Neil Tyson on exploring space

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Aug. 6 2007 7:59 PM

Neil Tyson on exploring space

Astronomer Neil Tyson wrote a pretty good article for Parade magazine this week about why we explore space. He hits a lot of the right points, and he says something that I wind up hammering when I give public talks as well:

How many times have we heard the mantra: "Why are we spending billions of dollars up there in space when we have pressing problems down here on Earth?" Let's re-ask the question in an illuminating way: "What is the total cost in taxes of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the space station and shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit and missions yet to fly?" Answer: less than 1% on the tax dollar -- 7/10ths of a penny, to be exact.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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So, with 99 out of 100 cents going to fund the rest of our nation's priorities, the space program is not now (nor has it ever really been) in anybody's way.

The short version: space exploration costs us very little. Need I remind you that we are basically setting fire to $11,000,000 per hour in Iraq? When I talk on this topic, I make an analogy: when your disk drive is full, do you go through and take hours to delete thousands of small text files, or do you delete that one big 3 Gb video file you never watch? NASA is a text file on the hard drive of the government.

Amazingly, even after Neil made his case perfectly clear, people took the time to post incredibly ignorant comments on the Parade website, making me wonder if they read what Neil wrote at all:

How much longer will vital funds needed for crucial projects here on earth, such as bridge inspections and repairs, be squandered on the space program?

This doesn't even deserve an answer, since it's plain as day in Neil's article.

Another person wrote:

I am avidly againt [sic] wasting money for outer space exploration. [...] We have so many needs here that there doesn't seem to be money for.

Yup. Same thing. A third wrote:

He sites [sic] pride as a nation and the science that accidentally results from NASA's projects. I would feel much more proud of our nation if we were known for caring for our own people and not for putting another rover on mars or another person on the moon. We should fund research for cancer directly and not hope for an offshoot of something that we accidentally discovered with the Hubble.

This person has it precisely wrong. We didn't hope to find a help for cancer using astronomical imaging techniques. It just happened; a happy outcome. In fact, astronomical and medical imaging techniques are very similar; so similar that years ago I considered switching fields, knowing that my imaging knowledge would transfer easily. But anyway, this misses the point: we don't fund these avenues because of serendipitous results; we fund them because it's the right thing to do. Knowledge always benefits us. Always.

Or maybe these people are just really big fans of Katie Couric.

If you are laughing or ruefully shaking your head at the woeful pig-headery displayed by those three people, then consider this: those are real people with real (if utterly wrong) opinions. They are your co-workers, your neighbors, maybe even your relatives. Most people have no clue why we fund space exploration; in fairness most people probably don't have an opinion about it. But I bet most people also think it's very expensive (every single time something goes wrong with a NASA mission, the first thing reporters comment on is how much it cost, but they never seem to compare it to, say, the cost of a bridge in Alaska that goes nowhere).

This is why we need to speak up. People don't get it. If you hear someone making these arguments, send them to Neil's article, and tell them not to skim it, but to actually read it. Maybe we can get a few people at least to understand the real issues.

Hat tip to my old bud Dan Durda for pointing this out to me; ironically I had just read Neil's article in the paper about twenty minutes before I got his email. :-)