The Ancient Ties That Bind Space Exploration to Warfare | The Report


Plans to establish a space force as a new branch of the U.S. military are in the earliest of stages. But the relationship between science and warfare has a very real, ancient history.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and his collaborator, Avis Lang, chart those ties in “Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military.”

(W. W. Norton & Company)

In a recent conversation with U.S. News, Tyson explains how the collaborations between those who search the stars and those who make war on Earth that go back millennia were – and continue to be – indispensable both for battle and for peaceful exploration. Excerpts:

You describe a wrenching realization that astrophysics and war-making went hand-in-hand. How do you reconcile that?

The role that smart, educated, scientifically literate people have played in the history of conflict, the history of dominance, the history of hegemony, the history of empire-building, the history of conquest, the history of defense, was not widely spoken of. We know what role the physicist plays in war. A physicist built the bomb. The chemist made napalm. The biologist would weaponize anthrax. Those roles are clear. But what does the skywatcher do? How could that possibly have anything to do at all with war and conquest?

I grew up in New York City and came of age at a time when the Vietnam War was deeply resented by the public. But even within Central Park in New York, there are statues of war heroes brandishing weapons with guns and swords and there are cannons. How could it be that I could think that war is bad when all the rest of the signs and symbols in civilization say something different from that?

It was not until 2001, when I was on a commission appointed by President George W. Bush to explore the health of the American aerospace industry – which was on hard times – that I got to see educated people in positions of political power make intelligent decisions regarding American security. These are some smart people that are military generals, and they’d rather not fight – contrary to the stereotype. They want to be equipped when the time comes, but in the United States civilians make war policy, not the war fighter. The two highest ranking people in the military are civilians – the secretary of defense and the president – and all the military funnels through them.

As a scientist, there are laws of physics that are true whether or not you believe in them. I don’t know that there is anything such as absolute ethics. Ethics, to me is something that has flexible boundaries that depend on how enlightened a community is, how much knowledge they have over the causes and effects they have over their actions or their behaviors.

There was a time when people would have said it was ethical to take black Africans and make them slaves because then we can make them Christian. They otherwise may never know they could go to heaven. Is it ethical to build a bomb to fight Hitler, who is your sworn enemy who thinks all Germans are superior? Is it ethical to build a bomb for that purpose, but then the Nazi regime collapses. Now you have a bomb, now you’re going to use it with a previously non-intended target? Is that ethical? All those conversations need to be had, no doubt about it.

What’s the advantage of this relationship?

We have the luxury of spending money on pure research, funded, for example, by the National Science Foundation. But if the research costs above a certain amount of money, it’s going to have to be some project enabled by geopolitical forces that have bigger budgets. Even though NASA is a civilian agency, every astronaut we sent to the moon except for one spent time in the military – except for Harrison Schmitt. He was a geologist. Do you know what mission they sent him on? The last mission. You might have sent some scientists on the first mission. But, no, it was about showing Russia who’s in charge.

“Why would anyone care that we know anything about the universe unless somewhere deep down there is an advantage we can have?”

It was geopolitics that drove the expensive activities, and science piggybacked it. Why would anyone care that we know anything about the universe unless somewhere deep down there is an advantage we can have, either economically or militaristically, for having that knowledge?

I’m old enough to be pragmatic about this. I’m old and tired, and what I can tell you is I will never expect the public to allocate huge sums of money to do science research for science’s sake. You will never hear me say, ‘Let’s do this because it’s beautiful.’ I believe that, but I will never require you believe it. Moving a science frontier into realms of unknowns without any guarantee that it will have applicability once you’ve gotten there, the benefits come later, not up front, because you don’t know how it applies up front. You can’t legislate curiosity.

What are some of those benefits?

For so much of the history that is described in the book, it has to do with navigation on Earth. Because when you’re out in the ocean, there’s no oak tree to turn left at, there’s no stream to follow and then go to the mouth and go along the coastline. You are water from horizon to horizon. For centuries, the only way to know where the hell you are on Earth was through navigation by the stars, and the people who knew the stars best were crucial for that enterprise.

Solutions come from places you don’t even expect. Say you were an expert on ovens. No matter how much money I give you to research ovens, you will never invent a microwave oven. We learned by accident how water molecules respond to the presence of microwaves from microwave communication in the Second World War. Water is a big additive to food. Badda bing, we have a whole new kind of oven.

My physics professor in college was an expert in the nuclei of atoms and studied the behavior of atoms in gas clouds across the galaxy. He discovered a new physical principle called nuclear magnetic resonance, got a Nobel Prize for it. Then a medical technologist said, ‘Wait a minute, if that is true, I can build a machine to put you in and measure the atoms your body.’ And thus was born the magnetic resonance imager, the MRI, discovered by a physicist who had no interest in medicine.

War and astrophysics is a two-way street. People want to know where they are on Earth. They want to know where’s home and where’s the enemy and how you’re going to get from one place to another. They want the new high ground. That’s why we have reconnaissance satellites. Infrared is the signature of an engine, of a missile. Looking up and seeing infrared are two things the military and astrophysicists have in common. Multi-spectral imaging. Do you know the first X-ray telescope that discovered black holes back in the 1970s had to be miniaturized so you can launch it and go into space? That company was tasked by the government – right when there were countless hijackings of airplanes to Cuba – to pioneer an x-ray machine for airports. That’s why we got X-ray machines in the first place in airports.

The problem with corporations – and the reason why they can’t do this – is they have to hit the quarterly report, the annual report. Countries have much longer time horizons over which they can invest. History has shown that innovative investments in science and technology are the engines of tomorrow’s economy, tomorrow’s security and tomorrow’s health. It’s really that simple.

What do you see as the effect of proposed cutbacks to funding of federal research?

It’s the beginning of the end of America. It’s the end of an informed electorate, which you need to have to make key decisions that affect our future. If you lose an informed electorate, you’ve lost everything that this country became coming out of the Second World War into the second half of the 20th century, when we led the world in practically everything.

Just a month ago, I was in China visiting the world’s largest telescope. I came through the Shanghai airport, and there’s a sign that says stairs this way and gates that way, maglev this other way. Maglev is still mythical here in the United States. They’ve just got it on a sign, next to the bathroom sign.

Science and technology do not need passports. They will go to wherever you have enlightened leadership, enlightened governance, enlightened funding. The fact that we are still arguing about whether we are going to build a wall and what immigrants to keep out and other countries are advancing their science and infrastructure agenda – that has consequences. Where is the most powerful particle accelerator? It’s in Europe. Where are the fastest trains? They’re in China being built by the Germans. Where’s the most powerful telescope? It’s in China. You just go down the list. These are the trend lines.

There was a day when American companies were household names in other countries. Now it’s the opposite. That’s how we know we’re fading, fading to irrelevance. And that’s from an absence of investment.

Should we develop a more cooperative relationship China?

There are people who are only motivated by competition. But if you are sufficiently enlightened so you don’t have to compete in order to be motivated, then cooperating with China would be of great benefit, because then you’d have shared resources, shared costs. Plus, we are huge trade partners with China, with shared debt. We’re already in bed with them. It wouldn’t be that much of a stretch to be in bed with them in space.

China has a way of accomplishing what they say they’re going to accomplish. They put the taikonaut in orbit and became the third nation to do so. That was 15 years ago. They’re a spacefaring nation. By the way, why did they do that? We did not invite them onto the space station, citing human rights violations. So now they do it on their own. Now they’re a space adversary, a competitor. They’re in the starting blocks with us in the race. We don’t even know where the race is going, but we know it’s a race.

What should a space force look like?

If we were to spawn a space force, why don’t you add asteroid protection as part of what the space force does? And that could actually get buy-in from all the countries of the world, because an asteroid could hit anywhere on Earth. Space debris puts not only humans at risk that might be on tourist junkets but also assets that are in space – our GPS satellites that enable hundreds of billions of dollars of commerce. What our military should do, beyond just protecting us from armed enemies, is defending assets. We have assets in space worth protecting.

What is not realistic in space is satellites with lasers pointing down to Earth dropping bombs. If a satellite has a bomb on it, you have to be over the spot where you want to drop it, in a trajectory sort of way. It would have to slow down the bomb so it falls out of orbit. We have intercontinental ballistic missiles that we can launch on a moment’s notice and reach any place in the world in less than 45 minutes. To do so from space is not easier, it’s harder.

So space war would be space-to-space encounters, not space-to-Earth encounters. This is the big misconception when people hear about space wars. One satellite takes out another satellite, but that could be bad because that could create a debris environment that puts all satellites at risk, even your own satellites. It’s kind of like the chemical warfare in First World War. You can try it – Oh, and the wind changed direction. Now it’s blowing back in your face. You can make a mess of a place that destroys the environment as well as your enemy and yourself. There are a lot of things that are just not realistic that any sane warfighter would be engaging in space.

What do you find is the most worrisome development and why?

For me the greatest threat we face today is not global warming, it’s not a runaway virus, it’s that people with power do not heed the warnings of scientists. It says that people don’t know what science is and how and why it works. Ultimately, that’s a failure of the educational system. That’s why we have flat-Earthers. They don’t know what science is and how and why it works, and they live in a country with free speech. Both of those facts contribute to the existence of flat-Earthers.

What about the most worrisome gap or blind spot?

Science is a means of querying nature and some parts of nature involve life, some involve rocks, some involve stars. Some involve technology, some materials. Some of the greatest innovations we’ve ever seen are when these places on the frontier of research cross-pollinate. That’s why you need to think of science as an entire enterprise, not as a siloed distribution of topics. The gap would be to cherry pick what science you want funded. That’s not in the interest of science. It’s not in the interest of civilization.

What is the most promising development?

The United States has the power to bounce back, if you align all the pistons politically and culturally. We still have huge resource potential. The next generation, the 30-and-unders, the 25-and-unders, they’re more scientifically literate than any generation I’ve seen older than they are. I’m just embarrassed that we’re leaving the world for them in the state that it is for them to have to fix. But my hope and expectation is that they will know how to fix the world and make up for all the shortsightedness that we carried into the decisions that we made.

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