Neil deGrasse Tyson: 'The delusion is thinking that SpaceX is going to lead the space frontier'

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Neil deGrasse Tyson is the most ubiquitous presence in popular science these days. Coming off of a successful reboot of Carl Sagan's Cosmos, he started a new television show (called StarTalk, based on a long time radio show and podcast of his), he hosts panels and Pluto brunches at the Hayden Planetarium inside New York's Museum of Natural History, and he's even been on — surprise — his old pal Stephen Colbert's Late Show. He's the kind of guy you could talk for hours with about basically any topic in the universe. Unfortunately, he doesn't have that kind of time.

In advance of a pair of upcoming live shows in New York, I had 15 minutes to speak to him by phone. Turns out, that's still enough time to cover the creation of the iPhone, our delusions of space travel, and some of the social injustices astronomy is finally owning up to.

Sean O’Kane: At The Verge, we look at a lot of really crazy stuff that’s going to happen in the next 30, 40, 50 years: self-driving cars, electric cars, private space companies, maybe even private space travel. What do you think is most important or most exciting?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: I’m not good at predicting the future, and my evidence of that was having looked at Star Trek in its original run and saying, okay, warp drive, sure. Photon torpedoes, I was good with that. And then I was completely in disbelief that you could walk up to a door and have it open for you. Just by walking up to the door. How does it know he’s there! That would never happen.

After realizing how badly I interpreted that feature of the future, I don’t generally try to predict. What I do know, is there are two kinds of predictions — the near-term and the long-term. In the near-term predictions, you take what’s going on now and you project where it would go based on what you know now. That can have high probability of getting the near-term world correct, if those are the trend lines. But what happens is, if you try to go too far into the future, there is no way you are going to predict the cross-pollination of ideas and fields that produce things that are not extrapolations of anything going on at that time.

"Who would’ve thought you could take these things, put them together, and have that become [the iPhone]?"

For example, let’s just take the iPhone. The iPhone was not something that was invented in Apple’s labs. The iPhone has a touchscreen — well, Apple didn’t invent the touchscreen, the touchscreen was invented by an NSF grant to the Library of Congress for their visitor program. The iPhone can tell you where you are on the Earth’s surface — well those are GPS satellites, launched by the military, now a highly commercialized role, initially only a military role — but Apple did not invest in these satellites to make its iPhone find where you are on Earth. So who would’ve thought you could take these things, put them together, and have that become your product.

Those are the kinds of things that nobody predicts successfully. So for me, the most fun thing to look forward to in 20 or 30 years, as opposed to three to five years, are the things that you haven’t even dreamt of yet that one day we will ultimately learn that we can’t live without. Those are the things I can’t look forward to — the things I can’t even predict what they’ll be.

The flip side of that is you have a live show coming up in Brooklyn that’s themed "Delusions of Space Enthusiasts." I can think of at least a couple things that you might talk about during that. Can you give an idea of what that might cover?

Well I think the biggest delusion was watching us go to the Moon in the 1960s and saying to yourself, "Wow this is a great frontier we’re breaching, we’ve dreamed about the Moon for centuries, and in just a few more years we’ll be on Mars and then we’ll be all over space." That was missing some important parts of that equation. You’re missing the fact that we only declared we’re going to the Moon because we were at war with the Soviet Union, we were in a cold war, so this is a war of technologies. The fact that Sputnik was launched in a hollowed out intercontinental ballistic missile shell — no one thought about the space over the atmosphere. We knew that you could control your own airspace, but how about your "space" space?

So there was our sworn enemy’s spacecraft flying over our head, and we knew it because they would send out radio signals and you could detect it. And so that’s why we went to the Moon. We didn’t go to the Moon because we’re explorers or discoverers, or we’re Americans. There’s a whole delusional front story that we tell ourselves about that era. And then, when we don’t go end up going to Mars, people cry foul. It was war that got us there, so let’s just be honest about that.

Once you know what the actual drivers are, if you want to continue to achieve that goal, then you can at least base it on the reality of people’s decisions rather than what you wish they were.

It seems really easy to delude ourselves about the state of space now, right? We look at a company like Mars One and say, "Oh yeah, totally, that seems possible. A reality show would definitely fund a mission to Mars." Or even SpaceX, we’ve looked at that company with wide eyes and only now question them after a very public failure.

The delusion that relates to private spaceflight isn’t really what you’re describing. They’re big dreams, and I don’t have any problems with people dreaming. Mars One, let them dream. That’s not the delusion. The delusion is thinking that SpaceX is going to lead the space frontier. That’s just not going to happen, and it’s not going to happen for three really good reasons: One, it is very expensive. Two, it is very dangerous to do it first. Three, there is essentially no return on that investment that you’ve put in for having done it first. So if you’re going to bring in investors or venture capitalists and say, "Hey, I have an idea, I want to put the first humans on Mars." They’ll ask, "How much will it cost?" You say, "A lot." They’ll ask, "Is it dangerous?" You’ll say, "Yes, people will probably die." They’ll ask, "What’s the return on investment?" and you’ll say "Probably nothing, initially." It’s a five-minute meeting. Corporations need business models, and they need to satisfy shareholders, public or private.

A government has a much longer horizon over which it can make investments. This is how it’s always been. And the best example, I think, is Christopher Columbus. That was not a private mission. There were some private monies in the public monies that were used, but basically the mission statement was established by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, and they said go plant the flag wherever you land. There’s hegemonistic motivation, and it wasn’t specifically military at the time, but Spain certainly had an armada to back up their land grabs. Only after that, only after Christopher Columbus comes back and says, "Here are the people that I found, here are the foods, and here are the trade winds," only then does the Dutch East India Trading Company come in and make a buck off of it. They didn’t have to make that first investment. The risks were quantified, the cost was well understood, and the return on investment was calculable. That is a recurring model in the history of our civilization, and I don’t see any reason why that would be any different from advancing a frontier such as that in space.

So what is SpaceX doing now? They’re bringing cargo back and forth to the space station, as should have been happening decades ago. You don’t need NASA to move cargo, you get NASA to do the things that have never been done before. And then when they do it enough and there’s a routine, then you farm it off to private enterprise, which can actually do it more efficiently than you can, and presumably make a buck for having done so.

Dr. Tyson at the announcement of the High Definition Space Telescope in June.

It feels like there’s been a lot more news to discuss lately: Enceladus’ ocean, there’s water on Mars, the incredible flyby of Pluto, the "alien megastructure" star. Why is that? Is that refreshing?

It’s not that there’s more news; there [have] been fascinating highlights every year. You go back a couple years ago, we plunked down the Curiosity rover on Mars. That was an engineering feat. This past year we landed on a comet; well not "we," Europe. But we landed on a freaking moving comet, and that had never been done before. Each year has its list. What I think is happening, though, I think you are observing the fact that appetite for it is growing, and so there are news stories that might have just been a little farther back in the priorities of the newspaper that then become headlines.

There are discoveries all the time, but what’s implicit in this exchange between you and me is that the discoveries are interesting, and capture the public’s imagination. So I think the press is realizing that more people than they thought have a kind of geek underbelly that is being stimulated and massaged by these announcements that are happening at a very high frequency.

As the public gets more interested, more light is being shed on some places that didn’t have much light shed on before, and that’s turning up some things that are harder to deal with. There was the UC Berkeley astronomy professor who was sexually harassing students, there’s the Thirty Meter Telescope controversy in Hawaii. These have become part and parcel with that growth in general interest in these fields, so how do we deal with them? How do you ensure astronomy is gender and ethnically diverse?

In terms of the Berkeley professor, my field is not unique in that it contains some people who transgress sexual harassment regulations or expectations in a modern society. If it was somehow more prevalent in my field than in other fields, then that would require special attention, but I think it requires the normal amount of attention that any workplace should and is getting with regard to sexual harassment. That one got particularly extra attention because he was at a preeminent university, and he is very famous among us. So that got more attention than anybody else would have if they’d taught at a community college, or taught in a somewhat smaller institution, and or was not themselves famous. It’s not more transgressive just because he’s famous, it’s just more newsworthy, right? That’s a general challenge in our society, not specific to astronomers.

What is specific to astronomers is putting a 30-meter telescope on a mountaintop that native people consider sacred. That’s fascinating to me, culturally and sociologically, because it’s a contest of values occupying the same space. Normally you say, oh, you build your church here, I’ll build my church here, I’m not trying to build my church in your church. Or whatever that is. Generally, you can just separate people out. But because we’re talking about the same mountaintop, I’m curious how that will ultimately resolve. I can tell you that — and I’m revealing my astrophysics bias here, of course, but it’s still a thought to consider — that, well, what is it we’re doing on the mountain? We’re trying to understand how the universe got here. And that’s one of the questions that, I think, has been in practically every religion and every spiritual pursuit that has ever existed and ever been written about. So if that’s not the noblest thing to do with a mountaintop, I don’t know what is.

So if you feel strongly and deeply, spiritually, about a mountain and its relationship to your culture and what it means, consider that it’s not just a piece of hardware up there. It actually has a goal that, for me, is one of the most noble pursuits that our species has ever undertaken. I’m not in the middle of those conversations, I’d rather let those resolve themselves, the people who run the institution and the local people. I’m not a Hawaii resident, so I don’t have the background to speak intelligently or with the right combination of awareness and sensitivity that others surely do who are out there — I’m just saying that there are a lot of things one could do on a mountain, you might imagine, but trying to understand our place in the universe, that’s a pretty good one.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

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