Neil deGrasse Tyson

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — By doubling its investment in NASA, the U.S. government could recapture the public’s Apollo-era fascination with space travel while spurring new inventions that energize the economy, celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said April 17.

In 1961, when then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy issued his bold challenge to land an American on the Moon by the end of the decade, the national appetite for science, invention and exploration was palpable. It seeped into nearly every corner of the culture, from sci-fi movies to car fins mimicking rocket ships. “Everybody was dreaming about tomorrow,” remembered Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, author and opening speaker of the 28th National Space Symposium here.

In the 40 years since the manned lunar exploration program ended, however, dreams shifted and the public’s enthusiasm waned. But it can be resurrected, Tyson insisted. The challenge for today’s space industry, amid deeply divisive politics, federal budgetary woes and an unconvinced public, is to try to recreate excitement but to also understand that not everyone is going to share the vision. “Non-space people don’t feel the same way [we do],” he acknowledged. “The old arguments are tired. We need new arguments.”

A crossover sensation of part science geek, part rock star, Tyson has carved out a unique place in today’s pop culture landscape as he spreads the message of space travel everywhere from “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” to a cameo on the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.”

In his signature fiery yet amiable style, Tyson firmly rejects the prevailing wisdom that the economy cannot support renewed space travel and that NASA is merely an outdated vanity special-interest project. That thinking needs to be combated at every turn, he said. “This is not a handout but an investment,” he said. The industry must do a better job of reminding the public how important space technology is to our everyday life, from GPS in our cars to weather forecasting. “You talk about ways that space matters to people who don’t care about space,” he said.

Tyson wants much more than just to maintain the status quo. He argues that if NASA’s budget is simply doubled from its current rate of a half-cent on the dollar to one penny, “it will guarantee new invention.” And that, he said, is the real driver of the economy. It creates a snowball effect of interest — as it did in the early days of NASA — as each new breakthrough captures headlines, which in turn creates excitement that then translates into jobs. “We won’t have to set up a program to convince students that engineering is cool,” he said.

Fostering interest in math and science among today’s children was a theme reprised by William Swanson, chairman and chief executive of Raytheon Co. of Waltham, Mass., and the featured industry speaker who followed Tyson at the podium. “We need to give them their man-on-the-Moon moment,” Swanson said.

But more than just emotional inspiration, Swanson stressed the importance of solid science, technology, engineering and math curricula in schools to pick up the gauntlet for the future. The clock is ticking, he said, as the current NASA work force ages.

Swanson also invoked the legacy of Kennedy. “Do we want to do the unthinkable and leave space?” he said.

Tyson disagrees with the current notion that NASA should set its sights only on Mars in 20 years. That is too far away for the public to grasp. He wants quicker implementation of a fleet of launch vehicles that can travel to many different space destinations and to serve many different applications for many different industries.

In a moment of pure passion and nostalgia, Tyson pointed to the iconic photo “Earthrise” captured in 1968 by Apollo 8 astronauts. Nations were no longer color-coded by boundaries on maps but rather interconnected. “We went to the Moon and discovered Earth,” he said.