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Neil deGrasse Tyson: ‘How Much Would You Pay for the Universe?’ (openculture.com)
184 points by jamesbritt 2015 days ago | hide | past | web | 107 comments | favorite

This is a re-post of an earlier comment but I think it's very applicable to this article:

The Chinese explored the Middle East and Africa almost 100 years before the Europeans. Every expedition consisted of 300 ships, some as long as 400 feet with 9 mast and an armada crew totaling 28,000 men. After 30 years of doing it they realized that they were spending too much money on these grand expeditions. The succeeding emperor ended the program. The Europeans on the other hand would send out just a few ships and try to find ways for the expeditions to be profitable (Slaves, gold, land, colonies) in ways the Chinese never thought. These smaller European expeditions could not be stopped by one emperor because Europe was not a unified empire like China. The smaller European kingdoms also competed against each other. This not only made the expeditions sustainable but thrive for the next 500 years. Right now I think we are in China's situation 600 years ago. We stopped the moon landings for the same reason the Chinese stopped landing Eunuchs in Africa. Unless we find a way for these space programs to be profitable I don't see humans colonizing space anytime soon.

I think the argument about dreams feeding the pipeline of scientists and technologists of the future is a sound one and speaks to the hearts of scientists and technologists everywhere.

I know a robot is cheaper and safer than a manned spacecraft, but are we really willing to make our robots live our adventures while we sit on our couches watching TV?

Space travel has to be profitable, of course. It also has to be cheap. Now think of the price tag of a single F-22. Or the colossal clusterfuck that the F-35 project became. Couldn't we persuade just a couple nations to dedicate the budget of a single aircraft carrier or nuclear submarine to help fund the dreams of the next generation instead?

I don't think it's such a sound argument if you could substitute virtually any flashy project that will entrance children for that. You could easily argue that developing sentient (and sapient) Giant Mecha or bioengineering talking unicorns would raise the interest of young people for getting into 'science'.

I'm sorry to say that, but people are just geeking out when they say that manned space travel is worth the expense and risk for the inspiration it will bring. Having space marines or replicating the Enterprise just for the cool factor when there's so much more to do that could benefit humanity in more tangible ways (like, say, ever more powerful AI, garbage processing, vaccine production and energy production) is folly.

Robots make for great expedition R&D. They can gather a lot of information very cheaply compared to manned spaceflight.

I'm not sure space travel has to be profitable. Certainly Christopher Columbus's voyage was not considered (by most people at the time) to be profitable. Yet economies of scale could definitely be taken into account. It is often said that the computing power of the Apollo missions to the moon were less than that of a TI calculator. It seems we should be able to have unmanned missions to the moon by private sector or even partially public funded. After all were sending DIY cameras into near space.

Of course they don't necessarily have to be profitable. The Chinese continued their expeditions for 30 years without being "profitable". My point is that if you want a sustained program that will grow, being self sustaining would be necessary. Eventually it has to pay for itself. I don't think the Europeans would have continued their expeditions if all the returns they got were 100 years of financial losses.

I agree completely! I am a huge fan of Neil Degrasse Tyson and Lawrence Krause. There are far more wasteful spending that we are doing, and there are long term benefits that the R&D of space exploration will deliver to us.

Are you suggesting that slavery and colonialism (whose consequences still hold on today) were better?

Maybe we aren't fucked up enough for space exploration yet.

No, what I am saying that if you want a program to grow it needs to be able to sustain itself.

The NASA program cannot be compared to what the Chinese did with 300 ship expeditions. Maybe that would be better compared to our expeditions in the Middle East and the military industrial complex in general, but not NASA. I agree with the comment completely about how Europe won. Maybe the commercialization of many aspects of space is the key. I for one am excited to some day travel between New York and Hong Kong in a couple hours on a Virgin Galactic flight, if such endeavors are profitable and competitive then space may lead to 500 years of thriving growth. Still though there needs to be government backing for the cutting edge, which does not need to be armadas but shouldn't be shut down completely.

I completely agree. Initial government backing will be necessary. Europe eventually won because their programs of exploration and expansion continued for the next 600 years, the Chinese expeditions lasted only 30. The major reason for this is because the European model was more profitable and sustainable.

Arguably, NASA has always been part of the military industrial complex, but it's a relatively less important component now that Cold War and the space race are over. Meanwhile, overall military strength continues to be important to US hegemony.

(This is written from an American perspective, and reposted from elsewhere - but I think it fits.)

For much of my life, when we spend money on space, we get not-space.

For the money we spent on the X-30, X-33, X-34, and X-38, when Dan Goldin was NASA administrator, what did we get? Not-space. (At least the X-37 is up there spyingflying.)

The orbital space plane program, the one that was Sean O'Keefe's thing - neat plans, more capsules than planes IIRC, but ultimately we got not-space from it.

The Vision for Space Exploration, under Michael Griffin? Rocket designs that were approximately equivalent to throwing your astronauts into a paint mixer. A system about which the review panel said that "If they gave us the system on a silver platter, the first thing we'd have to do is cancel it, because we couldn't afford the ongoing costs." A lot of money, a launch pad rusting in the Florida weather, and a whole lot of not-space.

And for all the money we spend on human spaceflight, we now send Astronauts up as passengers in Soyuz rockets.

Now we're spending $18 billion dollars - figure subject to change, always upward - to build the SLS - the Senate Launch System. (Another estimate has it at $40B for development and the first 4 flights.) If all things go as planned, it will launch once every two years, launching an unmanned trip around the moon in 2017 and a manned trip to the moon in 2019. Schedule subject to change - always slipping.

Does anyone thing that SLS has a chance of working? Or is it just going to become another not-space program?

How about the replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope, the Webb Space Telescope? In 1997, it was going to be launched in 2007, and it was going to have cost 500 million dollars. Now we've spent 3.5 billion on it, and it will launch in 2018. Maybe. That's a ton of money to spend on not-space - and it's money that's been taken away from the moderately successful bits of NASA, like the Mars program, which doesn't have a mission in it after 2013's MAVEN.

I don't mind spending money on space. I like space. I've been following the MER rovers for nearly a decade. I think COTS and Commercial Crew are brilliant, and hope that they will continue to exist with a program structure that rewards results, rather than existence. Commercial space is the last best hope to get a domestic space capability.

But times are tight. We're massively overspending as is - borrowing tons of money our grandchildren will still be paying back. So increased spending is far from free.

Is it worth it? I say yes. Spend money on space. Where do we get that money? Let's stop spending it on not-space, like we have been.

> But times are tight. We're massively overspending as is - borrowing tons of money our grandchildren will still be paying back. So increased spending is far from free.

FYI, if you remove all NASA spending from the budget, the total deficit remains the same out to something like 3 or 4 significant figures.

The FY2013 deficit is $901 billion. If you remove NASA spending, the deficit is $883 billion. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013_United_States_federal_budg...

(By the way, I agree with pretty much everything in the grandparent comment.)

That requires two sign figs to appear so it's not that far off of what i guestimated (1 order of magnitude off: 9.01E11 - 8.83E11 is 1.8E10).

If i had said, "if you remove all NASA spending from the budget, the total budget remains the same out to something like 3 or 4 significant figures," then we would need 3 sig figs to see any impact by NASA's budget (3.803E12 - 1.78E10 = 3.785E12 ~ 3.78 ~ 3.8 ~ 4).

I think my ultimate point that NASA's budget is pretty inconsequential to either the budget or the yearly deficit stands since it is only 0.468% of the budget and 1.97% of the deficit.

What's your point?

Break down the budget categories enough, and you can say the exact same thing about anything. "If you remove tank spending from the budget, the total deficit remains the same out to something like 3 or 4 significant figures." Guess we should keep buying tanks, too.

My point is that the entire operating budget of NASA, not just part of the program, but literally the entire agency, could be wiped from the budget without affecting the budget deficit in any meaningful way.

I'm not breaking down categories nearly as deep you had to dive to get to your example of tanks. Looking at NASA is like looking at the entire operating budget of the Army, the FBI, or the NSA.

This isn't to say that there aren't inefficiencies at NASA that can be corrected. I'm sure there are, but since NASA's entire operating budget is orders of magnitude smaller than the deficit even the most optimistic optimization will have basically no effect on the problem.

Except, historically $1 billion for tanks today meant $1+ billion for tanks for the foreseeable future.

The actual long-term costs of $1 billion military spending are far more than those of $1 billion of NASA spending (and let's not even get into the economic reward of said spending).

And $1 billion to Nasa today means another billion next year, and the year after that...

Keep in mind, not-space is what justifies much of NASA's budget in the eyes of Congress. Not-space means R&D for the Air Force. Not-space means increased military capacity. Not-space means jobs in congressional districts. Space means spending a whole lot of money for little political gain.

> Space means spending a whole lot of money for little political gain.

But the whole point is that this isn't true. It's not a whole lot of money and the political gain could be significant. The same politicians vote to spend way more money on unpopular wars than they do on potentially popular space voyages. For some reason, NASA is perceived as a money sink that doesn't get votes. But I bet, if put to the test, all that would be found to be hogwash.

Whoever takes the USA to Mars will be a popular person.

>Whoever takes the USA to Mars will be a popular person.

The president who takes the USA to Mars will be a popular person. The congressman who gives up a pet project in his constituency to pay for it will not.

I'd rather have Mars than Iraq any day, but Iraq is a far easier sell to Congress, especially when there's no requirement to pay for it.

I'd argue however that at the present moment, some people in the private sector have just as big of a chance, if not greater to be credited with taking the US(world) to Mars.

Elon Musk's SpaceX is in my opinion just as close as NASA is in sending humanity to Mars if not slightly closer.

Oh, for sure. We were arguing within the context of the popularity of public funding for NASA, but if Musk succeeds in his goals he'll be a hero to many (myself included)

In Elon Musk I Trust.

How much do we (US centric, sorry) spend on NASA or other space programs though?

I believe it is around 0.5% to 1% of the current budget. That means 1/2 to 1 penny of every federal tax dollar is being spend on pushing the boundaries of science in regards to space exploration, object tracking/detection, research, capturing the hearts and minds of current and future generations in regards to exciting science, and all the other research and development that goes into making the other things possible. How much is the defense budget? somewhere around 20% I believe.

I keep hearing this argument and I'm always underwhelmed. .5% of the federal budget sounds like a huge amount of money to me. Sure, it's only a small fraction here and space can be important, but this has to be balanced against cancer research, and our social net, and taking care of the mentally ill, and police and name your favorite. According to wiki, the national science foundation will get 7 billion this year. 10 billion for NASA is real money.

You think "space" and "everything you listed" are mutually exclusive? Not so. Products and technologies from space development end up benefiting us right here on Earth.

Medicine? The software that was developed to do image-sharpening on the Hubble pictures turned out to make MRI machines significantly more useful without requiring a change to the hardware.

Social net? NASA has produced a crazy amount of research that would be useful to disaster victims, people in shelters , and assisted living. A couple of examples from the top of my head: safe, stable, long-term storage for high-nutrition meals; long-term emotional impact of environmental factors (colors, scents, etc).

Police: Most forms of wireless communication (including police radios) use SOMETHING that was developed by NASA -- extended-life batteries, transmission protocols, etc.

Even leaving aside the benefits to be head, "$10 billion for NASA" is NOT real money. It's an unnoticeable fraction of the waste in our budgets.

This argument is often trotted out, but it doesn't hold water if you think about it. There may be some examples where the technology has been re-used, but what's their value in terms of useful research quantitatively, rather than hand-wavingly?

Even if it's as high as 20% that can be re-used, you could get 100% of that value by researching image-sharpening, disaster shelters, food storage, wireless comms and all the other things you mention, directly. So you still have to justify the remaining 80% in other ways, the side-effects already accounted-for.

A government agency running at 20% efficiency? That is a fucking miracle.

Do you think that the military budget, at 20% of the federal budget, is worth every penny? If you want your social programs and non-space science research to get more money, it would be unwise to take that money from space science research. Much more wise would be to shrink the gigantic 20% military by .5%. When you compare NASA to the military, $10 billion is no longer "real money".

By the way, in 1997 most Americans thought NASA took about 25% of the budget. Not 0.5%-ish. So when arriving at the decision of what a "lot of money" is, compare it not to what you think but to what most people think and you'll find that NASA is vastly cheaper than the average person's expectations.

> Do you think that the military budget, at 20% of the federal budget, is worth every penny?

No, and I advocate against a lot of that spending too. But observing that some other money is spent unwisely doesn't justify spending even more money unwisely on something else. When talking about spending more on NASA, it's pretty much necessary to justify those marginal dollars on their own, not in the context of other government waste.

The other approach can be used to justify essentially any spending, considering how bad the size of our military is for this country. Almost any possible alternate project, including piling up a bunch of money and burning it, would be better than the marginal dollars that get spent on the military.

I do agree that it's worthwhile to correct people's perception of the size of NASA's budget. To be honest, I was quite surprised that it was even 0.5% though.

When advocating for an action (such as cutting NASA), you need to establish that the action is a good use of the time and effort relative to other ways it could be spent (e.g. cutting pretty much any other item on the budget). For example, I could save a whole five cents if I drove to a farther gas station to fill up. You might say, "Hey, five cents is five cents," but actually the time (and probably even gas) cost is much greater than the win from doing it. Cutting NASA is premature optimization at best.

I agree if the argument is "we should transfer money in the budget from X to Y." But if the argument is, "we should add money to the budget to fund NASA," it's a foul to make that argument by saying, "Marginal dollars for NASA are more useful than the least useful marginal dollars we spend (military funding)."

Looking at the OP, it seems like he was making the former argument, which I buy, so good on him.

You could make exactly the same argument, with the "action" as keeping funding NASA. We need to establish that giving ANOTHER $18 billion is a good use of funds compared to leaving it in the taxpayers' pocket. Any economist will tell you that $18 billion in tax revenue actually costs the economy more than that (for example from deadweight losses).

I guess you could make that argument if you liked twisting words and ignoring how the government works. "Leaving it in the taxpayer's pocket" is not what would happen if you defunded NASA. The money would simply go elsewhere.

You seem to be speaking from the vantage of ideology rather than an actual, rational view of reality. Cutting taxes is yet another action (i.e. change from the status quo, like defunding NASA) that you'll need to argue in favor of and outline a plan for. It won't just magically happen even if you cut some budget item.

I think we are getting very little for our 10 billion and I don't think giving them more money will get us more space. As for the military budget, I do believe we spend too much there, but taking that money and having NASA waste it instead doesn't feel like that much of an improvement.

As for the 1997 figure, I guess the .5% argument would be useful for the people so horribly uninformed, and you are right that this probably explains why I keep hearing this argument. Fair point.

We're still getting lots of "not-space" but still beneficial science data out of NASA. I'm working with a team that's tracking pollution dispersion through earth's upper atmosphere right now, and my friend is off at a conference discussing her work on the origin of life. I think those are pretty compelling research topics.

(Electrical Engineer at NASA)

Wikipedia says 0.53% of the Federal budget.

All of this "not-space" spending is still money going towards research and innovation. Going deep into space is essentially the peak of aeronautics innovation; any sort of research like what you listed above is still a decent step towards a final goal.

Note, I'm not saying this money was spent optimally, but I am saying that this money was not wasted by any means.

Great rhetoric by Tyson, but completely misses the point that innovation in space travel is now completely the domain of NewSpace companies like Armadillo Airspace, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic rather than governments.

NASA no longer innovates. It's coasting on past glories. If a fraction of the billions spent on NASA were left untaxed in the hands of individuals like Carmack, Musk, Thiel, and Branson -- and allowed to wend their way towards NewSpace investments rather than wasted on NASA boondoggles -- we'd all be much better off.

Also, it's not at all obvious that we want to keep focusing on manned missions, which Tyson mentions explicitly. You can iterate much more rapidly on unmanned drones as you need save nothing for the way back, and the costs of failure are far less. Tyson recognizes part of the human psychological factors at play (the motivation of wartime) but doesn't recognize that wanting humans in space instead of far more machines is emotional rather than practical right now.

Get the costs of putting things into orbit down with machines, and humans will follow. But let's not put the cart before the horse.

This makes me think of crowd-funded space exploration.

Kickstarter is still far from mainstream and making million dollar projects. Petridish.org opens the possibility of tax-payers willingly donate a monthly value to science. Now imagine if all of these went mainstream with a celebrity like Neil Tyson as the front face of a project to help fund SpaceX? Viable?

I love the idea of supporting space science, ut in a deficit ridden economy, is this extra percent of spending more valuable than health care research, lowering the cost of education or solving world hunger?

Before going to Mars I would like a decent school on my street.

Much like manned spaceflight the problems of public schools in America is not one of funding.

If you look at a graph of average inflation adjusted spending per student at public schools it's just a monotonically increasing line from the end of WWII until today, it just goes up, and up, and up.

But does average student educational outcome match such graphs? Not in the least. The problem is that the incentives are all wrong and the money keeps getting funneled to the wrong people. The ratio of administrative staff to students has grown and grown. The biggest influence that active parents have had on schools over the past few decades has not been on increasing educational quality but on driving administrative policy through excessive litigation. Increasingly K-12 public schools are little more than prisons where kids do busy work and if they're lucky the smart ones learn how to teach themselves and most of the rest pick up enough of the basics through repetition or osmosis.

Don't expect the results to change until the system changes.

Indeed, but I hate to believe taxes for the space money is well spent when the taxes for the school down the street isn't.

For schools; we've been turning the money dial up for decades and the results meter hasn't moved it's needle. No amount of cash solves "why should I learn this?".

Figure there are 50million kids in public schools and we spend 12k a year per student. So if we spent $11.6k a year per student we could more than double NASA's budget. So a 4% school budget cut vs a 100% NASA budget increase. I honestly wonder what direction educational attainment would go if we made that trade.

I wouldn't be surprised if it went up.

Space exploration will inspire more children to become scientists and engineers. Space research grows the pie and hence you need not think that it is taking money from schools. Space research spending is rounding error compared to war spending anyway.

It might be more valuable than spending it on the US military, which has over 35 times the budget of NASA.

Right. Your choices are a) sending a bunch of monkeys in a very expensive and uncomfortable loft to space or b) invest in a multi billion dollar kitten killing machine. Not a false dichotomy at all.

Seriously, there's tons of more pressing issues back here on Earth, ranging from real, social one like inequity and discrimination, technical/political ones like the ever growing piles of garbage all over the place, healthcare, climate change and mass extinctions, and say, taking care of that whole cycle of oppression and bloodshed that has been going on for a while now (not that it'll go away, but we're pretty fucking screwed if we don't come up with something which will leave most people content).

None of those problems will go away if we send little men on tin cans to space, and in fact, I can think of very little problems that will be solved by that. We're a long way from escaping the mess which we have created here on Earth, and wherever we go we'll do it again, and that's being optimistic in saying that we will actually get a self-sustaining Homo Sapiens population off the planet before our shit catches up with us and we're actually forced to do nothing but deal with the consequences.

I hate to say I agree with someone named Whateverer, but you hit it on the head. We have issues locally we need to solve. In 100 years we can still go to space. Same with 200 years. And we'll have tons of productivity improvements between now and then. But we don't have a public school system capable of producing scientists.

All that said - perhaps... perhaps... Perhaps the minerals and compounds needed to survive as a species are elsewhere in our solar system.

perhaps... Perhaps the minerals and compounds needed to survive as a species are elsewhere in our solar system.

Not only that, but more than we could at this point imagine using in a long long time, and an inexhaustible supply of energy. I find it hard to believe that these resources wouldn't help us just a little with the seemingly intractable social problems. Those very often boil down to arguments over limited resources in the end.

In fact, I can't think of a major world conflict or problem that isn't at its root about the allocation of resources, and it's all there for us, right above our heads.

There are other things where money was spent; in hindsight[1] it would have been better to spend that > $1Trillion[2] on space. And health. And etc.

[1] Not just in hindsight, at the beginning for many people. [2] It feels odd to me to write trillion and actually mean trillion and not "some really big number".


Health care research is cute and all, but we don't really have a system that lets it benefit the vast majority of people, yeah? We are doing our damnedest to wall off the research that comes off of it, yeah? We are setting ourselves up for unrealistic expectations and a fantasy world where our loved ones never die, yeah? That's not worth spending money on.

Education cost is not the point--other replies covered that better than I can.

Solving world hunger? You mean, feeding people who can't feed themselves while we force our own poor into shitty lifestyles from eating junk food, yeah? Giving food to dictatorships in hopes that they, oh lawdy, don't develop nukes? Giving GM crops and their associated IP to fuckwads like Monsanto so that they can get a stranglehold on the food supply, yeah?

Space is the least harmful of places we've tried to make policy.

What's the point of educating the populace if we aren't doing things like going to Mars?

If we abandon grand visions, I honestly don't care if people are educated or not.

There's some rampant, blind and heart crumbling cynicism is going on in this thread.

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too"

Or we could just build websites, obsess over stuff that will be forgotten in a year and shit all over other peoples grand ideas.

Wow, just wow. That is all I could think while watching that. Neil deGrasse Tyson is such a great orator. It wouldn't surprise me if he becomes President some day.

It wouldn't surprise me if he becomes President some day.

He's not a practicing theist, so his chances are about zero.


He's stated explicitly before that he has no interest in politics whatsoever.

He sounds pretty fired up about this issue, which is one of the main reasons why people get into politics.

From the horse's mouth: http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/tyson/read/2011/08/21/if-i-...

I agree with him. Politicians are a reflection of the electorate. One can have even more of a positive impact by educating and energizing the electorate than as one lone politician.

> He sounds pretty fired up about this issue, which is one of the main reasons why people get into politics.

Am I the only so jaded to think that's comically naive? At least at the State+ level people (successfully) get into politics for power and money, period.

He has stated explicitly that he sees himself as an educator. I agree with him. Politicians are, after all, people. Educating people is the best way to change how people think.

And that's one of the reasons politics are so messed up.

I wouldn't envy him if he ever decided to enter this shark tank, but I would support him with all my energy. Which isn't much - I don't even live in the US.

But the world could use one or two ethical politicians for a change.

I'd pay to watch a debate between him and Rick Santorum.

That would be like Obama having a debate with Sarah Palin. Why should Tyson waste his time?

Me too, as long as Santorum doesn't get paid.

Or maybe I would. If he had more money, the Republican candidacy becomes even more confusing and the others will have to spend more time and money fighting each other than fighting Obama.

If I had a huge amount of money, I'd donate it to Ron Paul, just for the fun of it. From time to time he says some surprisingly reasonable things.

Ron Paul would defund all of NASA. Just saying.

Only if he wins.

It would be nice to have the video without the damn music so I can actually hear what he's saying :/

The first 2 minutes is from this Daily Show interview: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-february-27-2012/neil-...

Thankyou sir =)

I would like to point that the word all isn't emphasized enough in that sentence.

The other major frontier of exploration isn't faring any better:

"More people have walked on the surface of the Moon than have visited the bottom of the Marianas Trench. We've even been to the Moon more recently than we have the very bottom of the sea."


The NASA remote sensing budget is being cut by 30%. That's very bad news for Earth Science and the validation of climate models, let alone for the exploration of space.

Source: http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2011/07/house-appr...

Assuming that private enterprise isn't getting us into space fast enough, we will need a new cold war to get the world's governments fearful enough to throw money at the problem, and to demand solutions.

Perhaps China will do the honors?

It might be a foregone conclusion, but $42.

On a side note, I think current and recent generations rarely look to space with the complete awe that say, generations in the 60's and 70's did.

How can spacexy be brought back?

“After we stopped going to the moon, it all ended. We stopped dreaming.”

Because we saw what it got us. All that money, effort, and enthusiasm got us a couple dozen guys on a dead rock for a few dozen hours. Adding a couple zeros to the budget improves the situation from grey to red rock. Beyond that, we soon get to what some writer (escaping me at the moment) noted: humans just can't comprehend interstellar distances, the vast effort required to achieve even mundane results. Too much cost for too little result. My hopes remain high, but my expectations are more content with what's happening here on Earth. At 44 I realize how short life is.

Is it just me or does 0.4% of the tax base on Nasa seem really reasonable. If I had had to guess, I would have put it way lower.

it finished when i had wet eyes so I think it was well done. And facts are scary. From monetary point of view, bailout cost more than 50 years of NASA? two years military spending. Gosh, thats sad...

I hate Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Not on a personal level, mind you. He's probably a nice guy to have beers with. But he's a shill for NASA. He's a good shill, but he's a shill, nonetheless.

A little background. I'm old enough to have been "inspired" by the Space Shuttle Program near the point of its inception. Imagine a young mkn sitting down with a pencil and paper to work out how much it would cost to buy himself a ticket on the Space Shuttle at the promised $50/lb. I weighed 70 lbs. I knew it would be more than $3500 because I'd have to eat and breathe while I was up there. I wondered if I could go naked to save some cash. But still, it was a nice number. And then, the number changed. The promise went up to $100/lb. Fine. The math was easier. Oh, and the number of launches went from 26/year down to 12/year. Not quite the airline-style operations they had promised, but not bad. And then the price went to $500/lb. 3 or 4 launches per year. And then, the media just stopped talking about the costs and launch frequency, probably because it quit showing up in the press kits.

Tyson complains that we don't dream about the future anymore. He's right. We don't. But he complains without the slightest hint of irony. The promise of NASA was that the costs would come down. The promise was that spaceflight would become routine and affordable. The promise tapped into the then-current emphasis on mobility in the American Dream. Tyson is right that we don't dream about the future anymore. But we don't dream about it because NASA has proven to us what the future is. The future is NASA, and the future is stagnation. We have all been "inspired" by NASA. We don't dream because we don't need to. We know.

Tyson breathlessly opines about all the amazing things NASA could do with twice the budget. Missions to Mars! To those, I have this to say: Big fucking deal. The promise of NASA was never its "missions". The missions were a vehicle for the promise. The promise was ubiquitous space access. I'm going to see my cousin on the Moon. We're taking a year and seeing Mars. Sending some highly-selected and highly-trained spam in a can for some fahrt around a crater is not the promise. Sending you and me there for a fahrt around a crater is. Somehow or other, that part of the promise has slipped out of NASA enthusiasts memory. Long live NASA! All we have to do is pay twice as much!

The imagery of the Shuttle and of the new capsule is especially offensive. It's the easiest thing in the world to verify that the Shuttle was the most expensive launch system ever conceived in the history of manned space flight. It is, as I've hinted above, the primary reason for the complete demoralization of the populace with regards to space flight. And it was promised to be so much better than that. The Orion capsule is all that is left of that disgraced launcher program, the one that retained the disgraced SRBs to placate Morton-Thiokol.

NASA can't. That's my new slogan. Unlike other slogans, which are mainly inspirational, mine is intended to remind me of reality. Take any dream you have about space and phrase it as a question, and the answer is "NASA can't". Will we build orbiting habitats in space on a massive scale? NASA can't. Will we ever colonize the Moon or Mars? NASA can't. Will we ever be able to realistically dream of democratic access to space? NASA can't. Every time you hear Tyson speak, just remember: NASA can't. And it ain't for lack of funds.

I wish Tyson would other shut the hell up or direct his energies and oratorical gifts at making NASA an agency worth supporting. But, he won't. He's a cheap shill, and he's just going to keep doing his shabby job.

Tyson didn’t make that video. He didn’t pick the images. You don’t even know what he thinks about the Shuttle, do you? You don’t even know what he thinks about Ares and Orion, do you? You don’t even know what he thinks about SpaceX, do you?

Why do you insist on slandering him by calling him a shill? There isn’t even so much as a hint that what he says are not really his views and convictions. If you want to challenge those, fine, but don’t slander him along the way.

Also: Have you considered that what you want might just be impossible with the money and resources Nasa has at its disposal? Not just for Nasa, for any organization, real or imagined. You seem to want an awful lot of them.

Definitely a bit intense, but I agree with the sentiment here. It's a shame that someone (judging by the popularity of his reddit AMAs) so talented at communicating science and technology to the public could be so shortsighted in his view of spaceflight's future. In regards to affordable spaceflight, NASA can't, but perhaps SpaceX and other private companies with brave entrepreneurs at the helm can. It would be nice if Neil DeGrasse Tyson were to meet with Elon Musk and hear his vision of humanity's future in space.

Question: Who pays SpaceX? Where is their revenue coming from?


(Pssst, that’s the point I’m trying to make. NASA seems to can, but maybe paying other people doesn’t count or something.)

It's disheartening to see this at the top. First because Tyson should be vilified for defending what he believes in, and second because this level of cynicism is apparently easy to vote up on HN.

Neither of your reasons are very compelling to me. People should be vilified for believing bad things. Justified cynicism is just realism. Note I'm not saying that the OP's comment proved either of these is the case in this situation. I just don't have the evidence to make that claim, and I'm more inclined to see it as a blend. But he seems to believe he does, and provided us with his reasons. You have only given your emotional reaction, based on beliefs whose rational basis we have no way of knowing.

If you don't like the comment, it's a lot more productive to respond to its substance (why do you disagree?) than to share how it makes you feel.

A shill is someone who promotes a particular opinions not because s/he honestly holds it but because s/he is paid to.

Please show us your evidence that Neil deGrasse Tyson says what he does about NASA not because it's what he thinks but because he's paid to do so. You do have that evidence, right? Because you say repeatedly that he's a shill. Apparently you even know how much he's paid to do it ("He's a cheap shill"). So, evidence please.

Are you trying to imply that we should skip all the starter stuff, like going to mars initially, and just start sending civilians up there right now? Because I really don't think you're that stupid.

It was harder for Columbus to reach the west and bring back treasures than it is for us to reach the asteroid belt and bring back exotic materials. What is missing is not technology (need is the mother of invention) but a reason to go. Was Columbus 100% sure his mission would be profitable?

What if Columbus waited another 100 years for a safer option to cross the mysterious expanse? History would be much different.

Attitudes toward risk are a lot different now as well. No one would bat an eye at ships being lost at sea, or a ship returning with a quarter of her crew. It was considered inherent that any chance at exploration or glory would come with mortal danger.

Our current attitudes towards exploration is more like the large corporation. Playing to avoid loss, rather than playing to win.

How Much Is an Astronaut’s Life Worth? http://reason.com/archives/2012/01/26/how-much-is-an-astrona...

Great article, thanks

What is missing is not technology but a reason to go.

"At 1997 prices, a relatively small metallic asteroid with a diameter of 1.6 km (0.99 mi) contains more than 20 trillion US dollars worth of industrial and precious metals." [1]

Spot-checking (pun not intended), those metals are currently up as much as an order of magnitude over their 1997 prices. So that same small-ish asteroid could be worth something more along the lines of a quarter petadollar.

If that's not sufficient reason to strip mine the asteroid belt, I don't know what is.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asteroid_mining

Also on the same Wikipedia page:

> At present, the cost of returning asteroidal materials to Earth far outweighs their market value

I bet the value of metals on Earth already far exceeds this many times over. And what do you think would happen to the price of metals if you had this huge supply?

Unfortunately mere supply often does not correlate with price as you might suspect. Look at diamonds.. the name of the game is artificial scarcity.

Huh? Did you just make this up? How can you possibly know the relative risk of those two things?

I did pull the comparison out of the air. Space travel is probably less safe now than taking a ship 3000 miles across an uncharted ocean.

Is this really true? Getting to the moon cost 4% of the federal budget at peak, and from the graphs it looks like about 2% of the budget on average, for 13 years [1]. I'm fairly certain that Columbus' voyages cost nowhere near a percentage point of the economic output of all of Europe for a decade. But maybe I'm wrong. Could you provide a citation?

Also, as I understand it we're fairly certain of the economic value of other planets given our current technology (not much). So that aspect of Columbus' voyage does not apply today.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Budget_of_NASA#Cost_of_project_...

Columbus needed massive funding (got it from Queen of Spain IRRC).He didn't need a reason, he needed to convince some moneybags the risk was worth it. US Politics is incapable of taking any risks.

US Politics has considerable few dictatorial monarchs who can literally silence any opposition, don't have to answer to the general public and don't have to care if the general public is starving to death.

I wonder, in a future where space exploration is minimal and performed by robots, and where non-war (by technicality) is waged by drones, who will the heroes be?

Humanity doesn't really need war heroes.

Edit: or the robots will be programmed with markov generators to tweet some stirring last words.

unit tests

the people who heroically sacrifice their sanity to write unit tests

( In all honesty, this is one of my biggest concerns about using robots for exploration and war. These are very human activities, and if we don't deign to use humans for them... well... why are we here? )

The tounge-in-cheek response might be the engineers that build those robots and drones.

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