This past summer, I had the privilege of Zooming with Neil deGrasse Tyson, in advance of “The Cosmic Perspective,” his Nov. 16 presentation at the Broward Center. I was promisaed only 30 minutes. With Tyson speaking in front of a backdrop of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” we spoke for nearly an hour on a wide variety of topics, many of them unexpected.
Only a fraction of the conversation made it into our November-December issue. Here is the full, uncut version, in which Neil discusses the phenomenon of suborbital billionaires, the folly of our dreams of returning to the moon, terraforming Mars, what the movie “Ad Astra” got wrong, and more.
So let’s start with your presentation, which is called the Cosmic Perspective. What is the cosmic perspective, and how can it help us in our earth-bound life?
In my field, we live in the universe—thinking about the universe every day. And in astrophysics, our topics of concern are everything that’s not on Earth. So you exit our atmosphere, and we care about it. Of course, we also care about Earth, as a planet, because it’s one of eight planets orbiting the sun. The sun is one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy. Our galaxy is one a hundred billion galaxies in the universe. And when you begin to confront and then absorb the sheer magnitude of the universe, not only in size but in depths of time, it forces you to rebalance, and refocus, on Earth affairs.
So here we are, especially in recent years, tribalized by every way we can possibly imagine, dividing each other by skin color, by who you worship, by who you sleep with, by what side of a line in the sand you live in. And you look at this, and then you step back and reflect on Earth as a planet, orbiting the sun, adrift in this dark void of space. And you find it hard to continue to think that way. We’re all the same species. I get asked, what race are you? I say, I’m the human race.
That is what joins us. And our sense of that is deepened the more of a cosmic perspective you have. So for this talk, what I’ll be doing is offering ways of looking at life on Earth that bring a cosmic perspective to it, so that by the time we’re done together in that public talk, you walk away saying, wow—we are more alike than we are different, the Earth is fragile, our atmosphere is fragile, we need to become better shepherds of not only the ecosphere but of civilization itself.
That’s what a cosmic perspective does. You develop an instant global consciousness, a people-orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. There’s a quote from Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell: “From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty, you want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck, and drag him a quarter-million miles out, and say look at that, you son of a bitch.”
So that’s the cosmic perspective, and what’s good about the cosmic perspective is that it’s a talk I can continue to deliver, but have it be informed by modern current events that take different shape in the presence of the cosmic perspective, so that the talk is always relevant, in time and space.
It can’t be a coincidence that so many astronauts who have been to space have echoed that perspective, maybe not in as colorful a way as Edgar Mitchell.
The difference is … not to nitpick here. I just want to put the cosmic perspective in perspective, now that we have millionaires going into space. What you’re referring to when astronauts speak of this new outlook, the call it the overview effect. It’s a feeling, a mood, a perspective you get by being in orbit as you watch Earth move underfoot. And you’re high enough so that you don’t see national borders or anything, and so you really do think differently about the world. Of course, you don’t see national borders when you’re on an airplane, either. So you have to ask, how different is that vantage point when you’re in orbit versus other altitudes. The Branson/Bezos billionaire excursions, if you take a schoolroom globe, and ask, how high are they going, they are going suborbital. Compared to a schoolroom globe, they’re going the thickness of two dimes above the surface. And we are trained to call that the edge of space. But I’m an astrophysicist. I don’t think of space that way.
You can ask, how high up is the international space station? Everyone agrees, they’re in space. The ISS is one centimeter, three eighths of an inch above the schoolroom globe. Even from that altitude, you can barely make out the curvature of the Earth. If you really want to see the curvature of the Earth, you go to the moon. So we’ve seen nine missions to the moon. Twenty-seven astronauts have orbited the moon. Earthlings have sent more than 500 astronauts to low earth orbit. So that comment came from an Apollo astronaut. I would claim that whatever it is you’re getting from the moon is a deeper connection to the cosmic perspective than even being in Space Station orbit. And being in Space Station orbit is a deeper connection than you would get from being at two thicknesses of a dime above Earth’s surface.
The cosmic perspective continues to deepen the farther away is your vista on which you glance at Earth. Let’s take that to the limit: In 1990, Carl Sagan convinced NASA to have the Voyager I spacecraft turn around and look back at Earth after it passed the orbit of Neptune. Thus became the famous photo and book of the same name the Carl wrote, Pale Blue Dot. He waxes poetic about this. We were not out there beyond Neptune, but a photograph is the next best thing—plus his beautiful prose reflecting on this.
Do the innovations by these companies have the potential to show us—maybe the top 1 percent of us, to start—more of that cosmic perspective up close?
There are three things going on that perhaps are what people are paying for when they plunk down a quarter of a million dollars. One of them is you ascend to an altitude where there’s not much air above you. Air is what scatters sunlight in the daytime to make the sky blue. It selectively pulls blue light out of the full spectrum of light that comes from the sun, and we have pretty blue skies. And at sunset, you have particularly effective filtering of sunlight so that more blue is taken out than at any other time of day. That’s why the colors left over from the sun look more and more red. That is not the actual color of the sun; that’s what’s left over after the atmosphere took out the blue. That’s why, in a clear sky near sunset, the color of the sky is deep, deep intense blue.
If you go high enough, to point where there’s very few air molecules above you, then the blue sky disappears, and you see the darkness of space, while the sun is in the sky. That’s an interesting effect, although if I need to see a dark night sky, I can just wait until the sunset, and I don’t have to spend a quarter of a million dollars to achieve that. But the transition could be a fascinating thing to observe.
Then, once it gets to this altitude of 50, 60 miles, then it shuts off its rockets and falls. It’s in free fall. And you get a couple minutes of weightlessness. That’s always fun. You can also do that with ground-based airplanes—the Vomit Comet out of Florida. So the plane goes up, and it can calculate a trajectory, and a speed from which it descends out of that trajectory that can emulate zero g. But you get maybe 20 seconds at a time.
The third effect is you look back down at Earth, and you see land. They’re not orbiting, so they’re not going to see Earth turning underneath them. They’re going to miss out on what an orbital voyage would give you. They’re about six times higher up than an intercontinental airplane would fly. So is that high enough to get a fundamentally different sense of Earth’s surface than from an airplane? I don’t really think so. If you fly high on an airplane, you don’t see roads. You only notice cities if it’s at night. I barely saw Meteor Crater in Arizona, which is a mile in diameter. It’s this tiny little thing, and that’s flying relatively low. I don’t know that that element would give them a fundamentally different life experience.
Yes, it’s a rich people’s game for now. But the economics of it is highly elastic. If you triple the number of flights, and now your advertised costs are dropping, then you can now maybe charge $100,000 a seat. That will increase the base of people who can afford it. Then $50,000 a seat, and every bit that you drop that price, more and more people participate. Eventually, if you really want to make a lot of money on it, you want to commoditize it, democratize it, to the point where practically anyone can do it. This is true for anything that’s new and fun and technological.
We all remember the 1987 film “Wall Street,” and there’s Gekko walking on the beach with his shoulder-mounted cellphone. And I remembered thinking, I wish I was that rich so I could have a cellphone! Of course, rich people had them first, but they were crappy and they were big; only when it became fully commoditized did whole companies rise up and get quite wealthy for doing so, because they’re giving it to everybody. So now there are three billion smartphones in the world, and they fit in your pocket.
I imagine a day where this activity is accessible to everyone. Go back to the 1920s, 1930s. Rich people flew on airplanes. Some airplanes crashed. We lost some rich people at the time. But that kept going, plane flights got safer, cheaper. Now basically, except for the very poorest of citizens, practically everyone has been on an airplane.
Hearing your answer, I thought of the movie “Ad Astra,” in which Brad Pitt goes to the moon, and it presents a plausible scenario of going to the moon—where you don’t have to be super-rich to go, and once you land there’s a Subway and Pizza Hut.
Not to get picky, but it is my thing … the Apollo astronauts took three days to get to the moon, because they burned their engines exiting earth orbit, and then they coasted to the moon. When you’re coasting, you’re basically within free fall. So that’s why the astronauts are weightless en route to the moon. If you’re going to get to the moon any faster than that, you’re going to have to burn your rockets along the way. If you’re burning your rockets, you are not weightless. There’s a force pressing against you, and inside your vessel you will have the equivalent of weight.
So what they got wrong about that film, is here are people jetting back and forth all around space, and you see the engines firing, and that’s fine, but if you see the engines firing, nobody inside should be weightless. Yet everybody in every scene was weightless. Plus, I remember tweeting: Space pirates? It’s hard enough to get the moon. Now you’re going to be a pirate on the moon? Please!
Anyhow, it was an attempt to show what a future could be if space travel becomes as routine as traveling to a nearby city.
Elon Musk is interested in Mars, and NASA has long been interested in Mars, sending rovers and so forth. Is it a realistic goal that we might actually be able to terraform Mars for human life?
I will never say what won’t happen in the future, because that sets you up for complete embarrassment. To walk flat-footed into an embarrassing declaration of what won’t happen; that’s not going to be me. What I can tell you is, we’re not going to terraform Mars until we have way better control over our own Earth. To terraform is geo-engineering. To believe we can terraform another planet but we can’t terraform our own planet is simply unrealistic. That would involve tapping a volcano to release the pressure so that it doesn’t blow, and maybe using the energy inside the volcano to power the needs of a city. That’s geo-engineering. We do geo-engineering in small amounts. We dam rivers, we build islands where there wasn’t land before. On a much wider scale, geo-engineering would be stopping continental drift to prevent earthquakes. It would be changing the chemistry of the atmosphere at our will to control greenhouse, or whatever else we wanted. If we had those powers for earth, then I’d say we might be able to figure this out for another planet. For that reason I think it’s pretty far away.
Then people are saying, are we going to go to Mars because we’re trashing Earth? Is this a backup plan? Will we be a two-planet species? I think that makes an interesting headline, but I don’t think it’s realistic. It’s not practical. We want to protect against an asteroid, for example. If you have the power of geo-engineering to terraform Mars, turning Mars into Earth basically, and ship a billion people there, I’m thinking you have the power to deflect an asteroid so it doesn’t hit Earth. I’m just thinking! You’re worried we’ve trashed Earth from global warming? If we have the power to geo-engineer Mars, I think you have the power to turn Earth back into Earth.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t go have fun on Mars, but to do that on the belief that we need to, to protect ourselves from extinction on Earth is simply unrealistic. It’s unnecessary.
We know a lot more about the universe than we did in 1996, when Carl Sagan died. If Sagan were to come back for a day and have a conversation with you, what would take him for a loop?
As a scientist, you always want to be taken for a loop. That’s the fun part of it. I’m frustrated by journalists who somehow think that when new science shows up by a discovery or an observation or a theoretical hypothesis, the first line, if not the second line, says, “scientists have to go back to the drawing board…” No, we’re always at the drawing board! We’re always looking for new stuff. The journalist paradigm is simply false. Yes, there’s a restoring force, because the frontier is full of crazy, interesting ideas, and you want to say, ‘do you have enough evidence of that, I’m not sure…’ But once you’ve accumulated enough evidence, we’re all in.
I think he would be delighted to learn that we’ve almost settled on the age of the universe, a highly contested topic at the time; we’ve discovered the Higgs-Boson; we’re discovered gravitational waves and imaged a black hole. He’d be delighted we did a flyby of Pluto, that we orbited Saturn, and landed on Titan, the first time we’ve ever landed on the moon of another planet. He’d also be happy that there’s some effort to reduce the nuclear stockpiles. He was very progressive in his social values, and he would have been at the front of all of the efforts to protest for social change that we’ve all experienced for the past 18 months, especially since the George Floyd murder. I think he’d be right there as a citizen scientist.
Why haven’t we gone back to the moon, with our much more advanced technology?
Anyone who asks that asks it because they think we went to the moon because it was a natural next thing to do on the exploration agenda. That’s not why we went to the moon. We went to the moon because we were at war with the Soviet Union, which had beat us in practically every metric of space exploration there was, demonstrating that they’re going to play the tune that we have to dance to in this new world of high ground. They had the first satellite, the first non-human animal in space, the first human in space, the first woman in space, the first dark-skinned person in space. Almost everything that mattered, they beat us. Kennedy says, we’re going to put a man on the moon. Is he saying it because we’re Americans and explorers? No. We want to think that. But that’s not why he said it.
And I’m not mind-reading to tell you this; look at the speech he gave to the joint session of Congress. He gave this six weeks after Yuri Gagarin had come out of orbit, and we didn’t have a spaceship that wouldn’t blow up on the launch pad yet. So he says, “if the events of recent weeks are any indication of the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, then we need to show the world the path of freedom over the path of tyranny.” That was the battle cry. That was, ‘they’re eating our lunch, we have to do something about this.’ That’s what enabled Congress to write the checks.
Once you recognize that that’s why we went to the moon, and then you learn the Soviet Union is no longer planning to go to the moon, Apollo stops, and all such plans cease. Everyone who was deluded by this in the early 1970s says, we’re on the moon now, we’ll be on Mars by 1985. We’re explorers, and it’s the next thing… it’s not how it has worked. It’s not how it has ever worked.
Are we going back to the moon, to Mars, if there’s a geopolitical force operating on that? Yes. If there’s a very compelling business case? Yes. But it’s expensive, and you want to do it just because it’s the next thing to explore? No.
We can climb Mount Everest because the incremental cost of climbing Mount Everest is small compared to the GDP of countries. There’s a lot of exploration you can do that is inexpensive. But going to space is not on that list.
I wrote a whole book on this, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier. That book I submitted with a different title, and the publisher nixed it. It was Failure to Launch: The Dreams and Delusions of Space Enthusiasts. But that’s what it’s all about—people misunderstanding and misinterpreting why we were in space to begin with.
Couldn’t this all change if we, perhaps, had a president who really prioritized it, and showed an interest in exploring just for the sake of exploring new frontiers?
I want to think that, but my read of history tells me no. George Herbert Walker Bush attempted just that. It’s 1989. On July 20, the 20th anniversary of the moon landing, he gives a speech from the steps of the Air and Space Museum. You can’t get more spiritual energy than that. He says, we’re going to go to Mars. He referenced Columbus, before Columbus fell out of favor. He said all the right things. His speech was not fundamentally different from Kennedy’s speech in Rice Stadium in Houston. It was a more sanitized version. It was, this is good for America, we should do it.
It was DOA. The budget folks took a look at it, and said it would cost half a trillion dollars, and we can’t afford it. We have other priorities. This is a 20-, 30-year mission, planning and retooling. So I ran the numbers. NASA’s budget at the time was 15 billion dollars a year. So what’s 30 years of that budget? It’s basically half a trillion dollars. You could just take NASA’s budget; don’t even uptick it. Just retool NASA to go to Mars, like it was completely retooled to go to the moon, and then you do it for what NASA’s already getting paid. But the weight of that number was so heavy on people’s consciousnesses that they said, this will never happen, and it was DOA.
Then you might say, Bush didn’t have the charisma that John Kennedy had. Go ahead and say that. But I tell you that we went to the moon not because of John Kennedy’s charisma but because we were afraid of the Communists. While Kennedy’s victory was an electoral landslide, it was one of the closest elections ever in terms of popular vote. Basically half the country did not vote for Kennedy. So, why didn’t it stick? Here’s an auspicious occasion, with all the right language. Why are we saying we can’t afford it?
Oh, it’s 1989. Excuse me. Peace broke out in Europe in 1989. The Wall came down. The Cold War is ending. We’re no longer at war with a sworn godless enemy. And it’s a stark reminder that the country will no longer value the exploration that science brings because the exploration that was getting funded was interpreted as in the interest of national security.
No one’s going to tell you that. You’re not going to find a document that says that. In the 1980s, under Reagan, we were still in the Cold War. He authorized, and Congress agreed, the building of a superconducting supercollider to be built in Texas, the most powerful collider there ever would be today. And we started digging the hole, and getting the frontier engineering.
What happens? In 1991, there was a couple of budget overruns; “we can’t afford it.” The whole program was scuttled. We don’t have most powerful particle accelerator in the world; that would go to Switzerland. Ours would still be more powerful than theirs, had it been built.
So all of a sudden, these big expensive projects lose their priority relative to other things people care about. That’s why I assert to you not what I want to be true but what my read of history tells me is true.
For people who haven’t been to the Hayden Planetarium—maybe they’ve been to their own local planetarium—what is special and unique and most worth visiting about the Hayden?
Let me speak more broadly about planetariums. For many people, especially urban dwellers, people who don’t have a relationship with the night sky—there’s city lights, tall buildings, sometimes pollution—all of these are forces against your access to the night sky. So most big cities have planetariums, as part of a science museum, or in our case, a natural history museum. If you attend one of these, you get to be bathed in the night sky. If you have such an occasion, do it. What they can all do is put you out in space like you have never been before. The room darkens, the dome gets illuminated; in a way, it was the very first virtual reality experience that most of us had ever had. So I think that connectivity is something we’re missing today. And it’s a first step on a journey to the cosmic perspective. I consider it a portal to the cosmos that we can all avail ourselves of.
My latest book is called Cosmic Queries. It’s a celebration of human curiosity. You can ask simple questions, like how tall is the tree? But how did plant life get on earth? There are deeper questions you can reach for. And not all questions have fully resolved answers, because it’s a celebration of our curiosity, not so much a celebration of our answers. You get to explore all the deepest questions we have ever asked about our own existence since the beginning of civilization. There are some questions, we don’t even know if it’s the right question to ask. So for me, this is what I do on the podcast. It’s an attempt to celebrate not only what we know but even what we don’t know. Because that’s what stimulates our urges to explore.
Order tickets for Tyson’s “Cosmic Perspective” lecture at Broward Center here. Order his new book Cosmic Queries from one of the outlets here.
This Web Extra was inspired by the November/December 2021 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.