Heavenly Visions

By Dava Sobel
Neil deGrasse Tyson

   “Space Chronicles”
Neil deGrasse Tyson
W.W. Norton, $26.95

   By an alphabetic coincidence, I was positioned next to Neil deGrasse Tyson during a summertime Authors Night at the East Hampton Library. What struck me over the course of the evening was the number of children who approached him to ask questions about astronomy — and the way he responded to them, with patience and excitement, even getting down on the floor at times to put himself at their eye level. The kids looked rapt, as though they had found a private portal to the wider universe, which in fact they had.
    Mr. Tyson is a tall man with a giant dream. As he recounts in his latest book, “Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier,” he was born the same week as NASA, in October 1958, and developed an early passion for the heavens from the roof of his family home in the Bronx. Today, as an astrophysicist, author, lecturer, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, radio host, and frequent guest on television talk shows, Mr. Tyson takes every opportunity to revive our collective enthusiasm for space exploration. He knows all too well that it’s flagging.
    “Would a NASA reality show ‘Lunar Shore’ be more popular than ‘Jersey Shore’?” he asks in one of the “Space Tweets” peppering this volume of collected essays and speeches. “Civilization’s future depends on that answer.”
    I approached “Space Chronicles” expecting to find the material all too familiar, since I had read Mr. Tyson’s “Universe” columns as they appeared over the years in Natural History magazine. Instead I felt fired up anew by his vision of the possible. Mr. Tyson, wearing the mantle of the late Carl Sagan, mourns the geopolitical obstacles to robust funding of space ventures.
    “Raise the cost of a project above $20 billion to $30 billion,” he remarked in an interview reprised in “Space Chronicles,” “and if there’s not a weapon at the other end of the experiment, or you won’t see the face of God, or oil wells aren’t to be found, it risks not getting funded.”
    NASA’s budget, Mr. Tyson points out more than once in these pages, is comparatively small — one-half of 1 cent per dollar — yet is thought large because of the flamboyant nature of the agency’s successes.
    “You know all the people out there who ask why we’re spending so much money on NASA?” Mr. Tyson asked the guests at a Space Technology Hall of Fame dinner. “Every time I personally hear someone say that, I ask them, ‘How much do you think NASA’s getting? What fraction of your tax dollar do you think goes to NASA?’ ‘Oh,’ they say, ‘ten cents, twenty cents.’ Sometimes they even say thirty or forty cents. And when I tell them it’s not even a dime, not even a nickel, not even a penny, they say, ‘I didn’t know that. I guess that’s okay.’ When I tell them their half penny funded the beautiful images from the Hubble Space Telescope, the space shuttles, the International Space Station, all the scientific data from the inner and outer solar system and the research on the asteroid headed our way, they change their tune. . . . Occasionally, people muse that some or all of NASA’s budget should go to heal the sick, feed the homeless, train the teachers, or engage whatever social programs beckon. Of course, we already spend money on all these things, and on countless other needs. It’s this entire portfolio of spending that defines a nation’s identity. I, for one, want to live in a nation that values dreaming as a dimension of that spending.”
    Mr. Tyson’s uncontainable dreams bubble up often in “Space Chronicles,” though the text is more practical than starry-eyed, with the wit to dismiss failed rocket missions as “projectile dysfunction.” The book divides into three parts, explicating the “Why,” the “How,” and the “Why Not” of sustaining an American presence in space. There is much to enjoy here, and nothing too arcane for a non-space cadet to follow. The only section that falls short, in my estimation, is the poem Mr. Tyson composed, “Ode to Challenger, 1986.” But then, at least it’s short.
    As a scientist, Mr. Tyson might be content to send only robot envoys to other worlds. “You don’t have to feed them, they don’t need life support, and they won’t get upset if you don’t bring them home.” Such robots are out there now, “monitoring the sun, orbiting Mars, intercepting a comet’s tail, orbiting an asteroid, orbiting Saturn, and heading to Jupiter and Pluto.” They do an exemplary job. Nevertheless, Mr. Tyson considers astronauts irreplaceable. Human explorers “notice the unexpected, react to unforeseen circumstances, and solve problems in ways that robots cannot.” What’s more, they serve as heroes to inspire an interest in science among the young. There’s plenty of room in space for robots and humans to collaborate.
    Mr. Tyson once complained to a gathering at the National Space Club (another speech revisited in “Space Chronicles”) that he could not motivate a group of eighth graders to excel in the so-called STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering, mathematics — without a sufficient goal. “I don’t want to have to say to them, ‘Become an aerospace engineer so that you can build an airplane that’s 20 percent more fuel efficient than the ones your parents flew on.’ That won’t get them excited. What I need to say is, ‘Become an aerospace engineer so that you can design the airfoil that will be the first piloted craft in the rarefied atmosphere of Mars.’ ‘Become a biologist because we need people to look for life, not only on Mars but on Europa and elsewhere in the galaxy.’ ‘Become a chemist because we want to understand more about the elements on the Moon and the molecules in space.’ You put that vision out there, and my job becomes easy, because I just have to point them to it and the ambition rises up within them.”
    For the “space curmudgeons,” on the other hand, Mr. Tyson has engineered a fit punishment: “Sneak into the home of a NASA skeptic in the dead of night and remove all the 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, with bad eyesight to boot, while getting rained on without an umbrella because of not knowing the satellite-informed weather forecast for that day.”
    Appendix A of “Space Chronicles” presents the 1958 Act that established NASA. Tacked on there, it had the look of end-matter fill, till I realized I had never read it. According to Section 102 (b), “The Congress declares that the general welfare and security of the United States require that adequate provision be made for aeronautical and space activities.” In other words, space exploration isn’t just a good idea. It’s the law.

    Neil deGrasse Tyson has a house in East Hampton.
    Dava Sobel is the author, most recently, of “A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos.” She lives in Springs.