Tyson to grads: Future of exploration in your hands

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson recalled President John F. Kennedy’s famous “We will go to the moon” speech at Rice Stadium and discussed the drivers of exploration, but what he most wanted to talk about at Rice University’s 100th commencement ceremony May 11 was Apollo 8.

“It was unheralded but it was the first mission to leave Earth and go somewhere else,” Tyson said of the 1968 mission around the moon that prepared NASA – and humanity – to land on another world less than a year later.

“It orbited the moon, came around the back side. They held up a camera and there was Earth, rising over the lunar surface,” he said. “That, to this day, is the most recognized photograph of anything at any time of any object.

Rice President David Leebron leads the academic procession at the university's 100th commencement ceremony. Photo by Tommy LaVergne

Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, told 1,742 graduates, their family and friends in the Rice Academic Quadrangle of the immediate impact that photo had.

“There was Earth, not as we had ever seen it. It was in display as nature would have you absorb what it is. There was Earth, not with color-coded countries. … Do you realize no representation of Earth before that included clouds?”

The impact of that photo was immense, he said. “Did anyone before that photo think of Earth as a place without borders?” he asked.

Something changed about humanity with that photo, he said. “It was a cultural response to our presence in space. It affected commerce. It affected how we treated Earth. It affected our outlook. It had us thinking about a future as never before.”

Tyson said his studies have led him to conclude only three drivers motivate humanity to explore: War, money and the praise of royalty and deity. He noted Kennedy’s speech at Rice that laid out the plan to go to the moon followed one a year earlier to Congress that first proposed the adventure.

“We haven’t been honest with ourselves about that,” he said, reciting the part of JFK’s 1962 speech to Congress that appears in a monument at the Kennedy Space Center. What’s missing, he said, is a reference to the war driver: in this case, Yuri Gagarin’s orbital mission for the Soviet Union six weeks earlier.

“No one has ever spent big money just to explore,” he said. “No one has ever done that. I wish they did, but they don’t. We went to the moon on a war driver.

“That part got cleansed from our memory,” he said.

Tyson noted that without the war driver, President George H.W. Bush’s rousing 1989 speech encouraging a trip to Mars fell on deaf ears. The $500 billion cost made it “DOA in Congress.”

“People were saying, ‘We’ve lost our drive, we’ve lost our will.’ No, it’s the same will we’ve ever had. We just weren’t threatened.”

Without conflict, he said, money has to drive the future of exploration.

“One could say that going into space inspires people. You can remove the war driver and say it will boost our economy. … It inspires people to innovate,” he said.

Private enterprise will not take the lead, Tyson said. “You know why they can’t lead it? Because space is expensive, it’s dangerous and it has unquantified risks. You put all three of those under one umbrella — it cannot establish a capital market valuation of that exercise.

“Private enterprise comes later,” Tyson said. “Governments need to do that first, to find out where the trade winds are, map the coastlines of space. Then private enterprise comes in. That’s how it’s always happened. That’s how it happened with Columbus. The first Europeans to the New World were not the Dutch East India Trading Company ships. It was Columbus, funded by Spain, in a vision that the nation had of exploration.”

Sumedh Warudkar wins the Neil deGrasse Tyson Commencement Award for Civic Service and Communication.

Tyson, whose wife, Alice Young, is a Rice alumna, challenged the new graduates to become part of the new drive to discover. “There is no solution to a problem that does not embrace all we have created as a species,” he said. “The original seeds of the space program were planted right here on this campus, and I can tell you that in the years since we have landed on the moon, America has lost its exploratory compass.

“Now is the time for you, the Class of 2013, to lead the nation as Rice graduates once again.”

Rice awarded 1,801 degrees, with some students earning degrees in double and even triple majors. The university awarded 964 undergraduate and undergraduate professional degrees, and 837 graduate (master’s and Ph.D.) degrees.

Rice President David Leebron welcomed the graduates with thanks for the crisp air that followed two days of rainstorms in Houston. “Father (T.J.) Martinez, who will give the invocation, and I come from different religious traditions and were engaged in an active discussion about who should get credit,” he said. Shortly thereafter, Martinez happily took credit.

Leebron also named this year’s winner of an annual award presented in honor of the commencement speaker. Sumedh Warudkar won the 2013 Neil deGrasse Tyson Commencement Award for Civic Service and Communication. (Read about Warudkar here.)


About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.