Neil DeGrasse Tyson first came to my attention because of posts people put on Facebook. I liked the way he spoke about science.
Recently, I had the opportunity to meet a couple of current astronauts, and that was quite a thrill. I’ve read The Right Stuff, and I love Apollo 13. I also remember exactly where I was when I heard that the Challenger had exploded.
In Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet (wait for it, there’s a connection here), Paris dresses as an astronaut to go to the masked ball. One year, I asked my students why they thought the costume designer dressed him that way. They had no ideas.
I had all of those thoughts, along with my own skepticism about the need for space travel in mind, when I went to hear the astronauts speak. When I saw Tyson’s book in the bookstore at the awesome Great Lakes Science Center (www.greatscience.com), I thought I’d let Tyson try to convince me of what the astronauts hadn’t – namely, that funding space travel is necessary.
His argument, if I understand it, is this. Funding space travel is not as costly as the public perceives, but it needs to be driven by something – war (cold or otherwise) – or the funding can become inconsistent or vanish. He makes the case for its urgency and its relation to the growth of our economy less successfully than he says, in terms meant for those of us who struggle with astrophysics to understand, that we can send robots to space and that would be useful. But it is the human being who is capable of discovering and dealing with the unexpected. And that failures, however public and catastrophic they are, come with the package.
As someone more well-versed in the humanities, I was moved by his appeal to the intangible, to the possible. That a scientist would not lean on data to make his point was as refreshing as it was convincing. The investment, Tyson repeats and repeats (and this I blame on the editor, Avis Lang), is insignificant. The possible rewards, for the economy (driven in the future by those adept in science and technology, as everyone seems so sure), for our safety (I will be in the basement on April 13, 2029) and for our lives seem to me well-worth both the costs and the risks. I accept Tyson’s argument that we will go backwards by standing still.