Skip to main content

Bill Nye: U.S. risks losing its space edge

By Richard Galant, CNN
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Mon July 2, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bill Nye, the Science Guy on TV, also heads Planetary Society
  • He is speaking out against proposed cuts in NASA planetary exploration budget
  • Nye says the U.S. has unmatched expertise in landing spacecraft on other planets
  • If America loses its edge, it could take decades to rebuild, Nye says

(CNN) -- Years before Bill Nye became the Science Guy, he was a mechanical engineering student at Cornell University, where he took a course with astronomer Carl Sagan.

Sagan, who was instrumental in the planning of NASA missions to other planets and became widely known for his research, writing and public television series, was one of the founders of the Planetary Society. And his student dutifully signed up to become a member.

"I've been a member for over 30 years. And now I'm the head guy. It's quite odd," a surprised-sounding Nye told CNN in an interview in March at the TED2012 conference in Long Beach, California.

So today, the bow-tied, jauntily professorial Nye has a new role aside from his television work as a popularizer of science: As the society's chief executive, he's become a leading voice against the Obama administration's proposed $300 million cut in NASA's planetary exploration budget. And it's a subject about which he's passionate.

Remembering retired NASA astronaut, Alan Poindexter.

President Obama greets Bill Nye during a science fair event at the White House on February 7.
President Obama greets Bill Nye during a science fair event at the White House on February 7.

"This is a deep, deep concern. All the budgets are being cut. We gotcha, budgets are being cut, budgets are being pulled back, yes, yes, all good," he says, acknowledging the pressure to cut spending.

"But investment in space stimulates society, it stimulates it economically, it stimulates it intellectually, and it gives us all passion. Everyone, red state, blue state, everyone supports space exploration. So I understand the budget has got to be cut, but something has gone a little bit wrong."

Nye says the planetary exploration budget, facing a reduction of 21% from this fiscal year's budget, is taking a deeper cut than other parts of NASA.

"This wouldn't matter. except it's not a faucet. It's not a spigot you can turn off and on. You stop planetary exploration, those people who do that extraordinary work are going to have to go do something else."

His worry is that the U.S. is in danger of losing its unmatched scientific expertise to plan and execute missions to other planets.

"To try to really land a spacecraft really on another world is really difficult, and if we lose that ability, it's going to be heartbreaking," says Nye, who adds that it could take decades to recoup.

Nye makes another argument for investing in exploring the solar system. He says there are two kinds of natural disasters that can be prevented: One is climate change, and the other is the Earth getting hit by an asteroid.

Telescope aims to head off asteroids' impact on Earth

NASA\'s Curiosity rover heads for space November 26 atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
NASA's Curiosity rover heads for space November 26 atop an Atlas 5 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

"If the Earth gets hit by an asteroid, it's game over. It's control-alt-delete for civilization." Nye says he figures "sea jellies, squid, cockroaches will be fine," but an asteroid could wipe out humankind.

"So what we want to do is to develop the capability to redirect, to deflect an asteroid, ever so slightly. If you're going to do that, you've got to have space exploration. And sooner or later, you're going to want to send people out there to look around. It's just our nature, and one day it would be exciting to send people to Mars."

NASA is in the midst of active exploration of Mars.

In August, Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory rover, is due to land on the planet's surface. David Weaver, NASA's associate administrator for communications, says the rover is the "Hubble of Mars missions" and "the most sophisticated scientific system ever sent to another planet."

Space junk diplomacy

Its mission is to determine whether the red planet could have ever hosted life. Weaver said in June that the agency is reformulating its Mars strategy in light of budget constraints and scientific priorities and "the president's challenge of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s."

Nye says his concern isn't about current missions but about whether the next series of missions and the ones beyond that will have enough funds to proceed.

Taking a larger view, Nye says there are two questions everyone should ask themselves at some time in their lives: "Where did we come from? And are we alone?"

"To seek the real answers to those questions, you have to explore space, and if you stop exploring, if you say, 'I don't care; I'm not going to look up and out and beyond the horizon,' what does that say about you? It's not good," Nye said.

"If we found life on Mars, or evidence of life on Mars, it would change the way everybody thinks about everything. It would change the way you think about your place in space."

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT