Neil deGrasse Tyson: Space Force mission should include asteroid defense, orbital clean up

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Space Force mission should include asteroid defense, orbital clean up

The proposed Space Force should be prepared to defend Earth from asteroid impacts and clean up space junk, says leading astrophysicist and space author Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The sixth branch of the military recently proposed by President Donald Trump is slated to take on missions already conducted by the military — such as operating navigation and intelligence-gathering satellites and defending American spacecraft from attacks or orbital debris.

But Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, said he also hopes a new branch will take on the roles of protecting the Earth from asteroids and disposing of so-called space debris that can make orbiting the planet even more dangerous and cause damage to satellites.

“I’d kind of like to see it have some way to clean up space debris. I’d kind of like to see it have a way to defend the earth against asteroid impacts,” Tyson told POLITICO Space. “I bet if the dinosaurs had a space program, they’d still be here and we wouldn’t.”

Tyson, whose book “Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military” comes out Tuesday, also talked about the long history of astrophysicists and troops sharing tools and knowledge. The book is co-written by writer-researcher Avis Lang.

There are modern examples, such as scientists using intelligence collection technologies to develop the Hubble Telescope. But the military’s practice of leveraging space science also dates back centuries — and not always for peaceful purposes.

For example, Christopher Columbus needed supplies on one of his voyages and compelled locals into handing over their own provisions by predicting the moon would turn blood red — knowing a lunar eclipse was coming, Tyson points out.

Tyson also talked about the need for treaties in space and the history of the push for a Space Force.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do scientists and military forces play off each other in outer space?

They each operate in their own domain and then they look over the picket fence that separates them and say, ‘Hey I could use one of those’…This is a two way shared experience between the military and the astrophysics scientific community.

In modern times, we might think of a biologist getting tapped to weaponize anthrax…Chemists were used in Vietnam to make Agent Orange and napalm…Particularly in the Twentieth Century, physicists make nuclear bombs. No one else would know how to do that. So the roles of traditional scientists are well known and well established.

You don’t think of astrophysicists as being military-type people…We are passive explorers. We wait for the light to come to us and then we analyze it. But historically, if I know where everything is in the sky and the Earth happens to be turning, then I have a way to establish a coordinate system on the Earth’s surface. If you want to rule the land and seas, you need to know where things are.

One example is Christopher Columbus. If you needed another reason to think he was a dick, I have one for you…On his third voyage, he’s trying to make his way to Spain and doesn’t have enough supplies so he goes to the natives and asks them. But the natives save only enough supplies to get through the winter. They don’t have a surplus, so they deny his request.

He happened to have known that one week from that day, there would be a total lunar eclipse…He says, ‘My Christian God is more powerful and if you don’t give us supplies, my God will make the moon disappear from the sky and turn it a deep blood red’…Sure enough, right on cue…the moon begins to disappear. The natives freak out. They heap all manner of supplies on him…This is exploiting cosmic knowledge for dominance over other people.

Another example is the Hubble telescope…There were other versions of telescopes that predated Hubble that were launched by the military looking down [for intelligence collection]…The precision and value of such a telescope had already been established by the military. We just piggy-backed on that and said we want to look up. The book is nonstop examples like these.

Could the investments in a Space Force help NASA exploration and science missions?

I don’t tell you how to think about this…I’m stating the fact that astrophysicists do things in their own interest that the military finds useful, and the military does things in its own interest that astrophysicists find useful. I’m not saying we should wage wars so my field can benefit. I’m just stating that there’s overlap that has been going since the very earliest days.

The Air Force has an entire branch that deals with space, U.S. Space Command. They’re the ones that launch GPS, a system of navigation. If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know where you’ve been and don’t know where you’re going. That’s the last state any military invasion needs.

The Space Force pulls assets away from Air Force and creates its own entity. It’s not so weird. It’s been proposed many times in the past and long predates Trump. We talked about it in the early 2000s when I was on a commission appointed by former President George W. Bush to study the future of the aerospace industry…I remembered suggesting why don’t we pull the Space Force out of this into its own entity? At the time, people were comfortable with the Air Force being in control.

How do you envision the Space Force’s mission?

I’d kind of like to see it have some way to clean up space debris. I’d kind of like to see it have a way to defend the earth against asteroid impacts. I bet if the dinosaurs had a space program, they’d still be here and we wouldn’t.

When people hear Space Force, they hear weapons in space. There’s an outer space treaty signed in 1967 by all space faring nations…It allows you to have defensive, but not offensive weapons.

There’s some gray area in there. If I put a laser in space to disable something that might try to disable me, it counts as defensive, but it’s really preemptively striking…I can tell you this, if you start smashing satellites to bits, you will create a mess in space that will prevent any activities from taking place.

Most of what people think of as space warfare is simply not realistic…it would be something more strategic. We already have reconnaissance satellites in space. It’s intelligence. It’s a major fundamental part of war. The telescope when it was invented was immediately used for intelligence gathering…So the Space Force organizes what’s already happening

What’s the best way to police and govern military power in space?

I don’t know that it’s harder to govern…Either someone is lying about what they put in orbit or they’re not. We have enough knowledge to know if someone launched or detonates something. You can’t hide that anymore….I don’t know that you can sign a treaty and simply violate that treaty because we know how to watch you.

I still hope that a treaty could be signed and space could be kept clean and free to explore, but I’m kind of pessimistic. I have low confidence in human nature…If you can be peaceful with one another in space, why not just be peaceful with one another here on Earth? Why should space be different?..If you like peace, show it to me here on Earth.