Neil deGrasse Tyson on why he believes firms like SpaceX won't get us to Mars

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Nov 25, 2015

It’s easy to hang a lot of hope on the promise of private space firms like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin — but famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t think they’re the answer. 

In a fascinating interview with The Verge, Tyson dove into the current state of space travel and what he thinks companies like SpaceX represent in the grand scheme of things. According to Tyson, they’ll be great to help ferry people to the International Space Station, or low-Earth orbit, but don’t bank on these companies actually getting us to the stars. The biggest problem for Tyson is the fact that space travel is insanely expensive and dangerous, and doesn’t provide much of a payoff for a private company to invest the resources needed to make it happen.

Tyson said NASA has gotten so bogged down in handling the minutiae that it’s distracted the space agency from focusing on the big picture (hard to argue with that point). But, in his opinion, all private companies can solve are those basic problems. Tyson said he believes we still need NASA to make the big jumps, because the smaller companies aren’t equipped to tackle projects with a larger scope.

Here’s an excerpt from his comments:

“The delusion that relates to private spaceflight isn’t really what you’re describing. They’re big dreams, and I don’t have any problems with people dreaming. Mars One, let them dream. That’s not the delusion. The delusion is thinking that SpaceX is going to lead the space frontier. That’s just not going to happen, and it’s not going to happen for three really good reasons: One, it is very expensive. Two, it is very dangerous to do it first. Three, there is essentially no return on that investment that you’ve put in for having done it first. So if you’re going to bring in investors or venture capitalists and say, ‘Hey, I have an idea, I want to put the first humans on Mars.’ They’ll ask, ‘How much will it cost?’ You say, ‘A lot.’ They’ll ask, ‘Is it dangerous?’ You’ll say, ‘Yes, people will probably die.’ They’ll ask, "What’s the return on investment?’ and you’ll say ‘Probably nothing, initially.’ It’s a five-minute meeting. Corporations need business models, and they need to satisfy shareholders, public or private.

A government has a much longer horizon over which it can make investments. This is how it’s always been. And the best example, I think, is Christopher Columbus. That was not a private mission. There were some private monies in the public monies that were used, but basically the mission statement was established by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, and they said go plant the flag wherever you land. There’s hegemonistic motivation, and it wasn’t specifically military at the time, but Spain certainly had an armada to back up their land grabs. Only after that, only after Christopher Columbus comes back and says, ‘Here are the people that I found, here are the foods, and here are the trade winds,’ only then does the Dutch East India Trading Company come in and make a buck off of it. They didn’t have to make that first investment. The risks were quantified, the cost was well understood, and the return on investment was calculable. That is a recurring model in the history of our civilization, and I don’t see any reason why that would be any different from advancing a frontier such as that in space.

So what is SpaceX doing now? They’re bringing cargo back and forth to the space station, as should have been happening decades ago. You don’t need NASA to move cargo, you get NASA to do the things that have never been done before. And then when they do it enough and there’s a routine, then you farm it off to private enterprise, which can actually do it more efficiently than you can, and presumably make a buck for having done so.”

Tyson makes some fair points, and sure, government space agencies have been behind pretty much every major advancement in space history. But, with private spaceflight still in its infancy, it’s hard to predict what type of impact it could potentially have in the years to come. We'd argue the jury is still out on that one.

What do you think? Does Tyson have it figured out, or is there more nuance to the question?

(Via The Verge)