A letter to Neil Degrasse Tyson
Dear Dr. Tyson,
I am an avid fan of yours, following with great interest and enjoyment your offerings through the various media. I consider you one of our national treasures. But reading your latest book, the Space Chronicles, I came away with the alien sensation that you were ignoring a most populated resource for investiture in space exploration: the general public. Another way to say that might be private sector/commercial involvement. I got the distinct impression that you dismissed out of hand the value of private sector involvement in favor of the singular entity of NASA.
As I was negotiating the change of my teen years into adulthood, I was at that cusp as the contributors to the space program were making their greatest strides. In 1969 American’s walked on the first dirt that could not be called Earth, mostly a result of the Cold War and the challenge of President John F. Kennedy. This fact you point out in your book.
At the same time that I was wooing the emerging ladies of Bryn Mawr College, hundreds of companies were laboring away under contract to the government and NASA to achieve that scientific pinnacle. The tremendous efforts and advancements made caused our technology to dive head first into the future. From the American space program then, and in the years to follow, American ingenuity led the world in technological advancement to the degree that it made us as a nation almost contemptuous of the rest of the world when it came to all things technologically modern. I merely restate things you wrote in the Space Chronicles, but do so to try to make my point.
As the Cold War warmed and the Berlin Wall was finally smashed into chunks that many would spirit away as souvenirs of a dark time, governmental research thrust slowly traded places with that of the private sector as the world readied itself for the computer age. Private industry would rise and rise, creating millionaires in quantities unseen prior to that time, while governmental focuses on technological advancement became more and more military oriented. Governmental skunk works began to focus almost solely weapons, as did the steadily flagging number of contracted private companies. By its own hand, in the person of our elected officials, our nation stepped away from the elements of a rising technology, abandoning those lofty goals to investors and companies. With restrictions, of course. These things are seemingly glossed over in ‘Chronicles.’
Just by watching the newspaper headlines, we all could see that the once juggernaut of technological achievement, NASA, was relegating itself from the headlines into that part of nightly newscasts as “Oh, by the way.” The real stories were focused on the movers and shakers like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and the other frontrunners of advancing technology. Certainly NASA was the fulcrum, but the leverage of accomplishment was much wider than merely resting withing the agency. To a greater extent than NASA ever did or could, these people brought actual paradigm shifts to the everyman, rather than casting laurels to a few rocketeers, all of which were military. Only later, and merely as a concession to public demand, were mere citizens taken along. Even then, almost condescendingly. Space was not something we did, so much as what NASA did, was the sense created by this modus operandi.
NASA certainly gave us many of the bases of technology from which sprung improvements and conveniences for the public. Without NASA, private companies like Garmin and Magellan would not found the personal uses of GPS. Without companies like DirecTV and Dish, the communications satellites might still be solely used for early warning systems and other governmental purposes. The private sector took the basics established by a consortium of NASA and a host of private sector companies, and built on them, improving and refining them into vast menus of technological nirvana for the common man. Without their efforts, we would live in a much more analog rather than digital age. But while NASA was the centerpiece of that basic technological advance, it was by large margin that private sector companies laid the groundwork. My own family and friends were employed by some of those companies. They were given a challenge by NASA, but they provided the solutions that you appear to credit NASA for in your book.
I do give a nod to NASA as a match that lit the flame which grew into the searing blaze of the modern world. But I dismiss claims as to its doing much more than that. As it grew and became a monetary sink in the eyes of many, it’s output was reduced again and again to the point that it became difficult to count it as a contributor to mainstream future. This is not to denigrate the advances it made and continues to. The heady ideas and successes of landing on other worlds and sending robotic emissaries to the ends of the universe are certainly accomplishments to applaud respectfully and vigorously. Sadly the errors in judgment and head-slapping programming mistakes cast the agency into a dubious light in the eyes of many. The failures of NASA are, by news story comparison and widespread public opinion, as dark and condemning as their successes are bright and laudable. It’s a sad but true dilemma.
I can remember huddling with my fellow students in classroom to watch grainy films made by NASA to show off the knowledge they possessed of our cosmos. Their animations fed into my dreams of the future by giving life to the science fiction I absorbed like a sponge as a youngster. Today’s classrooms, and average living rooms, are showing high definition real life video of space now, along with spectacular animations. But to a great degree, the content is fairly unchanged from my youthful exposure. The messages are essentially the same, seasoned a bit by theoretical speculation described through highly improved and stunning special effects. In spite of having its own channel, all NASA puts out is regurgitation of almost ancient footage. Even newer material seems repetitious. In so many ways, their media releases appear to scream “Look at what we once were,” and doing so, NASA self-denigrates. Which is to say, they have done a great job at making themselves a lot less relevant as we possess cellphones whose technology is vastly more advanced and powerful than the now retired space shuttle.
A once proud and leading America now puts out its thumb to hitchhike on the launch vehicles of the very country our former advances were geared to crush. As a vehicle-less NASA allows its launch facilities to deteriorate, the private sector is building the world’s first spaceport in the American southwest. Why isn’t NASA participating in that, grooming and encouraging a new fleet of launch and orbital vehicles? Lamenting that we have to mooch rides from offshore endeavors seems a waste of energies that could be filling our empty niche of vehicles. As the American purse strings tighten in economic recession, NASA’s budget becomes almost a pariah, salvaged only because of people’s imaginations and innate support of exploration. But only to a degree because there are many things which will show a much more immediate return for government spending, and more immediately useful to the mainstream public. Wouldn’t there be a greater willingness for investiture if it meant the creation of American jobs and a future of much more than that?
Manned missions to Mars for solely scientific data gathering is too lofty a pursuit for the current monetary status quo of the nation. I hear that sentiment echoed often. The agency and its spokespersons no longer have the threat of nuclear holocaust, the sales tool of the Cold War, to leverage more money into NASA’s flagging budget. It tries to point to the advances of other nations like Japan and China, even Russia, to try to instill paranoia enough to open the monetary petcocks into its working kitty. But that hasn’t the same visceral power of impending doom as did the threats of the Cold War’s nuclear threat. You acknowledge these things in your writing.
Americans find it difficult to be afraid of the advances of the countries NASA and her spokespersons say we must compete with and even fear because most of us carry the technologies of those nations in our pockets. We benefit from their advancements. In fact, we rely on them and their more economically feasible pricing in almost every waking endeavor of our days. We admire the advances of these nations, while lamenting that our nation hasn’t the ability to produce similar gadgets of convenience at the same low manufacturing prices. Even the American companies whose technologies we embrace, a sad few I add, use other nations to build the tools and playthings they develop for us. That’s not to say that America has become a stagnant pool. There is still a tremendous amount of American research and development, it’s just that too little of it is space focused, and too much of its manufacturing arm is sent offshore to exploit the savings of doing so. That tends to leave the nation leaping into a future it’s less prepared for than it might be.
A lot of NASA’s problem is that it is so very focused on a future too distant to be relevant in the uncertainties faced today. A trip to Mars doesn’t have, and likely won’t ever have, the same allure of a new technological development that people can buy and use almost immediately. Spending money on an ethereal concept of ‘more knowledge’ is no motivator at all when compared to the next innovative feature of one’s smartphone, vehicle, or home theater. The idea of finding the fossilized remains of a fungus on some distant orbiting rock hasn’t the glamor of finding out more about the earthbound species we watch in excellently produced documentaries that mesmerize us with their here and now beauty and message.
Then again, we’re not so sure we can trust NASA when we have seen its bureaucracy make such astounding blunders of launching blind telescopes and blowing up shuttles either in launch or reentry. Not to mention a number of failures in probes and information collectors committed to the solar system. These things weigh heavily on the average American, in spite of the incredible achievements that were merely punctuated by tragedy. Think about it, we did put a pair of highly capable wheeled robots onto the red planet; just hitting the planet was spectacular, but doing so with robotic emissaries delivering photographs and geological information back to Earth is absolutely fantastic. Without a serious change in direction, stagnation is more than a threat, it’s a promise.
The change needed is twofold; the first is a reorganization of NASA that includes at least some demilitarization and complete neutering of political involvements. It’s mission needs to be defined as exploration and an interface into the private sector as a primary clearinghouse of direction. Its experience is an automatic nomination for a leadership position among a consortium of national and international endeavors. For our own nation, a licensing body with a mandate to encourage investment in space.
The next part of the change is an alteration of national focus. NASA needs to be embedded into education, demonstrating the now wide career possibilities and setting curriculum for specialties in those possibilities. Our education system needs massive overhaul to restore American students to a level at least equal to the other first world countries. As it is, we are lagging, and not by a small margin. If we are to participate in space, to avail ourselves of the untold resources and scientific advancement and its attendant technological advancement, we need the minds and trained efforts to do so. We must place a greater emphasis on intellectual competition than we do physical, lauding Olympics of the mind at least as much as Olympics of sport.
The future doesn’t rest in the single hands of any entity. It rests in the hands, hearts and minds of all.
My respects to you and yours.