Column: Neil deGrasse Tyson on ‘space force’ and the uneasy alliance between astrophysics and the military


Neil deGrasse Tyson showed up with a substantial backpack whose contents, he assured me, could restart the universe if necessary. It was certainly heavy enough to do the job; perhaps it was packed with a rare mineral — maybe osmium, twice as heavy as lead. Or maybe it contained copies of his new book, also substantial, called “Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military.”

He wrote it with his longtime editor Avis Lang, and it charts the long courtship — sometimes willing, sometimes shotgun nuptials — between the practitioners of space science and the military defenders of the nation. His own thinking on this took an interesting trajectory too. And President Trump’s “space force”? Not an original idea, Tyson says, but not altogether a bad one.

How did nice astrophysicists like you wind up in a racket like this?

Nearly all of us are nice in the way that I think you're describing us. Astrophysics is perhaps the most humble of all sciences. When you look at what we do, we ascend to mountaintops and wait for photons to travel across the galaxy or the universe to hit our detector, and then we bring the detector to the coffee lounge and debate what happened to the detector.

We don't have direct access to what it is we study the way a chemist would, or a biologist, or any of the other sciences. We don't really interact with or interfere with what it is we study, and so we tend to be a peaceful lot.

We’re overwhelmingly liberal, antiwar, I would say, and yet we are complicit with what happens in the military with regard to their inventions that we can exploit, or our inventions or discoveries that they can exploit.

For example, the military might employ a physicist to make a bomb, as happened in the Second World War. That’s the exemplar of this kind of relationship with science. The physicists made the atom bomb. The chemists made napalm or other incendiary bombs that require chemical reactions to generate heat. The biologist in modern times might be tapped to weaponize anthrax.

Their role in war is clear and present. It’s not as though we're all employed to make war machines. That’s not our expertise; we’re not interested in that. We just do things that the military happens to care deeply about.

For example, we care about multispectral imaging of dim objects over our head. This is a very high concern for the military: What is flying over your head? Let's detect it. Is it stealthy?

We’re overwhelmingly liberal, antiwar, I would say, and yet we are complicit with what happens in the military.

Oh, by the way, the military has the fastest computers in the world for just that purpose. Oh, I might want to visit and use their computer in their code. Oh, and on the other side of the wall are people calculating the yields of hydrogen bombs, which is thermonuclear fusion, converting hydrogen to helium. That's why they're called hydrogen bombs.

It’s the same phenomenon going on, one used for destruction, the other used to understand stars in the universe. So it's this shared interest that has made for quite interesting bedfellows over the centuries.

Consider also the history of astronomers in the service of empire-building. We know the sky really well, we know where stars are, where and when you find them, and you can use this information to help you find out where you are on Earth. This is navigation.

And navigation is about expanding trade and empire.

I’m glad you also mentioned trade, because there is military empire-building but there's also trade-building, right? These were equal motives.

If you’re not into trade, you’re just into hegemony— I love that word, that is an underused word today: hegemony — or empire-building, you're going to want an astronomer right there with you.

The best example of that is Captain Cook. We've all heard of Captain Cook and his voyages in the South Pacific. The top story of why he went to the South Pacific, the one you saw or read about, is, Oh there's a transit of Venus, a planet between us and the sun. Every couple of hundred years or so, it will pass exactly between us and the sun, and you can see the darkened disc of Venus move across the surface of the sun.

And it becomes a way of measuring many other things of consequence too.

And you can only see this transit of Venus from the South Pacific. That’s what the top story is. But then you flip over his instructions: While you’re there, shh, take these new navigational tools and map the coastline of every landmass you encounter and bring back those maps. Shhhh — OK, now, go observe the transit of Venus.

So Captain Cook goes, brilliantly measures the transit of Venus, oh, and maps the coastline of all the landmasses he finds — and within 18 years, Great Britain takes over Australia, New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Fiji.

In 2003, at the National Space Symposium, this came to you like a bolt from the blue.

I was on the board of the Space Foundation, which serves space interest organizations and agencies. It just so happened the opening day was three days after the second Gulf War kicked in.

The way that war was conducted was entirely enabled by space assets that had been slowly but surely put into orbit, and that included an entire suite of GPS satellites, something we all take for granted today. This is pre-Uber, pre-all these industries that now rely on using GPS for coordinate tracking of things, and so all these space assets were invoked.

There was CNN up there on the screen. Everybody's watching because some sessions were shortened or curtailed or canceled so that we could all just watch this war unfold in front of our eyes.

And I said, oh, my gosh, there are people dying in there and this is not a video game. What's going on here? I got a little — I beat back the tears.

My first awareness of the world was in the 1960s, when the Vietnam War became extremely unpopular. So to me war equaled bad, just flat out.

What’s that song, “War: What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! Say it again!”

The lyric didn’t specify the Vietnam War — it just said “war.” So it was clear to me that there is no good excuse to run around killing people. Why do we do it?

There’s a history of science standing in opposition to some of its own creations, whether it's Einstein or physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Correct. That’s science in general. The most vocal scientists were physicists in opposition to the bomb, how the proliferation of the nuclear bombs had occurred during the Cold War in particular. The opposition to the bomb in the Second World War did not take place until it was clear that Nazi Germany was not close to making the bomb. But we just still kept making the bomb. And then the target was no longer Germany; it became Japan.

And this is where people's moral compass got tested: You have this weapon. Do you still use it, even though the original intent no longer even applies?

So I’m there in Colorado Springs [at the symposium], wondering, do I resign? Can I do this in good conscience? This is space. This is my first love. And now it's a platform for enabling death and destruction.

And then I realized something. Let not call it “epiphany.” Let me call it “maturity.”

I already had a point of cognitive dissonance in my head growing up. You go around town, any town, and there are war memorials. And I say, wow. If war equals bad, why are we glorifying soldiers this way? I just didn't understand it.

Then I realized, Oh, not all wars are the same as the Vietnam War. If you were around watching Hitler rise to power, and you have the power to do something about that, will you sit silently?

You almost have an obligation to invoke whatever resources you have to promote civilization against the forces of evil that could dismantle it. I know that had I been around at other times, I surely would have voted on the side of war. I surely would have said, sign me up because these are evil forces that I want to combat.

So not all war is what one might consider moral or just. But there's a whole category of wars that are, and to the extent that my intellectual capital, my community's resources would be tapped for that, I no longer stood in judgment of it.

It occurred to me this kind of thing we'd been going on for centuries. Look at Leonard da Vinci one of the greatest minds we've ever had, the exemplar of the bridge between art and science. You look at his resumé and his sketchbook of military instruments, and he was basically selling his talents to dukes and whoever the heads of state were in his day, so that he could get a job.

I think what happens is, you need a good moral compass. Oh, you're killing people just for the sake of killing people? Are you killing people just for the sake of your own economic gain? Are you killing people just for hegemony, just for empire-building? Or is this conflict something that in fact will serve the greater good of the world?

And you have to think about that every time you're ready to raise a weapon — as a scientist, most certainly.

When it comes to space, before Sputnik in 1957, space was in a sense tabula rasa. Then the United States puts a man on the moon and leaves a plaque that says we came in peace for all mankind. Was that just BS-ing us? Was that just kumbaya on the moon?

First of all, just to make it clear, Sputnik was a little radio transmitter that went beep-beep with radio waves.

And scared the hell out of the entire United States.

Let me tell you why it scared us. There are treaties about who has access to your airspace. However, Sputnik was moving through space-space, not airspace. There's no rules about that.

So there was Sputnik over our head, A. B, that radio transmitter was in the hollowed-out cone of an intercontinental ballistic missile. So if they can deliver a radio transmitter that goes beep-beep overhead, they can deliver an intercontinental ballistic missile. Period.

That’s why we just lost it. We freaked. And so we reacted.

Then we say, “We come in peace for all mankind” — but plant an American flag. Not a United Nations flag or anything else. But it is true we didn't put weapons there or anything. There was not a weaponized mission to the moon.

But it was understood in the government that space would be a contested place?

I wouldn’t say the government specifically, but the military specifically, yes. The military is always looking for the next high ground. That's their job. And ideally, you would not want to ever have to fight a war. You'd want diplomacy to prevent it. You’d invest money in ways that rendered the weapons of your opponent obsolete.

By the way — space? There is incalculable value of American assets in space right now. Not just in the value of the satellites that are orbiting there themselves: the GPS satellites, the communications satellites, the spy satellites, the weather satellites.

But then there's the value of the information it provides back on Earth. There’s the value of hurricane forecasting that it enables, so that you can protect industry and life and property. There is the value of entire industries that exist only because of GPS, such as Uber,

You add all of that up, you can now ask the question, what is the role of the military in that? I want them to protect our assets if a rogue player shows up and our assets are in space, as an American citizen, as a scientist, as a human being who has hard-earned tax money that goes into these assets, business money.

To think that you would not want or need to protect those assets would be naive.

When it comes to who is going to govern space, how do you see this evolving? is it going to be who gets there first with the biggest firepower? Is there any agency, any mechanism that can make this place more orderly and perhaps safer than it is now, or than it looks to become?

When we think of governance, we think of governing municipalities, something that has a border that you can draw. Space has no such border because a satellite, to maintain orbit, orbits the entire Earth and it flies over everything.

My point is that jurisdiction becomes difficult if everybody's sharing the same space. So the concept of jurisdiction matters more if you ask the question, who owns the moon? Who owns Mars? Who owns an asteroid? Who owns a comet?

If I invest my own money, if I'm an entrepreneur and I lasso an asteroid and I mine it for its mineral resources, is it wrong for me to say that I own it?

We’ve been through something like that before. It’s called homesteading. What was homesteading about? Here is undeveloped land — undeveloped in a commercial sense — and if you go there and clear the land, make your own house, create a farm, you get to keep it, provided you now contribute to the economy of the region.

There's a version of that that applies to space. Do you want one country to own the moon? That sounds wrong. Same with Mars. There are are people who are thinking this stuff through right now.

The Trump administration has proposed a space force, and it generated a lot of mockery. You’d conceived the idea of a space force a number of years ago but with different purposes. Obviously they'd have to build a hexagon to replace the Pentagon because we’d now have six branches of the military. What could a space force actually be and do?

The mockery was, for my read, primarily driven by people who are in the business of criticizing everything Trump does. But if you really think it through, just because it came out of Trump's mouth doesn't mean it's a crazy idea.

You analyze it deeply and you'll realize we already have a space force. It's a branch of the Air Force. It's called U.S. Space Command. They're the ones who launch the GPS satellites. They and some other reconnaissance branches of the government, care about spy satellites

We already have a military presence in space. A space force would simply group them under one umbrella.

And you might add in a few other tasks.

While you’re at it, folks, why don't you protect us from killer asteroids? Right?

And space junk.

Space junk! Throw that in the bin, too, by all means!

I remember suggesting a space force in 2001. I was on a commission appointed by George W. Bush to study the future of the aerospace industry, which was on hard times at the time, and I proposed a space force.

We had a four-star Air Force general on this commission and he felt that they had everything under control.

But for a space force to pull away, become its own branch — that's not any different, really, from the Air Force branching away from the Army. A space regime is as different from navigating air as navigating air is from navigating the ground.

What’s happening with what is essentially a conflict between the military or the government, which wants to keep secrets with technology, and science, which is about opening up knowledge?

Completely open knowledge. And that’s the difference. We can make a discovery and publish it and then the military just take it. Whereas they can make a discovery, keep it classified, and we don't have access to it until it's declassified.

That happened many times, including when they figured out a way to stabilize a star's image as the light passes through.

So there’s no wobble?

So there is no wobble and there's no twinkling. Because if they’re going to track a missile moving through the sky, they want to know exactly where the thing is in that instant, It can't have been jiggled and wiggled by turbulence in Earth's atmosphere.

They figured out a way to stabilize it. We'd been grappling with this problem forever and they finally declassified it and we said yes, we want that and we want it now!

We took it and immediately retrofitted our best telescopes with it. It's called image stabilization techniques, and it is the foundation of our best data that we get from ground-based telescopes today.

Maybe you’d like to read from the end of your book.

“The almost-final word goes to the anonymous carrier of a placard at one of the 600-plus marches for science that took place around the world on April 22, 2017. ‘Think while it's still legal,’ urged the placard. And while you're thinking, try to imagine that each of us is a transient assemblage of atoms and molecules, and that our planet is one small pebble ambling in orbit through the vacuum of space; that astrophysics, the historical handmaiden of human conflict, now offers a way to redirect our species’ urges to kill into collaborative urges to explore, to uncover alien civilizations, to link Earth with the rest of the cosmos — genetically, chemically, atomically — and to protect our home planet until the sun's furnace burns itself out 5 billion years hence. Try to imagine such things not because they are imaginary, but because they are true.”

I think the most hopeful message here for me is that one category of war that has existed with us from the beginning, since tribal warfare, is the urge to kill because you don't have access to limited resources that the other tribe does.

Space has basically unlimited resources. The future might be the solar system becomes our backyard where we have unlimited access to resources, and that could be the end of all wars over resources.

We might still kill each other because our skin is different or we worship different gods, but war is over who has access to what? Raw materials? No, that would be a thing of the past.

One of the greatest solutions to conflict that we ever might find is the exploration of space, removing an entire category of war from the history of civilization

Planetary plenty.


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