Book Talk: The case for a U.S. mission to Mars

NEW YORK Thu Mar 8, 2012 5:55am EST

A proposed Discovery Mission concept led by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to investigate the formation and evolution of terrestrial planets by studying the deep interior of Mars now has a new name, InSight, and is seen in this artist's rendering released February 28, 2012.REUTERS/NASA/Handout

A proposed Discovery Mission concept led by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to investigate the formation and evolution of terrestrial planets by studying the deep interior of Mars now has a new name, InSight, and is seen in this artist's rendering released February 28, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/NASA/Handout

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Americans have forgotten how to dream about the future in the nearly four decades since they last set foot on the moon, and risk falling behind economic rivals such as China, according to a new book.

In "Space Chronicles," astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York's Hayden Planetarium, calls for doubling the budget of The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and argues that a country's ambitions in space go hand-in-hand with its long-term economic success.

The U.S. space program may be past its glory days but the investment in science and technology that culminated in the moon landings had tangible effects, from medical scanners to iPads.

Europe has embraced scientific research and most of China's leaders have scientific training, says Tyson, who is creating a new version of the "Cosmos" television series for Fox. An ambitious U.S. space program, including a crewed mission to Mars, would pay economic dividends for generations.

Q: What's the gist of your argument?

A: "Innovations in science and technology are the engines of tomorrow's economy. They've been the engines of economies since the dawn of the industrial revolution. The extent to which those activities are not embraced by the culture is the measure of how quickly (the United States) will fade from the world stage and from the economic strength that we in America once took for granted."

Q: Some of your book reads like a lament for a bygone era.

A: "Yes. It's a lament. It's a reality check on the mismatch between where everybody thought we would be in space today and where we are, and how to do something about that.

"America has forgotten what it means to dream. You might remember an era where you wouldn't have to wait very long for an article in the paper about the city of tomorrow, the transport of tomorrow, the food of tomorrow. Tomorrow was a place we were inventing. And we knew implicitly that the people inventing that tomorrow were the scientists, the technologists, the engineers. That era coincided with the Apollo era."

Q: So today's America would not nurture a Steve Jobs?

A: "Consider Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were 14 and 15 when we landed on the moon -- very impressionable ages. We cannot underestimate the impact of that force. All the greatest achievers in the world at some point were self-driven, they were obsessed by something. I see no greater force operating on those ambitions (than) a fully-funded space program. You then breed back into the population a generation of people who not only want to dream but have the power to make it happen.

"When Einstein wrote down the equation for the stimulated emission of radiation, he was not thinking about laser barcodes, he was not thinking Lasik surgery. The algorithms that make the procedure safe and cheap came directly from the docking of the space shuttle to the space station."

Q: Does it have to be a government program? President Obama's latest budget cuts NASA funding, but you have private entrepreneurs in space these days, like Richard Branson.

A: "Private enterprise will be there but it will not lead our frontier in space. There is no precedent in the history of culture for private enterprise to lead an expensive, ambitious, risky project, because you cannot value it in capital markets. Governments have led those missions. The Columbus voyage was not private enterprise, it was government. Magellan was government. Lewis and Clark was government. Private enterprise came in once the maps were drawn, once the risks were assessed."

Q: Does a weak economy make it harder to seek more funding?

A: "NASA's budget, which is currently small, would still be small if you doubled it. We are worried about jobs going overseas and unemployment and we are in an economic doldrum. 'Doldrum' is charitable. We're in an economic toilet. A reinvestment in the space frontier will reconnect all the missing links. The next generation of space exploration will involve geologists and biologists and chemists and mechanical engineers and electrical engineers. When they come out the other end of the pipeline, there's a place to apply their innovations.

"Right now we have no such ambitions. We're not dreaming about the future and there are people questioning the value of science in their lives. That is the recipe for disaster. If you plan a mission to Mars and select the new astronaut class, you'll change the attitude and the mood of the country."

Q: Would a Taikonaut landing on the Moon transcend politics?

A: "A more interesting step would be if China decides to set up colonies on Mars. A vastly more interesting step than that is, if they decide to set up a military base on Mars. We'd be on Mars in two years."

Q: Was the Apollo program a reaction, too?

A: "It was war. Period. In Kennedy's moon speech in Congress, two paragraphs earlier he talks about the path of freedom over the path of tyranny. It was a battle cry against communism. Then he said, 'Let's go to the Moon' -- and the checks started getting written.

"The military now doesn't care much about Mars. It cares about cis-lunar space, the zone between Earth and the moon's orbit. (That's) the next military high ground."

(Reporting By Nick Zieminski in New York)

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