Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has a message for everyone concerned about America's continued supremacy as a space-faring nation: "Stop whining and start innovating."
The message comes wrapped in an in-depth opinion piece, prepared by the renowned science communicator for the latest issue of Discover Magazine. The article — which you can read here — outlines the path that Tyson believes the U.S. must take in order to remain a leading superpower in space exploration.
If you're even a little familiar with Tyson, there's a good chance you'll find a lot in this editorial that you've seen or heard before (If I were the pope of Congress, I would deliver an edict to double NASA's budget, is just one example of the standard Tyson-isms you can expect to find in this piece). But even Tyson's most ardent followers stand to benefit from this read, for the unique perspective that it provides on his life and experiences — both as a member of the Bush-era commission dedicated to studying the health of America's aerospace industry, and as an educator — and how those experiences have shaped his view of America's role as a global leader in space. We've included an excerpt from the article here, but you'll definitely want to check out the whole thing over on Discover.
I've been watching and listening as China has been marching, sailing, and rocketing ahead-and also stockpiling cash. Meanwhile, America has been bemoaning its disintegrating infrastructure, its mounting levels of public and private debt, its shortcomings in education, and its general failure to uphold the image of sole superpower.
For many Americans, the end of the space shuttle program-the final launch and return of Atlantis in July 2011-embodies that sense of failure and dismantling. As I tweeted on the morning of Atlantis's launch, "Apollo in 1969. Shuttle in 1981. Nothing in 2011. Our space program would look awesome to anyone living backwards thru time." By contrast, nobody bemoaned the end of the Gemini mission in 1966, because Apollo was all set to go. The laments we hear today are for the absence of a newer, better American vehicle to continue the adventure that the space shuttle began.
SSo I'm angry that aerospace has become a bargaining commodity. Also, because I'm partly an educator, when I stand in front of eighth-graders I don't want to have to say to them, "Become an aerospace engineer so that you can build an airplane that's 20 percent more fuel efficient than the ones your parents flew on." A laudable goal, for sure. But to attract the best students in the room, what I should be saying is, "Become an aerospace engineer so that you can design the airfoil that will be the first piloted craft in the rarefied atmosphere of Mars." "Become a biologist because we need people to look for life, not only on Mars but in the subsurface oceans of Jupiter's moon Europa, and elsewhere in the galaxy." "Become a chemist because we want to understand more about the elements on the moon and the molecules in space." You put that vision out there, and my job becomes easy; I just have to invoke the familiar vision, and kids' ambitions rise up within them. Their engines get lit, and they become self- propelled on the path to the frontier.
If I were the pope of Congress, I would deliver an edict to double NASA's budget. That would take it to around $40 billion. Well, somebody else in town has a $30 billion budget: the National Institutes of Health. That's fine. They ought to have a big budget, because health matters. But most high-tech medical equipment and procedures-MRIs, pet scans, ultrasound, X-rays-work on principles discovered by physicists and are based on designs developed by engineers. So you can't just fund medicine; you have to fund the rest of what's going on. Cross- pollination is fundamental to the enterprise.
What happens when you double NASA's budget? The vision becomes big; it becomes real. You attract an entire generation, and generations to follow, into science and engineering. You know and I know that all emergent markets in the 21st century are going to be driven by science and technology. The foundations of every future economy will require that. And what happens when you stop innovating? Everybody else catches up, your jobs go overseas, and then you cry foul: Ooohh, they're paying them less over there, and the playing field is not level. Well, stop whining and start innovating.
Read the piece in its entirety over on Discover Magazine.
Over-shoulder astronaut via; Both images of Buzz Aldrin as photographed by Neil Armstrong via NASA