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I’m keen on your mention, Joe, of the role of fascination and wonder in driving young Americans to choose careers in science (and, accordingly, the role of NASA’s periodic monotony in creating apathy among astronauts-to-be). Noted astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson recently addressed this issue at a conference of the University of Buffalo, saying that while America is “fading” in its enthusiasm for innovation, a renewed space program might revive the strengths of the NASA of the 1960’s, which made heroic figures of astronauts and continuously advanced the space frontier:

The current plan . . . promotes commercial access to low Earth orbit, [but] low Earth orbit is no longer a space frontier. The original Space Act of 1958 says NASA needs to advance a space frontier. Low Earth orbit is ‘to boldly go’ where hundreds have gone before; It’s not a frontier any more.

Without a plan to go somewhere outside low Earth orbit, we’ve got no force operating on the educational pipeline of America. NASA is a force of nature like none other. With all due respect to other federal agencies, I have never seen eighth graders sit up in their chairs and say ‘when I grow up, I want to be an NSF researcher or an NIH researcher.’ They do important scientific work, but they are unknown and invisible at the age when people choose what they want to be when they grow up.

When NASA is properly funded, Tyson says,

There’s a force operating on the educational pipeline that will stimulate the formation of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technologists. They’re the ones that make tomorrow come. The foundations of economies in this, the 21st century, will issue forth from investments we make in science and technology. This we’ve known since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution—[the] nations that embrace those investments are those that lead the world.

And on the matter of public funding, Tyson makes careful note that the all-inclusive price tag on NASA’s operations is “half a penny on the dollar” of our tax monies. As such, we find that “the most powerful agency [for] the dreams of a nation is currently under funded.” “Nobody’s dreaming about tomorrow anymore.”

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