Celebrity astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t think much of citizen space exploration. He delivers a three-minute broadside against it in this video by Business Insider.
“Private enterprise will not ever lead a space frontier,” Tyson declares, “not because I don’t want them to, but my read of history tells me they can’t, it’s not possible. Space is dangerous, it’s expensive. There are unquantified risks. Combine all of those under one umbrella; you cannot establish a free-market capitalization of that enterprise….
“Those that are the kinds of frontiers that the history of governments have undertaken. The first Europeans to the New World were not the Dutch East India Trading Company. It was governments funding government missions. Columbus drew the maps…”
Dr. Tyson needs to read some history books. His knowledge of Christopher Columbus, and exploration in general, seems to be based the myths told in old high-school textbooks. Columbus was not the first European to sail to the New World. Queen Isabella did not hock the crown jewels to finance Columbus. His expedition was funded by Italian bankers.
Furthermore, Columbus’s maps were terrible. He thought the world was about 18,000 miles in circumference. Most educated people believed it was about 24,000 miles. That figure had been known since the time of the ancient Greeks. Columbus did his math wrong. Any educated person could have shown that, but Columbus simply refused to admit he was wrong. He failed in his mission to reach the East Indies, and he would have perished, along with his entire crew, if they hadn’t chanced upon a completely unexpected continent where they could rest and reprovision. What does that story tell us about citizen space exploration?
Absolutely nothing. Except, perhaps, that it’s a bad idea to hire a navigator who can’t do math. Which, of course, most of us already knew.
Throughout history, most exploration has been done by private citizens. Government expeditions, while not unknown, were the rare exception. President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Lewis and Clark to lead the Corps of Discovery, but the territory which Lewis and Clark explored was already known to the mountain men and American Indians. In fact, Lewis and Clark hired private entrepreneurs (Indian guides) to show the way. That is a typical pattern.
It is a pattern we can expect to see repeated in space. In this video, Tyson implies that SpaceX is the only private company that’s involved in space. That is far from being the case. In the next decade, companies like Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and XCOR Aerospace will enable thousands of private citizens to explore space. In the decade after that, we will see large numbers of people beginning to live in space, permanently, starting with low-cost habitats now being developed by companies like Bigelow Aerospace.
“Who are my investors? I’m not going,” Tyson says. “What are the risks? I don’t know.”
That statement shows how poorly informed Tyson is about commercial spaceflight. The FAA regulates the commercial spaceflight industry under the doctrine of informed consent, which requires spaceflight providers to be fully disclose all known and potential risks prior to flight.
The fact that Tyson doesn’t know the risks is irrelevant, since he firmly states, “I’m not going.” We like to say that the space frontier should be open to everyone, but in reality, there’s one group of people who will play no role in opening the space frontier — those who don’t want to go. There’s nothing wrong with that, but folks like Tyson should not stand in the way of those who do want to go.
“What are the costs?” Tyson asks rhetorically, “We haven’t figure it out yet? We’ll never know. What’s the ROI? There isn’t one, because we haven’t done it before, and we don’t know what we might find.”
That is poppycock. To Tyson, every risk and cost is “unquantifiable.” In reality, there are techniques for estimating risk and cost. Someone invented math. They are not techniques that are usually taught to astrophysicists like Tyson, but they are well known to engineers and businessmen who use them every day. (Once again, we have to wonder why the government and news media repeatedly turn to astronomers like Tyson for opinions about space travel. That makes about as much sense as asking a meteorologist about air travel.)
In one of his most bizarre statements, Tyson says that space exploration has no return on investment (ROI) because it hasn’t been done before. By that logic, nothing that is done for the first time will have a return on investment. Airplanes had never been done before the Wright Brothers. Mass-produced automobiles had never been done before Henry Ford. Microcomputers had never been done before the Altair 8080. The iPhone had never been done before Apple did it. Does Tyson think that none of those things had any return on investment?
Everything that is done by mankind was done for the first time, once. If it’s impossible for something that’s done for the first time to have a return on investment, there would never be any technical developments.
Dr. Tyson is not completely opposed to commercial space, however — as long as private companies know there place. “What did SpaceX do? Are they leading the space frontier? No, they’re hauling cargo back and forth to the space station. NASA should never have been in that business.” That parallels statements made by the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, better known as the Aldridge Commission, which Tyson served on back in 2004. The Aldridge Commission wanted commercial space should play a role in the Bush Vision of Space Exploration, but only a supporting role.
The Aldridge Commission said that NASA should “procure all of its low-Earth orbit launch services competitively on the commercial market,” but with one important caveat: “The Commission also realizes that the launch of human crews requires extraordinary care and will likely remain the providence of the government for at least the near-term.”
Incredibly, the report containing this statement was published just weeks after Scaled Composites launched a human crew into space on SpaceShip One.
Tyson sees little value in astronauts, either.
“You don’t need astronauts, who are highly trained professional spacefarers to be hauling goods back and forth to space. The Post Office doesn’t have their own planes. What they do, for trivial things, if they want to move mail across the country, they rent space in the belly of Delta Airlines or American. The corporation will do it more efficiently, and they don’t have to worry about the business model for that. But if you want to move to a new frontier, you need the government, where space is involved.”
Tyson seems to miss the fact that Delta and American also have highly trained professionals, called airline pilots. Operating a modern airliner is not a trivial thing, as Tyson states, and pilots are there for a reason. In aviation, piloted aircraft are orders of magnitude more reliable than unmanned air vehicles. The unmanned space community seems to show deliberate ignorance with statements like this.
And if corporations are more efficient than government — as Tyson says — why shouldn’t they be allowed on the frontier? Living on the frontier is harsh, brutal, unforgiving — the sort of environment where inefficiency cannot be tolerated.
This isn’t the first time Dr. Tyson has trash-talked the idea of citizen space exploration. In a previous video, he set his sites on Virgin Galactic (and suborbital spaceflight in general).
“I’m a little worried because people see these spaceships that go up and down, above the Earth’s atmosphere where you can see the stars while the Sun is up,” Tyson said. “That’s the operational definition of space. So, they get to say they’ve been into space, but there is no comparison between going up above the air and entering Earth orbit. They’ll get a nice view of Earth, and like I said, they’re calling it space.
“They’re taking you one-eight of an inch above the surface. Yeah, it’s a view you’ve never had before. But if you’re going to send me into space, and risk my life doing it, whatever that risk level is, I want to at least go somewhere. Take me to the Moon, to Mars, or beyond. Don’t just have me drive around the block. We’ve been doing that for 50 years. It’s time to move on.”
No, Dr. Tyson — Virgin Galactic is not taking people an eighth of an inch above the Earth’s surface. They are planning to take people 350 thousand feet above the Earth’s surface. That’s more than 300,000 feet higher than you flew on your last airplane flight. Your survival time at that altitude, without a pressure suit or spacecraft cabin, would be about the same as on the surface of Moon or Mars. In other words, space.
Please stop with this “been there, done that” routine. You are not an astronaut. You haven’t been there, and you haven’t done that.