BY MICHAEL SPAETH
Published July 1, 2012
In April, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson gave the Symposium Launch Keynote address at the 28th National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo. Though it didn’t receive extensive news coverage, Tyson passionately and eloquently presented a clever solution to some of the current problems in our country: double NASA’s budget.
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In the middle of tough economic times and a heated election season, funding for NASA probably isn’t very high on the priority list for politicians and average Americans. However, Tyson argues that a small investment in NASA could spark a renewed spirit of innovation that will help the economy grow in the long-term. Right now, according to Tyson, NASA’s budget is only half of one penny on the U.S. tax dollar — a very small amount compared to the amount of money our government is spending on other programs and services. If we double that budget to one penny on the tax dollar, which is still a very small amount, Tyson claims that the possibilities for space exploration and discovery expand tremendously.
With an expanded NASA budget, Tyson has called for the creation of a fleet of many different types of spacecraft and other technology that can serve a variety of uses for humans. “Whatever the needs or urges — be they geopolitical, military, economic — space becomes that frontier,” he said. Tyson also used the interstate highway system put in place by President Eisenhower in the 1950s as an analogy for the need for a diverse collection of spacecraft. “The interstate system connects everybody in whatever way you want. That's how you grow a system.”
An increased NASA budget could also benefit our economy in the much nearer future. “The culture of NASA drives the culture of innovation, and it’s the culture of innovation that drives the economies of the 21st century,” Tyson declared emphatically. And what can be more innovative than finding new ways to explore the final frontier? Space has captured the imaginations of most Americans at some point in their lives. Instead of investing in new businesses or industries that may fail, we should invest in something that is guaranteed to be innovative and also captures the imagination of a nation that definitely could use some inspiration.
More importantly, an increase in projects conducted by NASA would have important psychological benefits for the country. “Not only do you innovate, these innovations make headlines,” Tyson said. “Those headlines work their way down the educational pipeline. Everybody in school knows about it. You don’t have to set up a program to convince people that being an engineer is cool. They’ll know it just by the cultural presence of those activities. You do that, and it’ll jump-start our dreams.”
I doubt politicians are going to create responsible and lasting solutions to larger national and international issues anytime soon — issues involving much greater sums of money from the government and throughout the rest of the economy. Therefore, why not give a small amount of money in the budget to some of the few people in the entire country who aren’t restrained by political or business considerations? Scientists at NASA are interested in expanding scientific knowledge and exploring new frontiers. I fully trust people who are driven by pure scientific curiosity, not the next election cycle.
And besides, politicians should be eager to increase NASA’s funding because when we clearly lead the world once again in space exploration, we inject new life into the spirit of American exceptionalism, which has been on life support as our political atmosphere has become more toxic and polarized. Yet, at the same time, we also promote a globalized perspective focused on our common humanity. Tyson claims that several events in 1970 — the passage of the Clean Air Act, the creation of Earth Day and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency — weren’t just coincidences. After seeing the first photo of Earth from space in 1968, we began to focus on the planet we share. This kind of benevolent, globalized perspective is sorely needed in this era of constant division and hostility, and this perspective is also well-suited for an increasingly globalized economy and interconnected Internet culture.
As college students, we already have big dreams about our individual and collective futures. We’re going to be the innovators of the future, so we have a responsibility to spark that spirit of innovation right now. Let’s tell our friends, neighbors and elected officials that a small investment in innovation and our ability to dream is worth the short-term political inconvenience. Let’s show the rest of the world why we should dream again.