The landing of two Americans on the moon, in July 1969, was among the most inspiring scientific and technical achievements in human history.
But today, both the political will and federal funding to sustain that level of achievement appear to have waned.
It's a trend that troubles astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, an outspoken advocate for space research and exploration. The director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York, he’s written a dozen books on the topic, including his latest: "Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier."
Tyson grew up during the 1960s and 70s, an era of optimism for space exploration which led to the moon landing and the space shuttle program. It was also an era of generous federal funding for NASA.
But Tyson believes that era is over. The Obama Administration recently proposed deep cuts in the 2013 budget for the U.S. space agency, almost a year after it shut down the 30-year-old space shuttle program.
“Right now, the United States has no vehicle of its own to take our astronauts into orbit," he says. "We have to hitch a ride with the Russians. If you hitched a ride it implies you got on for free. But we are riding with the Russians because we are paying for those seats. It’s a little embarrassing, I think.”
Tyson wants to see NASA’s budget dramatically increased, saying the nation can't afford not to make space a national funding priority.
“Because it’s just that kind of adventure that stokes the health of our economy and in the 21st century scientific and technological innovation will define who leads the century and who does not," he says. "What we have found in the golden era of space exploration in America that even though space was driven by war, the consequence of that was a complete shift in the outlook that the entire country had about what was possible for our future…. And the people who bring tomorrow into today are the scientists and technologists.”
That can be seen, Tyson says, in the multitude of devices that once seemed like science fiction but are now commonplace. Miniature electronics. Laser eye surgery. Even cordless power tools.
But for Tyson, the most valuable spinoff of a beefed-up space program is the inspiration it can provide to young people to become the innovators and visionaries of the future.
“There is a quote, I forget who said it, that if you want to teach someone to sail, you don’t train them to build a boat. You compel them to long for the open seas," he says. "And it’s the longing that triggers a level of innovation because it is through love and the romance of that goal that stimulates your creative thinking.”
It will take “a shift in the mindset,” says Tyson, to spark a true renaissance in space science - one that could revitalize both the U.S. economy and the national spirit.