Space Expert: Obama Didn’t End NASA

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about the space program and the planet Krypton.

Neil deGrasse Tyson (Hillary Crosley/The Root)
Neil deGrasse Tyson (Hillary Crosley/The Root)

Our biggest interferometer isn’t big enough to see Krypton! I’d need a telescope the width of the Earth. So I said we could get all of the telescopes in the world to observe Krypton at the same time, and just send the data to here. We can pretend that we’ve figured a way to do it with our supercomputer that doesn’t exist yet. Then they said, “No, you don’t need the supercomputer because we have Superman.” So now an additive power of Superman is that he can stand over your computer and analyze and reduce data in such a way to create the world’s largest optic interferometer. He does this in our [Hayden Sphere], and we project the destruction of Krypton in our dome.

TR: Why did you feel it was so important to have the science right?

NDT: Many artists who are inspired by science don’t reach as far into it as they could, thinking it might restrict their creativity. I maintain that there’s so much science, particularly in astrophysics, that if you did understand it, it would add to your creativity. If you can infuse real science into science fiction storytelling, that elevates those stories in the hearts and minds of the geek set.

Let the record show that DC Comics came to us in advance, which is not what [Titanic director] Jim Cameron did. He was notified [by me] after the fact that he got his stars wrong above the sinking Titanic, so you might as well call us before.

TR: Speaking of films getting it wrong, what are your favorite films that got the science right?

NDT: For me, the most important science fiction movie was 2001: A Space Odyssey. I saw it in real time, that’s how old I am. What 2001 meant, what it did and the vision that it laid before us all, including just being in space and exploring the unknown, was an extraordinary achievement.

In terms of sheer entertainment, I’ve seen The Matrix a dozen times. But my two science fiction movies that not only cared about the science but also got it right and had excellent scientific, cultural and ethical themes are Deep Impact, with the asteroid from space, and Carl Sagan’s Contact. Both of those films did an extraordinary job of looking at how science intersects with our political systems, cultures and how we treat each other and what the consequences are from new knowledge about what the world brings us. These films didn’t get a letter from me.

TR: President Obama just won a second term — what do you think NASA’s focus should be moving forward?

NDT: People think Obama ended NASA, but he didn’t … It needs more money. NASA is like a flywheel of inspiration, innovation and technology. It exists ahead of us all, so if you want to pull a nation into the future — recognizing that innovation in the 21st century is technological creativity, and that is the seed of tomorrow’s economies and you want to drive that — it’s not going to happen just by making better teachers. It makes a good headline but you need something at the other end of that. The greatest motivator is that which makes a person to want to do it on their own.

In the 1960s, when we were going to the moon, you had to beat people back at the door who wanted to take physics and engineering. NASA, at its best, is a force of nature unto itself.

Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root.