Neil deGrasse Tyson Takes On Space Exploration Delusions

Could Neil deGrasse Tyson possibly be the most interesting man in the world?
Could Neil deGrasse Tyson possibly be the most interesting man in the world? Photo by Delvinhair Productions
Everyone’s favorite astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, is returning to Space City courtesy of Performing Arts Houston to deliver a talk titled “Delusions of Space Enthusiasts.” The NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal recipient; graduate of Harvard University and Columbia University; and holder of 21 honorary doctoral degrees will take the stage at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Jones Hall.

Houston is the perfect city for him to deliver this presentation, and he’s looking forward to joining a space-literate crowd.

“NASA and space are culturally a part of what it is to be a Houston resident. I like that fact. I'm going to serve that fact in this talk whereas if I gave this talk in other cities, I'd have to sort of nurse the audience through things that everyone in Houston would already know,” he said.

In this illustrated talk, Tyson will explore the perennial mismatch between collective expectations of where we should be in space by now and the geopolitical, cultural and economic realities that limit it.

“This mismatch has been around since the Apollo era. So, for example, if you go back to the 1960s, when we were, mission by mission, increasing our presence in space and getting ever closer to the holy grail of walking on the moon," Tyson said. "We were very quick to say that if we're on the Moon by 1969, we'll be on Mars by 1980 or 1985. People were extending the line of progress from what we were experiencing to what they expected would occur, and that never happened,” Tyson said.

Tyson couples this with a speech delivered by President George H. W. Bush on the steps of the National Air and Space Museum on the 20th anniversary of the moon landing and talked about going to Mars.

“He's got the legacy of Apollo. He talked about how exploration is in our blood and in our DNA, not only in American voyages but also in human voyages…and nothing came of that speech. No, we did not redouble our efforts to put humans on Mars,” Tyson said. “People reflect on that in ways where they think they understand what had happened, but from my analysis, they didn't understand what happens. People rarely understand the forces operating on these kinds of decisions. This talk is a frank display of what we think is driving our place in space and what's actually driving our place in space so that we can more finely tune or reduce the gap between our expectations and reality.”

The acclaimed researcher gives even more examples of what was happening socially and geopolitically that shaped the event, or nonevents rather, of space exploration. He used the space race between the United States and Russia as an example.

“That threat came about with Sputnik and 1957. Within a year, we had created NASA. There was a flame under our ass, and we reacted to a long sequence of advances that the Soviet Union displayed in space. We had to show the world that we were better than our godless, communist, sworn Cold War enemies,” he said. “Every time they did something or plant something, we would react to then repeat it or do it better. They put up a satellite, and we put up a satellite. They put a dog in orbit, and we put up a chimpanzee. Then they put up a human, and that's when Kennedy gave a speech and said we're going to put a man on the moon. We were motivated by fear. It's pure and simple.”

Tyson continued his string of logic that connects fear or lack thereof to American advances in the cosmos.

“For example, there are people who said we didn't go to Mars because Bush didn't have the charisma, and we needed sort of a charismatic leader to take us. So, what's going on,” Tyson said. “Here's what happened. Why was NASA created in the first place? Because we felt threatened. And then what happened in 1989? Peace broke out in Europe. Did anyone factor that in? When peace breaks out, you no longer feel threatened.”

Tyson asserts that the lack of fear took the fuel out of NASA's proverbial rocket boosters, and he dismantles even more assumptions during his presentation.

“It's about a 20- to 30-year plan to put humans on Mars. Congress said it would cost half a trillion dollars, and they deemed it is unaffordable,” he said. “But wait a minute. What's NASA's budget in any given year? NASA's budget back then, in today's dollars, was $20 billion a year. And what's $20 billion times 20 or 30 years? It's about half a trillion dollars. It was about the same amount of money that they calculated it would cost to get to Mars, and then they said it was too expensive.”

“There’s a lot people don't really track accurately…the causes and effects of what they're thinking and what they're deciding. This whole talk is on examples such as this,” he added. “All of this factors in to what we think is happening versus what is happening versus what likely or is not likely to happen. I'm [on stage] for two hours talking, showing videos, clips, interviews and data, so it's a full immersion. It's a reality check on our past, present and future in space.”
He reminds the audience, though, that his presentation is not so much a lecture where he wants people to learn something. He, instead, wants attendees to feel something.

“I want them to embrace this time-honored quest to look beyond ourselves to look beyond Earth into space. It has captured our imagination ever since anyone could look up. That is a beautiful thing. I also want to highlight the value of space exploration beyond just planting flags. It has value that transcends even the tangible,” he said. “When you talk about the benefits of space exploration, there's a cosmic perspective that manifests as a kind of a firmware upgrade to your capacity to think about the world.”

“It's just a new way of looking at the world. You don't think about the drivers behind it, you just know that you think and feel differently about the world,” he continued. “So what I want people to take away from this is the notion that space has been shown to be, and will undoubtedly continue to be, very important for our sense of our understanding of our relationship to each other, to the environment, and what role it can continue to play in shaping the future of civilization.”

Performing Arts Houston presents "Neil deGrasse Tyson: Delusions of Space Enthusiasts" Monday, March 6 at 7:30 p.m. at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. For information, call 713-227-4772 or visit Tickets are sold out.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to the Houston Press who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture.
Contact: Sam Byrd