The astrophysicist and prolific science writer Neil deGrasse Tyson, popularly hailed as the intellectual heir of the late Carl Sagan, has recently published a collection of essays and interviews, entitled “Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier” (W. W. Norton, Feb. 2012). In a style reminiscent of the bestselling “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman,” “Space Chronicles” discusses such varied topics as the history and future of space exploration, the state of science education in the United States and the continued relevance of NASA in today’s political discourse.
The anthology presents a compelling case for continued government investment in NASA and a cautiously optimistic outlook on human space exploration. Given the cancellation of the shuttle program and the increased reliance on private enterprise to achieve even suborbital spaceflight, such visionaries are ever more crucial in keeping our dreams of the cosmos alive; Tyson, in “Space Chronicles,” proves himself a formidable champion of the cause.
Tyson delivers lucid analysis on the motivations that drive exploration, namely war, economic gain, and curiosity. This last, he argues, is what makes the National Air and Space Museum one of the most popular tourist attractions in Washington, and brings eager audiences to the American Museum of Natural History—where he is director of the Hayden Planetarium—whenever an astronaut is slated to lecture. The allure of the great unknown, the final frontier, is more powerful than that of any other natural phenomenon.
Such fascination, however, is not enough when faced with the realities of budget constraints and governmental turnover. His anthology takes readers on a vivid journey back to the days of the space race under President Kennedy, when every Soviet technological success was seen as a blow to American pride and a threat to national security; the government spent millions on human spaceflight, and science-fiction writers predicted space colonies on Mars and beyond. He holds out the possibility that with China and other nations catching up to the United States, perhaps our Cold War-era competitive drive will kick in to save NASA.
Tyson also tackles, quite ambitiously, the problem of science and engineering education in the United States. In the space race era, astronauts were lauded as national heroes, and shuttle launches were broadcast in every school cafeteria, generating unprecedented enthusiasm for engineering and the hard sciences among the nation’s youth.
In a particularly farsighted line of argumentation, Tyson contends that the nation needs, now more than ever, a similar symbol of human scientific achievement—and that a robust space program is the best way to fill the gap. The cost to the nation—a fraction of a penny of every tax dollar—is negligible compared to the military’s annual budget, he observes, and would produce greater returns in terms of research and development on related technologies. He cites a wide array of inventions, ranging from biomedical to automotive technologies, that originated in NASA research. Such cross-pollination between disciplines, Tyson argues, is central to continued American innovation. He writes, “For the U.S. space program to die along with the crew of the space shuttle Columbia—because nobody is willing to write the check to keep it going—would be to move backward just by standing still.”
“Space Chronicles” is an extremely literate, timely and convincing defense of the value of a particular American dream. Tyson argues that it is in our nature to explore, to face that final frontier with all the courage that our ancestors marshaled in crossing the Atlantic, and that the best investment our government could make toward the future of our country, and indeed the world, would be to fund the manifestation of our hopes and dreams.