In an interview published on Tuesday in The Verge, celebrity astrophysicist and media personality Neil deGrasse Tyson touched off a firestorm when he suggested that commercial space was not going to lead the way to open up the high frontier. Tyson has started a live show that he calls “Delusions of Space Enthusiasts” in which he touched on, among other things, why the Apollo program did not lead to greater things in space exploration such as going to Mars. Tyson repeats conventional wisdom about Apollo and the Cold War. In any case, it is his remarks on commercial space that has caused the most irritation.
“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.”
The controversy surrounding the Dutch effort, Mars One, and SpaceX’s Elon Musk’s vague statements about his Mars ambitions would tend to support Tyson’s thesis. So what entity will be the leading edge of space exploration? Apparently it will be the same government that failed to capitalize on the achievements of Apollo.
“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.”
Tyson went on to cite the example of SpaceX moving cargo to and from the International Space Station. SpaceX is engaged in a commercial space enterprise, but only once NASA provided a core market and bought down some of the risks.
Tyson’s insight did not sit well with some commercial space enthusiasts. Rand Simberg, a space blogger and a “recovering aerospace engineer,” snarked that Tyson, “…flaunts his ignorance (again) of both the history of exploration and the economics of spaceflight.”
NASA Watch’s Keith Cowing was a little more detailed, more snarky, and factually incorrect.
“Neil Tyson may be a smart astronomer type of guy but he doesn’t understand business – certainly not the model that is working for Elon Musk rather nicely thus far in SpaceX and elsewhere. Nor does Tyson have the resources that Musk has or understand why successful entities like Google have invested. Rather, Tyson’s tactic on human and commercial space flight thus far seems to be to whine and inject doubt whenever he can. And he is clearly unhappy and grumpy when people continue to succeed in commercial and/human spaceflight.”
Tyson is not an astronomer, but an astrophysicist. Musk’s business model seems to be to grab his share of NASA subsidies and fat government contracts, which has served him and his company quite well. In any case, neither criticism addresses Tyson’s main points.