Neil DeGrasse Tyson Says The Apollo 11 Moon Landing Wasn't Really About Science

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Neil deGrasse Tyson in New York in 2017. (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
Neil deGrasse Tyson in New York in 2017. (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

For centuries, nations with "empire-building ambitions" have turned to science to help achieve their goals, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says.

The ways science has been put to use to help fight, conquer and expand is the focus of Tyson's new book "Accessory to War," which he co-authored with Avis Lang.

"Military has a sort of modern sense of invocation, but if you look at the behaviors of sovereign states, if they wanted to expand their territory they would need to do so in a way where they knew where they were going and where they came from geographically, and to accomplish this you needed navigation," Tyson (@neiltyson) tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson.

Tyson, who is also director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, discusses historical examples of that connection, and also weighs in on the privatization of space exploration, the state of science innovation in the U.S. — and the likelihood an encounter between humans and aliens would turn violent.

  • Scroll down to read an excerpt from "Accessory to War"

Interview Highlights

On when the connection between astrophysics and the military began

"Navigation is something you did by the stars, the sun, moon and stars, that would give you an indication of where you were on Earth and what you would need to do to get back to where you came [from]. And who knew the sun, moon and stars at any given time but the astronomers? We knew the sun, moon and stars. We cared about timings. We cared about clocks. We had interests that greatly resonated with the empire-building ambitions of nations that had that as a goal."

"Science historically has always piggybacked geopolitically driven activities."

Neil deGrasse Tyson

On the 1969 moon landing as a mission driven by domination rather than science

"We remember the [President John F.] Kennedy speech that contains the words, 'We will put a man on the moon, return him safely to Earth before the decade is out. Nothing is as grand or as great ... ' — it's stirring words from a young president who's represented the modern era, and in you, you felt like it's in your DNA as an American that we're explorers and we're discovers. However, that same speech — which was a speech he gave to the joint session of Congress in May of 1961, six weeks after [Soviet cosmonaut] Yuri Gagarin had just come out of orbit, and we didn't have any vessel that could take a human into space without blowing up on the launch pad. He says, 'If the events of recent weeks' — he wouldn't even mention [Gagarin's] name — 'if the events of recent weeks are any indication of the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, then we need to show the world the path to freedom over the path to tyranny.'

"Accessory to War," by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Accessory to War," by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

"That was the battle cry against godless communists.  Oh, by the way, we're going to go to the moon. And so, once the battle cry was in place, that loosened a source of money that is available when you feel threatened. It's the war driver for spending money, and that's why we went to the moon. And that's why nobody should be surprised that when we learned the Soviet Union was not going to the moon, that we just ended it all. If you looked at when we were going to the moon, the writings were, 'Oh we're on the moon by 1969? We'll be on Mars by 1985, and this is where we're going and this is why we're ... ' No. No. The only reason why we'd be on Mars is if Russia wanted to put bases on Mars. And, all astronauts in the Apollo era except for one were military pilots. They were from the Navy and from the Marines and from the Air Force, even though it was a civilian agency.

"Now, 'By the way, since we're going to the moon, hey you guys, why don't you take this little experiment with you. Here's a satchel, here's a shopping bag, bring back some rocks so we can analyze it and don't mess them up too badly when you do it.' So yes, science happened. But that's not what drove it, and that's not why we did it. But science did happen and science historically has always piggybacked geopolitically driven activities."

On the International Space Station being similarly driven

"In the 1980s — it was called Space Station Freedom back then, it wasn't international, it was our space station — this is the Cold War. Russia was going to have a space station, we're going to have a space station. So we start building the space station and 1989 comes around, peace breaks out in Europe. And by 1993, it's official and we say, 'Uh oh, how about all these Russian space scientists? They're really talented, and we don't want them going to an adversary.' So we invited Russia to join us in Space Station Freedom, then it became the International Space Station. So all these decisions were geopolitically motivated. But by the way, you can do science in zero G."

"I don't have a fundamental problem with it, and just because it came out of Trump's mouth doesn't make it crazy."

Neil deGrasse Tyson, on President Trump calling for the creation of a Space Force

On what to make of this connection

"I don't value judge it. It's hard to not value judge something like this, but I've worked hard to not value judge it. For me, compiling this book, looking at the role that science in general and astrophysics in particular has played in aiding the warfighter, I stepped aside and I said, 'I will not pass judgment on this. I will simply present it as is. The reader can judge it, like it or dislike it, but it's what it is.' So it's your third choice — it's not good, it's not bad, it's just what it is."

On President Trump's calls to create a Space Force

"I don't have a horse in that race. I can tell you that if you ask generals in the Air Force which currently oversee the U.S. Space Command, many of them will say, 'We're fine controlling space under the umbrella of an Air Force.' But if you do break it off, what you do is you will shift everything under the Air Force's portfolio that's about space, and it becomes its own category, a Space Force. And I might throw in a couple of things if you could, I might throw in asteroid defense, maybe? Or, how about cleaning up the space debris? So that my commerce that I'm conducting from space doesn't get put at risk by 18,000 mile an hour bolts flying through space that fell off of some mission?

"I don't have a fundamental problem with it, and just because it came out of Trump's mouth doesn't make it crazy."

On the privatization of space exploration

"I have to clarify a couple of things that are not often clarified in the press, and that is private enterprise — based on my read of history — will never lead a venture into space that has never been conducted before. Things you've never done before that are expensive and dangerous and have uncertain returns on investment are simply not done by corporate entities. They're done by entities that have a longer baseline of return on the investment that they can recognize, and that would be nations. The first Europeans to the New World were not the Dutch East India Trading Company. It was Columbus, sent by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand to find a shorter trade route to the Far East. And once he's there and he knows how big the Earth is and how long it takes, and where the hostiles and the friendlies and the trade winds and the food [are], then you come back, now you have information that can be used to assist an economic venture.

"So it's not really true that Elon Musk is going to send the first astronauts to Mars on his own dime. You could do it as a vanity project: He'd get together with Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, and they could just do it, and drop a hundred billion dollars to do it, whatever it'll cost. But that's not a business model, and they would be criticized by investors for having spent their money that way."

"They will have their way with us, if they treat us the way we humans have treated each other in the history of civilization."

Neil deGrasse Tyson, on the likelihood an encounter between humans and aliens would turn violent

On how the U.S. is doing when it comes to competition with China, Russia, India and other countries in research and innovation

"I was just in China visiting the largest telescope in the world — they've got the largest telescope in the world — and I came through the Shanghai airport, where there's a sign that says, 'Bathrooms are this way, stairs are that way, oh and the Maglev is this way.' The maglev, on the same sign as the bathroom and the stairs. And I'm thinking, 'If I had a maglev, it'd be the biggest frickin' sign in the airport.' So there's a magnetically levitated train that goes several hundred kilometers an hour, and it goes from the airport to the city in just a matter of minutes.

"I'm disappointed that, here we are in the United States, arguing over who's going to build a wall, and what immigrant is coming in or not, when there are large issues related to things like infrastructure and energy policy and food management and research in the frontier of science, technology, engineering and math, which will fuel tomorrow's economic growth. Without that, we'll just watch the rest of the world pass us by, as they're kind of already doing. We're becoming less and less relevant on the world stage. So I fear for the future of the United States."

On the likelihood an encounter between humans and aliens would turn violent

"If they come here, they are certainly more technologically advanced than we are. If they treat us the way we treat one another, then they will completely exploit us, enslave us, put us on reservations, slaughter us. They will have their way with us, if they treat us the way we humans have treated each other in the history of civilization. So we should hope that they are kinder and gentler than we are in dealing with us."

On finding a way to communicate difficult scientific subjects to a general audience

"There should be thousands of people like me. I think there's tons of articulate scientists. Our profession, however, in general does not reward us for being articulate in ways that take us outside of the laboratory. My field, we have the benefit of having had Carl Sagan clear some of the brush and bramble of this attitude against reaching for the public. Can you still be respected if you appear on 'The Tonight Show?' Can you still be respected if you are a character in a cartoon? And that's an interesting question.

"In my field, I've done all of those things and as best as I can tell, I'm still respected, in part because I'm trying to lift all boats, raise science literacy of the entire electorate so that when anyone comes back to their representative or their community, they'll say, 'Oh, are you doing that work? I saw Tyson talk about it. That's great. I want more of it.' And if you're doing tax base-sourced science ... you have the right to know you. I have the obligation to tell you, and you have the right to know how that money is being spent. I would do so without hesitation, sharing ... the thrills of this [work] — and this is what Carl Sagan did brilliantly in his original 'Cosmos' and in all the books that surrounded it."

Book Excerpt: 'Accessory To War'

by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang

On February 10, 2009, two communications satellites—one Russian, the other American—smashed into each other five hundred miles above Siberia, at a closing speed of more than 25,000 miles an hour. Although the impetus for building their forerunners was war, this collision was a purely peacetime accident, the first of its kind. Someday, one of the hundreds of chunks of resulting debris might smash into another satellite or cripple a spaceship with people on board.

Down on the ground that same winter’s day, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 7888—respectably above the decade’s dip to 6440 in March 2009 but not much more than half its high of 14,198 in October 2007. In other news of the day, Muzak Holdings, the eponymous provider of elevator music, filed for bankruptcy; General Motors announced a cut of ten thousand white-collar jobs; federal investigators raided the offices of a Washington lobbying firm whose clients were major campaign contributors to the head of the House subcommittee on defense spending; the inflammatory Iranian president declared at a rally celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of his nation’s Islamic Revolution that Iran was “ready to hold talks based on mutual respect and in a fair atmosphere”; and the brand-new American president’s brand-new secretary of the Treasury presented a $2 trillion plan to lure speculators into buying the unstable American assets that had collapsed the global economy. Civil engineers announced that 70 percent of the salt applied to icy roads in the Twin Cities ended up in the watershed. An environmental physicist announced that a third of the top-selling laser printers form large numbers of lung-damaging ultrafine particles from vapors emitted when the printed image is heat-fused to the paper. Climatologists announced that the flowering ranges of almost a hundred plant species had crept uphill in Arizona’s Santa Catalina Mountains over a twenty-year period, in lockstep with the rise in summer temperatures.

The world, in other words, was in flux and under threat, as it so often is.

Ten days later, an international group of distinguished economists, officials, and academics met under the auspices of Columbia University’s Center on Capitalism and Society to discuss how the world might manage to emerge from its worse-than-usual financial crisis. The center’s director, Nobel laureate in economics Edmund Phelps, argued that some financial re-regulation was called for but stressed that it must not “discourag[e] funding for investment in innovation in the non-financial business sector, which has been the main source of dynamism in the U.S. economy.” What’s the non-financial business sector? Military spending, medical equipment, aerospace, computers, Hollywood films, music, and more military spending. For Phelps, dynamism and innovation went hand in hand with capitalism—and with war. Asked by a BBC interviewer for a “big thought” on the crisis and whether it constituted “a permanent indictment of capitalism,” he responded, “My big thought is, we desperately need capitalism in order to create interesting work to be done, for ordinary people—unless maybe we can go to war against Mars or something as an alternative.”

A vibrant economy, in other words, depends on at least one of the following: the profit motive, war on the ground, or war in space.

On September 14, 2009, just a few months after the satellite smashup and a few blocks from where the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers had stood eight years and four days earlier, President Barack Obama spoke to Wall Street movers and shakers to mark the first anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the investment firm whose bankruptcy is often presented as having triggered the avalanche of financial failures in 2008–2009. That same morning, China laid the cornerstone for its fourth space center on an island close to the equator—the latitude of choice for exploiting Earth’s rotation speed, thereby minimizing the fuel necessary for a launch and maximizing the potential payload. By late 2014 construction was finished, well before the World Trade Center site would be fully rebuilt. An Associated Press reporter spoke of China’s “soaring space ambitions” and, after presenting a daunting list of Chinese space achievements and ambitions, stated that “China says its space program is purely for peaceful ends, although its military background and Beijing’s development of anti-satellite weapons have prompted some to question that.”

Much the same could be said of the background and backing of the lavishly funded space programs created by the Cold War superpowers. Were he alive today, the seventeenth-century Dutch astronomer and mathematician Christiaan Huygens might tell us we’d be fools to think that ambitious undertakings in space can be achieved without massive military support. Back in the 1690s, as Huygens thought about life on Mars and the other planets then known to populate the night sky, he pondered how best to foster inventiveness. For him and his era, profit was a powerful incentive (capitalism was as yet unnamed), and conflict was a divinely endorsed stimulant of creativity:

It has so pleased God to order the Earth . . . that this mixture of bad Men with good, and the Consequents of such a mixture as Misfortunes, Wars, Afflictions, Poverty and the like, were given us for this very good end, viz. the exercising our Wits and Sharpening our Inventions; by forcing us to provide for our own necessary defence against our Enemies.

Yes, waging war requires clever thinking and promotes technical innovation. Not controversial. But Huygens can’t resist linking the absence of armed conflict with intellectual stagnation:

And if Men were to lead their whole Lives in an undisturb’d continual Peace, in no fear of Poverty, no danger of War, I don’t doubt they would live little better than Brutes, without all knowledge or enjoyment of those Advantages that make our Lives pass on with pleasure and profit. We should want the wonderful Art of Writing if its great use and necessity in Commerce and war had not forc’d out the Invention. ’Tis to these we owe our Art of Sailing, our Art of Sowing, and most of those Discoveries of which we are Masters; and almost all the secrets in experimental Knowledge.

So it’s simple: no war equals no intellectual ferment. Arm in arm with trade, says Huygens, war has served as the catalyst for literacy, exploration, agriculture, and science.

Were Phelps and Huygens right? Must war and profit be what drive both civilization on Earth and the investigation of other worlds? History, including last week’s history, makes it hard to answer no. Across the millennia, space studies and war planning have been business partners in the perennial quest of rulers to obtain and sustain power over others. Star charts, calendars, chronometers, telescopes, maps, compasses, rockets, satellites, drones—these were not inspirational civilian endeavors. Dominance was their goal; increase of knowledge was incidental.

But history needn’t be destiny. Maybe the present calls for something different. Today we face “Enemies and Misfortunes” that Huygens never dreamed of. Surely the “exercising [of] our Wits” could be directed toward the betterment of all rather than the triumph of the few. Surely it’s not too radical to suggest that capitalism won’t have much to work with if several hundred million species vanish for lack of potable water, breathable air, or perhaps the aftereffects of a plummeting asteroid or an assault by cosmic rays.

Looking down at Earth from an orbiting spacecraft, a rational person could certainly feel that “necessary defence” may have more to do with the vulnerability of our beautiful blue planet, exposed to all the vicissitudes of the cosmos, than with the transient power of a single country’s weapons, policymakers, nationalists, and ideologues, however virulent. From hundreds of kilometers above the surface of the globe, “Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men” might sound less like a standard line on a Christmas card and more like an essential step toward a viable future, in which all of humankind cooperates in protecting Earth from the enemies among us and the threats above us.

Reprinted from Accessory to War by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang. Copyright © 2018 by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published on September 11, 2018.

This segment aired on September 12, 2018.



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