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March 08, 2012

Tyson and Doubling NASA's Budget: Fat Chance

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

Astrophysicist, director of the Hayden Planetarium, and rising cultural icon Neil deGrasse Tyson came to Capitol Hill on March 7 to testify before a U.S. Senate committee discussing the future of the nation's space program. As part of his new book tour, Tyson is promoting the idea of doubling NASA's budget to stimulate economic growth and inspire the country. His prepared remarks were stirring, inspiring -- and wasted on tone-deaf ears. 

"Right now, NASA's annual budget is a half penny on your tax dollar," Tyson stated in his written remarks. "For twice that -- a penny on a dollar -- we can transform the country from a sullen, dispirited nation, weary of economic struggle, to one where it has reclaimed its 20th century birthright to dream of tomorrow."

Tyson wants America to dream big again, like we did back in the space race of the 1950s and 1960s. Dreaming big will enable the country to change the assumptions of what is possible, pervading the dreams of citizens and driving scientific and technological growth -- the engine of economic growth.

Exploring the new space frontier brings with it the promise of wealth through cultural shifts in how "the electorate" views the role of science and technology in our daily lives.

Today's cultural malaise is due to the decline of dreams, part of an absence of ambition that has stopped because space exploration stopped advancing by the end of the 1970s, leaving us coasting on the dreams of Apollo. The nation is broke, in debt, has fewer scientists and jobs are going overseas. Tyson says this is due to the decline in space exploration.

"When you innovate, you lead the world, you keep your jobs, and concerns over tariffs and trade imbalances evaporate," Tyson states. Kids get excited about designing something that will fly on Mars, not a more fuel-efficient aircraft wing.

And if we don't get our act together? "We're on our way back to the caves as everyone else passes us by," Tyson warns.

Senator Bill Nelson, Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, loved it all. "You're not preaching to the choir," he said. "You're preaching to the preachers."

However, Tyson's call comes as a part of a book promotion tour -- not a full-time lobbying campaign to get Congress to double NASA's budget. He hasn't lined up Steven Colbert's Super PAC to run ads, hasn't gotten the buy-in for a plank on the 2012 Republican or Democratic Presidential Platform, or lined up a group of lawmakers to support spending more money on space.

Good ideas don't become reality without planning and hard work. If Tyson was planning to take a sabbatical from his position at the Hayden Planetarium and putting money from his latest book into a non-profit foundation to get NASA's budget doubled, I might have faith that he was doing more than simply grumbling by the fire in front of the caves.

Edited by Rich Steeves

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