The Final Frontier
Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium, is clearly a scientist with a sense of timing. With last year’s swan song for the space shuttle program (the flight of Atlantis in July 2011), a modest recovery from a damaging global recession, and the approaching national election, Tyson undoubtedly knew that this would be an opportune moment to make an argument for a renewed U.S. investment in space. In the March/April 2012 edition of Foreign Affairs as well as the April 2012 edition of Discover Magazine, he presents his case for increased funding, as well as a new vision, for an American exploration of what lies beyond our small planet.
At a time when the U.S. very much needs a renewed sense of the future, specifically of how America will be a leader in tomorrow’s global economy, it is worth considering Dr. Tyson’s arguments. They have significant economic and ultimately manufacturing implications. He points out, for example, that successful space exploration requires the efforts of scientists from a diversity of disciplines including astrophysics, biology, engineering, geology, and others. Such a “cross-pollination” almost always leads to meaningful innovation. He notes that efforts to interpret the initially blurry images from the Hubbell space telescope led to advances in the early detection of breast cancer.
Other Tyson arguments should be familiar to anyone who is aware of the competitive challenges faced by the U.S. A newly funded space program would increase the attractiveness of science and engineering careers for our students, something we very much need. By outlining the track record and credible ambitions of emerging space powers, which include China, India, Russia, and Japan, Tyson makes his most dramatic argument--that the U.S. is confronting another “Sputnik moment” during which the Soviet challenge led to the creation of NASA.
Some would assert that with a difficult budget deficit problem, weak economic growth, and a myriad of resource challenges now is not the time to be investing in space exploration. Such arguments must be taken seriously. The U.S. economic climate remains difficult and our budget crisis is really just beginning. Nonetheless, as in other areas, rapid progress in the rest of the world seems to be forcing a decision on the U.S. Will we join the emerging space powers--or be left behind?
Hopefully, the Tyson articles will intensify this important debate.