Astrophysicist Tyson, the director of Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, delivers a forceful, cumulative argument for space exploration even in the face of a disastrous economy.
In this collection of articles and talks, the author investigates what space travel means to us as a species and, more specifically, what NASA means to America. Deploying an energetic tone, scattershot with clever twists and peculiar, entertaining factoids, Tyson handles the species half of the equation from the comic angle. That perspective is inclusive and humbling, open and encouraging of wonder, and the author finds in Earth a precious mote in the vastness, allowing readers to transcend the primal and celebrate great scientific laws to appreciate our place in the universe. It also helps us get past the jingoistic aspects of space exploration, for if NASA—the other half of Tyson’s concern—is driven by anything, it is military politics. “When science does advance, when discovery does unfold, when life on Earth does improve,” he writes, “they happen as an auxiliary benefit and not as a primary goal of NASA’s geopolitical mission statement.” But those auxiliary benefits are the critical, serendipitous fallout of the space program: GPS, cordless power tools, ear thermometers, household water filters, long-distance telecommunication devices, smoke detectors and much more. You can’t script the benefits; you have to have faith in the cross-pollinating splendors of science, and Tyson finds little evidence for this in the current Congress. If Tyson handles both the rarified and scientific justifications of continued space funding with aplomb, his economic reasoning falls short. One half a penny of each tax dollar sounds scant, but that leaves only 199 like-sized programs for the entire government.
An enthusiastic, persuasive case to start probing outer space again.