Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the world’s most well-known space science advocates. Through his work hosting PBS’ NOVA scienceNOW, his many appearances on popular television shows (such as The Daily Show and the Colbert Report), his role as a commentator on news programming, and you may have even seen him on C-SPAN testifying before Congress on the importance of investing in NASA. He has also written a dozen books and countless essays and magazine articles.
I recently read his latest book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier and offer some of my own thoughts and highlights on the astrophysicist’s latest offering.
Space Chronicles is a collection of essays, each standing on their own and independent of the others. Because of this, there is a slight amount of redundancy within some of the essays; however, this is minimal and hardly noticeable. The chapters (essays) are organized into three parts: Why?, How?, and Why Not? In each chapter, Tyson highlights the returns of humanity’s investment in the space sciences, why it’s important to aggressively endeavor to further our reach into the cosmos, and alludes to some of the stumbling blocks that are currently hindering our progress.
Space Chronicles ends with a thorough appendix containing all sorts of information you might not otherwise peruse, such as the text of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 (the act of Congress that created NASA), additional pieces of law related to NASA, budgetary information on the investment into NASA programs, and how it compares and contrasts with other nations around the globe.
As I prefer to do, rather than write a typical review of the book, I will share some of the excerpts I highlighted while reading and offer my comments.
Of course, as a publicly-funded agency, NASA is subject to the ebb and flow of political tides. NASA has generally existed as a bi-partisan — or even non-partisan — component of the US government’s spending portfolio and Tyson offers some insight into how NASA has stayed above the fray during polarizing political climates:
The ten NASA centers are geographically distributed across eight states. Following the 2008 federal election, they were represented in the House by six Democrats and four Republicans; in the 2010 election that distribution was reversed. Senators from those states are similarly balanced, with eight Republicans and eight Democrats. This “left-right” representation has been a persistent feature of NASA’s support over the years. The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 became law under Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower. Democratic president John F. Kennedy launched the Apollo program in 1961. Republican president Richard M. Nixon’s signature is on the plaque left on the Moon in 1969 by the Apollo 11 astronauts. And maybe it’s just coincidence, but twenty-four astronauts hail from the swing state of Ohio— more than from any other state— including John Glenn (America’s first to orbit Earth) and Neil Armstrong (the world’s first to walk on the Moon). (p. 4)
One aspect of the space race (or, the race for the Moon as Americans tend to remember it) is that the United States didn’t dominate the early competitions with the Soviets.
Over that time, the Soviet Union beat us in practically every important measure of space achievement: first spacewalk, longest spacewalk, first woman in space, first docking in space, first space station, longest time logged in space. By declaring the race to be about reaching the Moon and nothing else, America gave itself permission to ignore the contests lost along the way. (p. 5)
Tyson quotes President Kennedy, who was up front with the American public as to the price of competing with the Soviets. Uncommon among politicians, Kennedy was able to make the public realize the the price was worth it, as the costs of not competing would be too great. Probably not completely realized at the time, but the price we paid to avoid the cost of not competing turned out to be a great investment for the economic engine and technological society of the succeeding decades.
It worked for President Kennedy on September 12, 1962, at Rice University Stadium in Houston. That’s when and where he described what would become the Apollo program, declaring, with politically uncommon fiscal candor: “To be sure, all this costs us all a good deal of money. This year’s space budget is three times what it was in January 1961, and it is greater than the space budget of the previous eight years combined.” (p. 7)
Has that investment in our future, that technological society I mentioned came as a result of Kennedy’s ability to sell space to the American public? Yes. Tyson offers an experiment if you don’t believe me:
Here’s an experiment worth conducting. Sneak into the home of a NASA skeptic in the dead of night and remove all technologies from the home and environs that were directly or indirectly influenced by space innovations: microelectronics, GPS, scratch-resistant lenses, cordless power tools, memory-foam mattresses and head cushions, ear thermometers, household water filters, shoe insoles, long-distance telecommunication devices, adjustable smoke detectors, and safety grooving of pavement, to name a few. While you’re at it, make sure to reverse the person’s LASIK surgery. Upon waking, the skeptic embarks on a newly barren existence in a state of untenable technological poverty, bad eyesight to boot, while getting rained on without an umbrella because of not knowing the satellite-informed weather forecast for that day. (p. 8)
Tyson sprinkles these NASA “spin-offs” throughout the book. Another one mentioned is how a design flaw in the Hubble telescope lead to advancements in image analysis, which is now employed in mammogram technology.
The boldest quote in the book — the one that literally made me stop reading to fully understand and reflect on this striking fact:
In 1962 there were two spacefaring nations. Fifty years later, in 2012, there would still be two spacefaring nations. But America wouldn’t be one of them. (p. 14)
For an American, that statement is hard to swallow. We have prided ourselves on our superiority in all that we undertake (whether we’re actually leading the world in that particular field or not). We may have beat the Soviets to the Moon, but unless we consider that the end of the space race it’s hard to imagine how we can today declare ourselves winners as we have to rely on paying the Russians to take us into space.
Tyson’s sharp wit and clever humor emanate from the pages:
In case you were wondering, each piece of Shoemaker-Levy 9 hit with the equivalent energy of the Chicxulub impact. So, whatever else is true about Jupiter, it surely has no dinosaurs left. (p. 46)
Then there are the aliens in the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, who, in advance of their arrival, beam to Earth a mysterious sequence of numbers that is eventually decoded by earthlings to be the latitude and longitude of their upcoming landing site. But Earth’s longitude has a completely arbitrary starting point— the prime meridian— which passes through Greenwich, England, by international agreement. And both longitude and latitude are measured in unnatural units we call degrees, 360 of which are in a circle. It seems to me that, armed with this much knowledge of human culture, the aliens could have just learned English and beamed the message “We’re going to land a little bit to the side of Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming. And because we’re arriving in a flying saucer, we won’t need runway lights.” (pp. 32-33)
I was pleasantly surprised to read Tyson’s explanation to a question that I’ve had since I was a child (I can remember more than one of my teachers getting frustrated with me for pushing them to answer it for me). What exactly would happen if you dug a hole through the Earth and jumped in it (if you were somehow impervious to the extreme heat and pressures you’d encounter at the core)?
Jump in. You now accelerate continuously in a weightless, free-fall state until you reach Earth’s center— where you vaporize in the fierce heat of the iron core. Ignoring that complication, you zoom right past the center, where the force of gravity is zero, and steadily decelerate until you just reach the other side, by which time you have slowed to zero velocity. Unless a Kerguelenian instantly grabs you, you now fall back down the hole and repeat the journey indefinitely. (p. 97)
Our national political climate is currently extremely divisive (and I believe, counterproductive), and our deficits and debt are a hot topic of debate. This leads to scrutiny of how tax dollars are spent. Many might believe that our economic state just cannot support funding a world class space program. Tyson tells us just how little we actually spend on space:
NASA operates on our hearts, on our minds, on the educational pipeline— all for one-half of one cent on the tax dollar. (p. 128)
Finally, I’d be remiss to not point out something that’s contained in this book that I’d never seen before, but wouldn’t be surprised to see more of in the future: all throughout the book, Tyson shares selected “Space Tweets” he’s posted on Twitter over the past couple of years. Generally, they take the form of quick-witted comments, jokes, or interesting facts.
Space Tweet #10 Tasty Cosmos: Mars bar, Milky Way bar. MoonPie, Eclipse gum, Orbit gum, Sunkist, Celestial Seasonings. No food named Uranus
Jul 10, 2010 11: 28 AM
Space Tweet #15 When asked why planets orbit in ellipses & not some other shape, Newton had to invent calculus to give an answer
May 14, 2010 3: 23 AM
I implore you to purchase and read Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier. Not only does Neil deGrasse Tyson write with a style that hooks the reader and keeps them engaged, he also uses our attention-span wisely. A single essay can be picked up and quickly read when time doesn’t allow one to get involved with a heavier novel. Best of all, the talking points that Tyson makes in this collection are ones that are easily adapted into your own conversations.
All excerpts from:
Tyson, Neil deGrasse; Avis Lang (2012-02-20). Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier. Norton. Kindle Edition.