Neil deGrasse Tyson is stepping up his game, roaring, cajoling, stomping his big, considerable, eloquent self to say we have got to, got to, GOT TO, step off this planet and go places, back to the moon, on to Mars, that we can't afford not to, that if we don't, if we don't support a manned space program, we are robbing ourselves, we are stepping on "the foundations of tomorrow's economies," without which, "we might as well slide back to the cave, because that's where we're headed now, broke!"
He's serious. Crazy (as usual), passionate (always), smart (no doubt). Just listen to him in this montage, taken from his speeches, TV appearances, assembled by Evan Shurr, apparently to support more funding for NASA.
I remember those days, when you could grow up in the "Skyview" apartments (as Neil did in the Bronx) and dream of being up there with Glenn and Aldrin and Armstrong, feel like you were living in an explorer's age, that you could ride with your heroes and cheer from the bleachers (your living room in front of the TV) as your nation tumbled into space. It was amazing. And like Neil, I want those days back.
But here's my question: Do we need NASA (or the Chinese, Russian, Japanese, European, Indian space agencies) to get there anymore? Neil seems to think we do. NASA's greatest, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, went to Congress early in the Obama Administration to say that the new president is wrong to support (and direct NASA to support) private commercial efforts. Business folks won't do it safely, said Cernan. But businesses are doing it anyway. Just last week a commercially-built rocket (from Elon Musk's California company, SpaceX) traveled to the space station, docked, and delivered cargo — so NASA no longer has to rely on Russian rockets to make deliveries. It was a thrilling, entrepreneurial, bootstrap performance (with, yes, a $1.6 billion contract from NASA), but where were the cheers?
The geeks cheered. But the rest of us — not so much. OK, the ship was delivering clothes, food and equipment. There was no pilot, no crew, nothing to see, really, nobody up there to cheer for. And if SpaceX gets its way, it will soon become a tourist bus, carrying thousands, then tens of thousands of paying customers into orbit, so what they'd like to do is make the extraordinary a little more ordinary for average Earthlings.
But that's not my question for Neil. My question is: Who's going to lead us back to the Extraordinary? Back to uncharted dangerous, expensive places we've never been, places we dream of? Should that be the President, the Congress, should it be all of us pledging to do it together, or should it be self-nominated, can-do, sometimes obnoxious business people who can inspire a team, who live for the gamble, who think they can do it better?
I don't know. I'm not sure how Neil feels. Clearly he thinks we should be exploring. Clearly he thinks America should lead. But which America? All of us or some of us? That, I think, is going to become a very crucial question.
For a taste of the entrepreneurial, CBS correspondent Scott Pelley and "60 Minutes" just rebroadcast a profile of Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX. It's a gentle look at this man who, after making money on the Internet, formed an electric car company, a solar energy company, and now builds rocket ships to carry people and cargo into space. Scott's profile doesn't dwell on Elon's spats, his rough side, but there's a scene where Scott asks Elon about Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, asks him what he thinks about their critique of private space exploration, and Elon goes very quiet. He tries to speak, stops, swallows. Pelley says, those guys are your heroes, right? And Elon says they are. So how do you feel when "they cast stones in your direction?" "It's ... " Elon's eyes get a little moist, and then, under his breath, he says one word ... "difficult." I watched this, and I thought, hmmm, apparently, even a hard-driving entrepreneur likes the thrill of a national effort, the blessing of a national hero, the sound of "we" instead of "me."
Robert Krulwich is co-host of Radiolab, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning program that examines big questions in science, philosophy and the human experience through compelling storytelling. Today, Radiolab is one of public radio's most popular shows. Its podcasts are downloaded over 4 million times each month and the program is carried on 437 stations across the nation. In addition to Radiolab, Krulwich reports for National Public Radio. “Krulwich Wonders” is his NPR blog featuring drawings, cartoons and videos that illustrate hard-to-see concepts in science.