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‘Space should be for everyone’: Neil deGrasse Tyson

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Neil deGrasse Tyson, Hayden Planetarium Director and 'Cosmic Queries' Author, joined Yahoo Finance Live to discuss Jeff Bezos' planned Blue Origin Flight and his outlook for space tourism.

Video Transcript

JARED BLIKRE: Guess what? We have a very special guest. I want to introduce Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is joining us from the Hayden Planetarium. He is the director there. Neil, thank you so much for joining us. All right, we saw Sir Richard Branson. He did it. Now we see Jeff Bezos. He's going up with the ship, lots of buzz here. What's your take on this?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Well, I think if this is the opening of a door to space tourism, I think something like this should have happened many decades ago. There's no real reason why nations themselves should have had the monopoly on access to space. Space is for everyone. And I get to say that because I'm an astrophysicist. Space should be for everyone. So I think it's long overdue.

So the real question is the attention we're giving it. I'm fascinated by that because they're not going very high up. And they're not staying up for very long. And people are thinking of it as a great advance in progress in our access to space, when, really, it's a test flight to see if a new kind of tourism can take taproot. And I'm fine with that, but I can't get as excited about it with regard to it being a space launch, that's all.

SEANA SMITH: But Neil, what about the fact that-- I know you alluded to this, the fact that it does renew some interest that hasn't really been there for space. That if you go back over the last couple of years, I think a lot more people have been talking about some of this excitement that a lot of people have wished that we did have in this country over the last several years. What do you think that could potentially do for funding and for money and just in terms of some of the potential advances that we could hopefully make as a result of this?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Yeah, what people forget is-- or rather, our attention is sort of diverted to what's most visible to us. And advances in NASA, for example, are highly visible. What a billionaire decides to do is highly visible. And so, no question about it. But if we take a step back and look at the total world marketplace for space and space launches, in the next year or so, it will probably rise through a half a trillion dollars. That is vastly more than anything we are spending on NASA. It is vastly more than anything a few competing billionaires are doing. So space-- that space is with us, it's real. And it has to do with the satellite marketplace, just as an example.

And by the way, that half a trillion dollars is just the hardware and the launch costs, not to mention the business value that it brings. I mean, Uber's business model requires satellites. So there are satellites enabling and emboldening new ideas and new marketplaces on the ground. So space is here to stay. Oops, sorry. Space is here to stay. And you shouldn't think of it as this is the only way and the only place that we're going to end up seeing it.

JARED BLIKRE: Well, I'd like to see a lot more myself. And let's talk about those next steps because we're talking about regular space travel. Yeah, the tourism is nice to see, but what about getting to the moon? What about getting to Mars? What are these timelines? And what are some of the challenges that face us?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Yeah, so we've already been to the moon. So but we haven't been back for, like, 50 years if I did my math right. That's a long time to not go back to some place. So we basically have to kind of reinvent what is required to get there. Plus, you have to ask, what are the motivating forces? We went to the moon originally because we were in a space race. And space race makes it sound much more benign than it actually was.

When Sputnik was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, it was a hollowed out intercontinental ballistic missile. And they put in, like, a radio transmitter so it was all innocent and everything. But the military said if they can put that over our heads, they can put a warhead over our heads. And so it was a military response to a threat.

And so, my read of history tells me, we don't just do big expensive things just because we're human, and it's in our DNA. There's got to be some motivating force. Not because I want it to be that way, but that's what history tells me. So I don't see humans back on the moon or on Mars unless we feel threatened, unless there's a new high ground taken by an adversary, and we have to respond. Otherwise, we'll just continue to send robots, as NASA has been doing with Mars, as we all know, and other countries for decades now.

SEANA SMITH: Neil, I want to go back to what you said earlier. And you said that space should be for everyone. And kind of going-- taking a step further on that, we talked about this with Leroy Chiao last hour. Does the fact that it's so expensive, if you wanted to do something like what Jeff Bezos is doing, if it does potentially open up, if we do see the commercialization of space, you still are going to have to pay a pretty penny to get on one of these space flights. Do you see that changing? Do you see it becoming more affordable at all in the future?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Well, if it's an actual marketplace, yes. And what I mean by that is, all right, the first launch gets all of this attention, and we're on here talking about it, right? So you know it becomes routine when it's no longer interesting for us to talk about it. Yet they're still doing it. That doesn't mean people aren't interested. It means the novelty of it isn't quite there anymore to make a news story.

So now what happens is, they start doing it more and more. You will notice, if all goes well for Jeff Bezos, that the boosters that are taking the capsule return back to Earth, as SpaceX has brilliantly demonstrated over the years. So this makes them reusable. And you're a finance program here. Consider what would happen if you got on a 747 or a 777 or an A380, flew to Europe, and then they threw away the airplane and built another one to have you come back. No, they reuse it, all right? That's why flying to Europe doesn't cost millions of dollars, all right? Because they reuse the hardware.

So when you reuse it and you reuse it frequently, you drive the cost down. And so the interesting thing about the seats is that as far as we can tell, it's highly elastic. So if it's a quarter million dollars a seat, and you drop that to 100,000, there'll be that many more people available to want to spend that money. Take it down to 50,000, take it down to 10,000, take it down to 5,000, 1,000, I would totally give up multiple vacation costs in a year or two years to put into the one vacation spot to go into orbit or into even suborbital.

That would be fun. That would be weightless for a bit. You go above the level in the atmosphere where the atmosphere sort of disappears. The blue sky dissolves away, and you see the darkness of space in broad daylight. That's kind of what contributes to our operational definition of space. And that's where they're headed. So yes, there would be tourists lined up around the block to do this.

JARED BLIKRE: I like the points you're making because space is really big. And I have a tweet--

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: [LAUGHS]

JARED BLIKRE: --with me that I want to pull up--

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: You think?

JARED BLIKRE: --on the YFi. Is that profound-- space is really big? I have this [INAUDIBLE] on the YFi Interactive. And you compare-- here we go. Relative to a schoolroom globe-- and I'm going to show the picture in a second. Planet Mars is a mile away, all right? The moon is 30 feet away, or 10 meters. International Space Station at 3/8 of an inch above the surface, that's 1 centimeter. And then Branson and Bezos this month, they ascend to the thickness of two dimes, which is basically 2 millimeters. And there's that picture [INAUDIBLE]

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: [INAUDIBLE] Yeah.

JARED BLIKRE: Yes, yes.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Yeah, so depending on how you feel about what a person means when they say, I'm going into space today, as an astrophysicist, I kind of want to be going somewhere, rather than even in low Earth orbit, you're boldly going where hundreds have gone before. And Bezos and Branson are going even lower than that, like I said, the thickness of two dimes relative to the surface to a schoolroom globe. And at that height, you're not really seeing Earth's curvature.

So I worry that some pictures, you know, depending if you use a fisheye lens, you can, like, turn a horizontal line into a curved line. So we got to watch to make sure there's not-- that it's all authentic. But yeah, I-- personally, space is going somewhere, and I think we're still a little ways from that. But you got to start somewhere. And I'm glad somebody is doing it. Somebody is out there, and you got to start. And that's what we got here.

SEANA SMITH: Neil, you're an in-demand person. I'm going to keep this very, very quick. If you had the opportunity to go on this mission tomorrow-- to go on this space flight, I guess, is the better way to put it-- would you do it?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Well, I used to say-- people used to ask me that about Elon Musk. They'll say, if Elon Musk had a mission to Mars, would you go? And I used to joke and say, yeah, but only after he sent his mother and brought her back, OK? And so now we have the two billionaires, two of these several billionaires, and they're putting their own skin in the game.

So if that's not good PR, I don't know what is. But no, for me, it's not worth a quarter million dollars. I'll do something else with my quarter million dollars, if I ever find it laying in the street. But yeah, if you're a billionaire, a quarter million dollars is lunch money. Go for it. What else are you going to do with a quarter million dollars?

JARED BLIKRE: Hey, I'd do it for five, maybe 10 in a stretch. But thank you so much for stopping by, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Hayden Planetarium director, also "Cosmic Queries" author. And be sure to join us tomorrow because we have special coverage of Jeff Bezos's space launch. It all starts right here at 8:30 AM Eastern on Yahoo Finance.