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Neil deGrasse Tyson sparks controversy over commercial space remarks

Neil deGrasse Tyson
Photo by Michael Buckner

Neil deGrasse Tyson, celebrity astrophysicist and host of the upcoming reboot of the “Cosmos” science series, caused some controversy as a result of some remarks he made about commercial space quoted in a March 8, 2014 article in Tech Crush.

“Tyson described space travel as “a long-term investment”: “It’s an investment that private enterprise cannot lead.” He recalled the excitement around SpaceX’s delivery of cargo the International Space Station, which sparked discussion about whether private companies would replace government as the main engine behind space travel. Tyson’s response? ‘They brought cargo to the space station! NASA’s been doing that for 30 years!’

“The problem, he said, is that it’s hard to predict the risk and return on investment on ‘doing anything big and expensive first.’ He noted that the first Europeans to come to America were not the Dutch East India Company, but Christopher Columbus and his crew, whose expedition was paid for by Spain. After the initial exploration, there will be opportunities for private companies.

“’The first trillionaire in the world is going to be the person who first mines the asteroid belt,’ Tyson said.”

This caused NASA Watch’s Keith Cowling to wax wroth.

“Its (sic) rather odd that Tyson dumps on what SpaceX has accomplished i.e. that NASA did it 30 years ago (he doesn't explain that i.e the hugely expensive shuttle) but then he says that the person who first mines the asteroid will become a trillionaire. Assuming that the person gains these monetary riches by mining, you'd have to assume that they are a capitalist and that they did this commercially. So, Tyson dumps on commercial operations on space station as being ho hum and then says that the same mindset/world view i.e. commerce will be behind asteroid mining which he seems to equate with exploration.

“It certainly sounds like this future trillionaire has taken the lead, demonstrated vision, and clearly thought about things in the long term - all the things that he thinks that only governments can do. If Tyson is expecting our government to create cogent, clearly thought out plans for a long term investment in space - plans that will stimulate commercial ventures such as asteroid mining, well, it would be unwise to look to NASA. NASA changes whatever plans it has every 3 or 4 years. You can get whiplash if you try to plan your business ventures on the basis of NASA plans.”

It is hard to understand from Cowling’s retort what exactly he thinks is untrue about Tyson’s ruminations. Even Elon Musk has stated that his business owes a great debt to the work that NASA has done advancing the art and science of space flight over the past decades. And it is also true that much of his and other business is dependent on government contracts. He is delivering cargo and will likely deliver astronauts to and from the International Space Station on behalf of NASA. SpaceX is currently involved in a public row with the United Launch Alliance over which company will grab the lion’s share of military launch contracts.

Both Cowling and Tyson may not have quite gotten the implications of an asteroid mining trillionaire. Such a person would have enough wealth to fund his or her own space exploration program, largely independent of any government effort. It will be at that point and not before when the private sector takes the lead in space exploration and the settlement of the high frontier.

Mark R, Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo, The Last Moonwalker and Other Stories, Dreams of Barry's Stepfather, and The Man from Mars: The Asteroid Mining Caper

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