Neil deGrasse Tyson on why we should — or maybe should not — go to Mars

“The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you,” writes Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson is his new book, “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.”  

Astrophysicist Tyson has written a shelf-full of books in his career, some for scholars.  But he has a real gift for explaining incredibly complex concepts in very accessible ways. And this book, he says, is for readers with an over-scheduled life, but who are still curious about the universe.

Along those lines, he talks with Press Play about the universal laws of physics, evidence for a multiverse, time travel, and traveling to Mars.

President Donald Trump has said he wants Americans to reach the red planet by 2033, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk is also serious about getting there.

However, Tyson says he sees no pathway for a private corporation to be the first to send humans to Mars, because there’s no business case to make for it.

Historically, only governments can invest in the long-term future of space exploration, says Tyson.

“Then the commercial enterprise can come,” he continues, “because then you know the cost, and you’ve quantified the risks, and you can establish an ROI [return on investment] on that trip.”

Tyson says the only reason Americans were so interested in going to the moon was because of war. We were competing against the Soviets.

His point, he emphasizes, is there is nothing driving a mission to Mars.

“It’s not going to happen unless we judge that setting an outpost on Mars is our strategic interest. Then we’ll do it overnight. If China leaked a memo saying they want to put military bases on Mars … we’ll be on Mars in 10 months,” he suggests.

Tyson can also imagine an economic reason for getting there.

“If we go to Mars, it can stimulate science literacy in generations of people to come, and we could turn a sleepy country into an innovation nation. And those innovations are the engines of tomorrow’s growth economies.”

It makes a good headline for Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, and others to argue that we should be a two-planet species in case a catastrophe makes earth uninhabitable.

Credit: Miller Mobley

“But you want to think of this practically,” argues DeGrasse Tyson. “If you go to Mars and live in a bubble, that’s not really colonizing Mars. That’s living on Earth on Mars. … Ideally, you want to terraform Mars. Turn it into Earth. And then you go ship people to Mars, and then you’re actually colonizing Mars. We don’t know how to terraform yet, but it’s a kind of fun frontier,” he explains.

But DeGrasse Tyson argues that if you have the technology to terraform Mars, then you have the technology to deflect any asteroid that would hit earth; and if you can terraform Mars into Earth, then you can turn Earth back into Earth — if, say, we over-trash it.

Ultimately, DeGrasse Tyson argues, splitting the species — so one survives if the other is eliminated — is not a real way we’d make decisions in a real world.

He clarifies, “You go to Mars because you want to explore. You go to Mars because it stimulates innovation that can stoke the economy that everyone cares about on both sides of the political aisle.”