This last Wednesday, December 7 was a big day for the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville physics department. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson visited the campus through a joint effort between the university’s Arts & Issues program, an annual lecture series that has been part of campus life for over 25 years, and the Shaw lecture series, a biennial presentation focusing on special topics in physics.
Before giving his lecture, Tyson took the time to attend the opening of the department’s newly constructed observatory, doing the honors of cutting the ceremonial ribbon. The physics students were then given the opportunity to spend time with Dr. Tyson in a small Q&A setting. The man is quite dynamic and has a way with words, and he stands apart from the usual talking heads featured so often by the media. He takes questions quite literally, and he responds with no-nonsense answers, at times avoiding bluntness only through the strength of his sincerity.
Tyson’s lecture focused on the United States’ relationship with the final frontier over the course of the last half century – our past, present, and future in space. Most of the material covered in the lecture will be included in his upcoming book, set to be published in February 2012 (The book, originally titled Failure to Launch, will be released under a different, “less negative” name by request of the publisher). Tyson’s main argument is this: the United States’ dedication to space peaked long ago, and all efforts to travel to the beyond were made solely in reaction to the achievements of the U.S.S.R. To make his point succinctly, Tyson stated that he wishes “China would leak plans to establish military bases on Mars. We’d be planting the flag within two years.”
The trouble lies in the fact that space travel is prohibitively expensive. Making any sort of substantial step towards the stars requires a project on par with the construction of the pyramids – one needing an uninterrupted flow of funds over many years, despite fluctuations in political and economic climates. The only way to guarantee such an investment, Tyson says, is through the pressure of war or the promise of economic return. Recognizing that the United States no longer has a U.S.S.R. to follow into space, he feels that it is up to the people to push the government into action. “Remind Washington that they work for us!” he declared.
Thankfully, government is no longer the only option. Today’s technology gives people the ability to accomplish what before could be done only by the most powerful countries in the world. An individual like myself can send a satellite into orbit, something that took the efforts of the entire U.S.S.R. fifty years earlier. And Americans are hardly the only ones taking the DIY initiative; the KickSat project alone consists of individuals from Australia, Britain, and more. Why work only at a national level, and only to build government interest in taking space seriously? There is already a worldwide interest, and it’s leading the way into space right now. Washington can follow if they want.