Society is holding its annual PlanetFest in Pasadena this weekend to coincide with the landing of the Mars rover Curiosity, scheduled to reach Mars at 10:17 Pacific time tonight.
Bill Nye, longtime science advocate and former host of the eponymous television show, is chief executive of the Planetary Society, which aims to sponsor “projects that will seed innovative space technologies, nurture creative minds, and be a vital advocate for our future in space.” The Los Angeles Times talked to him about the origin of his love for space, his excitement about the Curiosity rover and the future of the U.S. space program.
How did you first get involved with the Planetary Society?
As the result of what must have been a clerical error, I was admitted to Cornell University. There I studied astronomy directly under Carl Sagan, which really got me into this. I’ve been a member of the Planetary Society since the 1980s, and now I’m the CEO.
PlanetFest has talks and exhibitions related to the Mars mission, but also related to private suborbital space and other types of missions as well. Which parts of space exploration most get you going?
I think these new rockets are cool, and when I was younger I applied to be an astronaut. So I really get excited by these private rockets. But to me it’s all about these rovers. If there’s really a chance to detect life, that would change things in the way that Galileo changed things and Copernicus changed things. There are two questions that drive us: Where did we come from? And are we alone? If we answered that second question, everything would change. I really believe that. We just might detect fossilized bacteria. I'm not saying we will, but we might. That would change everything for us.
Are you worried about the future funding of American space exploration?
This is really why I took this job -- when the three founders of the Planetary Society started it, they felt public interest in space was very high but funding was waning, which is where we find ourselves now. They are proposing to cut $1.5 billion over five years, which is a lot of money for space exploration but not a lot of money for the U.S. It’s like one day in Pakistan.
Why should the U.S. government keep funding where it is?
I think there is something I like to call trickle-up economics. You invest in [Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge], and kids start sending their kids to schools nearby. What parents wouldn’t want to do that? Then universities start growing up nearby. And research dollars move in. It wasn’t long ago that Pasadena was a kind of dirty, nasty place to walk around. Now it’s beautiful. That’s largely because of space exploration.
With the rise of privatized space flight, do you think we’re reaching the end of an era for government-funded space exploration? And do you think it’s important that space exploration remains government-funded?
Columbus, Magellan, Francis Drake, Lewis and Clark. All of these explorers were government-sponsored. Compare those explorers to the East India Company, and you can see why you have to do it with public funds -- it’s just the only way, and it’s the right thing to do. I will say, there is a business model out there that involves sending people to Mars for a one-way trip as a reality show. But I don’t see how that works -- astronauts like to say, as professionals, we like to come back.