The following is an excerpt from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier.
I was born the same week NASA was founded. A few other people were born that same year: Madonna (the second one, not the first), Michael Jackson, Prince, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sharon Stone. That was the year the Barbie doll was patented and the movie The Blob appeared. And it was the first year the Goddard Memorial Dinner was held: 1958.
I study the universe. It’s the second oldest profession. People have been looking up for a long time. But as an academic, it puts me a little bit outside the “club.” Yes, I’ve spent quality time in the aerospace community, with my service on two presidential commissions, but at heart I’m an academic. Being an academic means I don’t wield power over person, place or thing. I don’t command armies; I don’t lead labor unions. All I have is the power of thought.
Spring 2001, there I was, minding my own business amid the manicured lawns of the Princeton University campus — and the phone rang. It was the White House, telling me they wanted me to join a commission to study the health of the aerospace industry. Me? I don’t know how to fly an airplane. At first I was indifferent. Then I read up on the aerospace industry and realized that it had lost half a million jobs in the previous fourteen years. Something bad was going on there.
The commission’s first meeting was to be at the end of September. And then came 9/11. I live — then and now — four blocks from Ground Zero. My front windows are right there. I was supposed to go to Princeton that morning, but I had some overdue writing to finish, so I stayed home. One plane goes in; another plane goes in. At that point, how indifferent could I be? I had just lost my backyard to two airplanes. Duty called. I was a changed person: not only had the nation been attacked, so had my backyard.
I distinctly remember walking into the first meeting. There were 11 other commissioners, in a room filled with testosterone. Everybody occupied space. There was General this, and Secretary of the Navy that and Member of Congress this. It’s not as though I have no testosterone, but it’s Bronx testosterone. It’s the kind where, if you get into a fight on the street, you kick the guy’s butt. This I-build-missile-systems testosterone is a whole other kind. Even the women on the commission had it. One had a Southern accent perfectly tuned to say, “Kiss my ass.” Another one was chief aerospace analyst for Morgan Stanley; having spent her life as a Navy brat, she had the industry by the gonads.
On that commission, we went around the world to see what was influencing the situation here in America. We visited China before they put a man in space. I had in my head the stereotype of everybody riding bicycles, but everybody was driving Audis and Mercedes Benzes and Volkswagens. Then I went home and looked at the labels on all my stuff; half of it was already being made in China. Lots of our money is going there.
Read the whole thing. What is infuriating is taking the innovative work we can do, the frontier busting approaches us the US, and making them an MBA-driven, commodity.
Space does not pay for itself directly. It pays for just about everything indirectly. Tyson knows it.