "

NT: Oh yeah, I also learned to appreciate the moon a little more than I had before.

AM: Well that's what I was going to ask - what is your sense of the interest in the scientific community in exploring the moon?

NT: I think it's clear that Mars is, without a doubt, geologically and astrobiologically more fascinating than the moon. But that doesn't mean some interesting things still can't be done on the moon, for example, the search for Earth fossils on the moon.

As we know, rocks move back and forth from one object to another, thrust into space by meteorite impacts. Meteorite impacts on the early Earth, back when life was first taking hold, could have easily thrust Earth rocks into space. These Earth rocks may have contained fossil evidence of life at the time. If these rocks landed on the moon, they'd still be sitting there! You could walk around on the moon and find Earth rocks, in the same way we walk around Antarctica right now and find meteorites from space.

Also, we want to know if there's any way to extract and exploit what might be water in the bottoms of the polar craters on the moon. If there is any water at all it would be a fascinating experiment to try to extract it. That effort will surely overlap with the technology to extract water from the soils of Mars, if water had gone in the permafrost or deep beneath the surface there.

So there are some interesting things you can do on the moon, and the moon is of course a much more accessible first target. It is needlessly ambitious to say that our next foray is going to be Mars, when we haven't sent people further than Low Earth Orbit for 30 years. All the cosmic objects are part of our backyard, and they're all legitimate destinations. So let us create sensible plans that will explore robotically, and then with astronauts if the exploration program requires it. Not only the moon and Mars, but asteroids, comets, and other moons of the outer planets. We should treat it all as this big science project, and the moon is a part of that science project.

By the way, before the Apollo program, you could have asked, "Why go to the moon?" We already knew it was dead, there's no life on it, no air, no water - why even bother? Yet that's now chalked up as one of the greatest achievements of human civilization. It also jump-started our technological and economic prosperity in the second half of the twentieth century. It inspired an entire generation of students to become scientists and engineers, whether or not they were directly involved in the space program. These are the people who then invent things like PCs. Both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were 13 or 14 years old when we landed on the moon. You can't be at a more impressionable age than that.

I also was pleased to see the rapidly achieved consensus on the role of private enterprise in supporting, or at least creating, a buoyant force for space exploration. I think the chairman of our committee, Pete Aldridge, was needlessly criticized for his connections back into the aerospace community - he serves on the board of Lockheed Martin, for example. And people say, "Well he sits on the board, and one of the main recommendations of the commission is that we promote private enterprise."

Well, I don't serve on Lockheed's board, but I wrote about something similar back in 1996, in a chapter called "Paths to Discovery" that appeared in the Columbia History of the Twentieth Century. I think anyone who analyzes the problem would come to that conclusion, whether or not they serve on Lockheed Martin's board.

AM: That privatization is good for exploration.

NT: Privatization is not some new concept invented for this panel. It's fundamental to the survival of great ideas in the history of America, and the thriving of the American economy. You can't turn around and act like we don't live in a capitalist society, and criticize those that are making the suggestion that capitalist markets can serve the needs of what would otherwise be a government program.

Part 1: The Origin and Evolution of Astrobiology

Part 2: Shaping Realilty Through Self-Centered Views

Part 3: Limitations of Radio Searches for Extraterrestrials


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