Artemis I: Neil deGrasse Tyson says he's 'still awaiting the day the Solar System becomes a backyard'

"The Moon, Mars, and beyond are all destinations."
Chris Young
Neil deGrasse Tyson (left) and NASA's SLS (right).
Neil deGrasse Tyson (left) and NASA's SLS (right).

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By the time humans land on the moon again during NASA's upcoming Artemis III mission — tentatively scheduled for 2025 — it will have been more than 50 years since we last touched down on the lunar surface.

The last crewed mission to the moon was Apollo 17 in 1972. For some people, that timeline is not indicative of progress.

The situation is far from black and white, though. If NASA's Artemis program is a success, it will have helped establish a permanent presence on the moon that will serve as a stepping stone for crewed missions to Mars.

We reached out to a number of space experts, including renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, for their thoughts on Artemis I. Tyson replied in a somewhat cryptic fashion that betrayed his excitement, but perhaps also a little impatience at the current state of human space exploration.

"I’m still awaiting the day when the entire solar system becomes a backyard, and we're no longer having conversations about the choice of one destination versus another — and in what sequence," Tyson wrote in a statement to IE. "The Moon, Mars, and beyond are all destinations."

Neil deGrasse Tyson's cosmic perspective

Neil deGrasse Tyson is a celebrated astrophysicist and science communicator. He is the director of the Hayden Planetarium, host of the weekly podcast Startalk, and he has published a number of books, including 2017’s 'Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.'

He is a champion of all things space and, for years, he has argued in favor of channeling funds towards space exploration and space science. In a Star Talk Q&A video in 2015, he was asked how we can justify spending billions on space with all the problems we have on Earth. Tyson replied by stating that "we should never legislate what frontier gets breached next."

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Why is that? Well, we simply can't ever know what's on the other side of a frontier, and how that discovery will benefit humanity. A look back at human history provides ample evidence. Four hundred years ago, for example, when many were dying from the plague, the German government's investment in the slow development of glass lenses was protested as wasteful and unnecessary. Eventually, however, those lenses led to the creation of the microscope, a giant leap for medicine that helped to eradicate the plague.

In his book 'Astrophysics for People in a Hurry', Tyson wrote a chapter titled 'Reflections on the Cosmic Perspective' in which he said, "Imagine a world in which everyone, but especially people with power and influence, holds an expanded view of our place in the cosmos. With that perspective, our problems would shrink — or never arise at all — and we could celebrate our earthly differences while shunning the behavior of our predecessors who slaughtered each other because of them."

It's a particularly powerful passage when read off the back of the previous 200 or so pages of Tyson acting as a cosmic tour guide, painting a picture of the vastness of the universe and the many mysteries we are yet to fully understand.

Skepticism, frustration surrounding Artemis I launch

While Tyson didn't explicitly criticize the Artemis I program, we reached out to a number of space experts regarding Artemis I. In an interview with former NASA Deputy Administrator, Lori Garver, the ex-official told IE she believes the Space Launch System (SLS) NASA is using for Artemis I is "not progress".

Garver cited the fact that the SLS program has gone wildly over budget and has faced extensive delays, all while using outdated and expensive non-reusable technology — each launch could cost an "unsustainable" $4.1 billion, according to NASA's own Inspector General.

Shortly after we spoke with Garver, NASA canceled its first launch attempt of SLS, citing an engine bleed issue with one of its four RS-25 engines on the rocket's core stage. The space agency will face increased scrutiny with every scrubbed launch attempt, though it will want to put safety first ahead of launch.

The jury's out on NASA's management of the SLS program, but if it brings us a step closer to making the Solar System our backyard, will it have all been worth it?

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