Neil deGrasse Tyson discusses his latest book

Read our interview the famous US astronomer

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We spoke to Neil deGrasse Tyson about his new book Space Chronicles

What inspired you to write this book?

I woke up one day and realised that I had been scattering all of my thoughts about our past, present and future in space in every medium that existed – from op-eds to essays to articles to speeches to tweets. I figured that it was time it was all collected in one place, on the possibility that it would have a greater impact as a collected work.

This required the extensive work of an editor, whose name is featured on the cover – Avis Lang. Our combined efforts, but primarily hers, organised my views in a way that can make some kind of sense to a reader. In summary, it’s every thought I’ve ever had about our past, present and future in space.  

Space exploration is really at the heart of the book isn’t it?

That’s correct. The book also has many chapters just to make sure we’re all on the same page in terms of our vocabulary in terms of what matters in space. So there’s a chapter on propulsion, a chapter on orbits, a chapter on Lagrangian points.

I’d say maybe at least a third of the book is background, space fluency information. The rest of it is thoughts, perspectives on what it means for a nation to be space faring and why that can matter to its future.

How important is manned space exploration to you? Have we got the balance between robotic and manned missions right?

I don’t even think that the question matters. Not that it isn’t a good question – the reason why I don’t think it matters is that if you’re only doing science then you would never send humans into space. You’d send robots. Because you don’t even have to bring the robot back. People usually want to come back!

Now that we’ve miniaturised our machines, our methods and tools of inquiry, robots can do science quite well, even if they are a bit slower. Moreover, it’s cheaper to do it with robots than it is with humans.

But that’s only if you’re doing science. There are many more reasons to go into space, foremost the geopolitical ones. They were the driver for NASA’s creation in the first place. We were spooked into creating NASA after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. And Sputnik, we should remind ourselves, was an emptied-out intercontinental ballistic missile shell with a little radio transmitter inside it.

They named the thing ‘Fellow-traveller’ – that’s what Sputnik translates to in English. But the military noticed that this is an intercontinental ballistic missile shell. So I think all the sectors of the US reacted. The educators said ‘Oh they’re ahead of us in science and engineering and they’re a competing ideology so we’ve got to show the world the path of freedom over the path of tyranny’. US President John F Kennedy said something similar in his 1961 speech where he said we should go to the Moon.

This climate was geopolitical. Oh and by the way we did some science as well.

How much science have we done? Well of all the missions to the Moon a scientist was on only one of them. And which mission was that? The last one! So the book is really an honesty check on all of the thoughts we’ve ever had about our past record in space and how we need to think clear-headedly about what forces will drive our future in space.

The Space Shuttle Atlantis begins its final voyage into orbit. (Credit: NASA)

It’s an interesting time now for US manned space exploration, how do you feel about the retirement of the Shuttle?

It was long overdue actually. The problem is not the retirement of the Shuttle – even though many people shed a tear watching the last launch, watching the last landing, watching the Shuttles getting mothballed as they are scattered across the country into various display spaces.

People are shedding tears and they don’t understand why they’re shedding tears. The original title of this book was Failure to launch – the dreams and delusions of space enthusiasts, because other than the background chapters that I described a moment ago, much of the book is an indictment of how we, especially here in the US, have come to delude ourselves about what were the causes and effects of our golden-era in space. And those delusions interfere with our ability to think clear-headedly about what forces will influence space going forward.

One of them is, just to take an example, “I’m crying because they’re ending the Shuttle.”  No, you’re not crying because they’re ending the Shuttle. You’re crying because there isn’t another vehicle to replace the Shuttle sitting on an adjacent launch pad.

Nobody shed a tear when the last Gemini launched. Nobody. Because the mighty Saturn V was ready to continue that epic adventure. We need to be honest about these emotions. The Shuttle couldn’t leave low-Earth orbit, so it was a mission to nowhere, boldly going where hundreds have gone before.

I think orbit is still an important place but it’s not a frontier. And if we want to think of frontiers you have to think of beyond low-Earth orbit because we’ve been there, done that.

What should NASA’s role be in the future do you think?

It should lead the space frontier. There’s no other kind of organisation or agency that can do it. Private enterprise cannot. Space is expensive, dangerous and has unquantified risks. What that means is you can’t be an entrepreneur and say ‘Who’s with me?’ or ‘What are your investments?’ because you’re not able to calculate what the return on that investment is. There is no business model for being the first in an expensive, dangerous voyage with uncertain risks. Governments do that.

The first Europeans in the New World were not on commercial ventures. Spain paid for the voyage of the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, and their motivation was not exploration. It’s never been exploration, for any of these great epic adventures.

True, the people who embarked on the adventures were explorers – Columbus was an explorer, as was the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan, no doubt about it – but the people who wrote the cheques to fund such missions were not. Queen Isabella of Spain didn’t tell Columbus ‘when you’re over in the New World draw the plant life and come back and present that information in our academic lecture series’. No, she said ‘here’s a satchel of Spanish flags, wherever you go declare land in the name of Spain if you discover a new place – and if you find that short route to the Indies let us know about it because that way we can make our trade routes more efficient’.

Each one of these great missions has had ulterior motives. These motives include war, economics and hegemony. Let’s just be honest about these epic adventures. Once we recognise that there could be geopolitical reasons to go into space, there could be military, tourism or economic ones. Economic ones, such as the mining of moons, certainly. A whole organisation was just set-up [to do this]. Asteroids represent an unlimited supply of all the things we fight each other to extract from Earth’s crust. So while it’s a little crazy, it’s just the right amount of crazy and just the right amount of thinking about the future to be an audacious goal. If it works, it’ll prove many wrong and others will say I told you so.

I’m not going to specify human versus robots. Let all of these reasons drive themselves and let our access to space be not driven by one destination or another but all of the Solar System as our backyard. You let the reasons arise as they descend upon us.

What’s on your wish list of missions you’d like to see in the future?

I’d love a tourist jaunt to the near side of the Moon. That would be fun. It’d be interesting to see asteroids get mined; good to know asteroids well enough so that if one of them is found heading our way that we’d be in a position to get the mining company to deflect it because they’re already out there doing work – that’d be a convenient set up.

Then there’s a lot of science to be done, still, on Mars. On the far side of the Moon, which never turns towards Earth, you could put a new generation of radio telescopes to observe the Universe in bands of radio waves that are currently completely contaminated. Then I want to go deeper into the Solar System. I want to visit Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter with an icy surface but an ocean beneath it that’s been liquid for a billion years.

The Jovian moon Europa could harbour a subsurface ocean. (Credit: NASA)

How are the preparations for the new series of Cosmos coming along?

It’s almost a generation ago when the first one appeared – 32 years. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long. The show made such an indelible mark on its viewers. There’s been no show as potent since then. So there’s quite a legacy and quite large shoes to fill.

I’m honoured and privileged to be part of the collaboration that’s continuing this legacy forward. Ann Druyan and Steve Soter are two of the three original creative principles from that show – the third of course was Carl Sagan. They’re the writers of this series, I’m executive editor and on-camera host.

It’s being scripted now and the timetable we’ve made for ourselves should have it air in the US in spring 2014. Cosmos enjoyed a huge international following so there’s no reason why this series shouldn’t go international very quickly.

Follow Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter

Read a review of Space Chronicles in July 2012's issue of Sky at Night Magazine, available to buy on 19 June 2012.

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