Neil deGrasse Tyson: Bringing Commercial Space Fantasies Back to Earth

Astrophysicist and Science Educator
Neil deGrasse Tyson pours cold water on some of the dreams of the commercial space industry. He tells Big Think "from where I sit there is a lot of delusional thinking there."
  • Transcript


Neil deGrasse Tyson: There is a lot of talk lately about what role the privatization of space might play in our future ambitions of space exploration, and from where I sit there is a lot of delusional thinking there.  For example, unlike what Newt Gingrich said in a presidential debate—there he is saying had we given the money we had given to NASA to the private sector we would have been on the moon and Mars by now and we would have done it more cheaply and everything would be fine and dandy. . . . 

No, it doesn’t work that way.  Private enterprise in the history of civilization has never led large, expensive, dangerous projects with unknown risks.  That has never happened because when you combine all these factors you cannot create a capital market valuation of that activity.  The first Europeans to the new world were not sailors on the Dutch East India Trading Company ships.  It was Columbus.  It was Magellan.  And these were voyages funded by governments.  Somebody has to draw the maps.  Somebody has to see where the danger spots are, where it’s safe, what the prevailing winds are.  Once that is established, then private enterprise can come in and say, “Here’s the risk, I need an investor, here’s your payback, we can turn this into an enterprise.”

So no, private enterprise is not going to lead us to the moon.  They’re not going to lead us to Mars.  What would be nice for them to do is take on our low earth orbit activities.  Been there, done that.  Back in the 60s low earth orbit was a frontier.  We didn’t know, well, can a human survive?  Can you even swallow if you’re in orbit?  Would saliva get caught in your throat?  Simple questions like that were unknown and unanswered at the time.  We’re well past that.  We know how to get to low earth orbit.  It’s done.  The patents are offered—are given, granted—and so that would be the ideal place for private enterprise to take over.

Tourism would easily drive that.  Look how much money Americans in the world spend on tourism.  You could have tourist lotteries where you could win a much more expensive vacation than you could otherwise afford, and I’d certainly buy lottery tickets if it meant taking a vacation in space, or rather in orbit around earth—which I guess we’ll still call that space, but if NASA is advancing a space frontier that’s kind of really just driving around the block at that point, but that could surely sell tickets, and I’d be first in line.

Directed / Produced by 

Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd