Robots or Humans in Space? Colbert and Tyson Speak Out
Comedy Central talk show host Stephen Colbert and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson discuss the impact of the end of NASA's manned spaceflight program on American scientific morale. The glory of star-trekking robotic Roombas and Iranian space turtles also get shout-outs.
Credit: Comedy Central

The controversy over canning NASA's Constellation program to send astronauts back to the moon in 2020 for investment in future robotic exploration came to The Colbert Report on Comedy Central last night.

In a funny, yet substantive interview, comedian host Stephen Colbert and frequent guest Neil deGrasse Tyson lamented NASA hitching rides on Russian rockets to the International Space Station after the space shuttle retires this September. The spirited conversation also delved into the inspirational value of manned spaceflight over the launching of probes.?

"You know I am a huge fan of space exploration," Colbert told his audience. "No one wants to grow up and hear a robot landed and say 'This is one small step for bleep-blorp.'"

Tyson, an astrophysicist and director of New York City's Hayden Planetarium, agreed with his interviewer in saying that "the manned program is a force of nature on the educational pipeline of America. It is the force that excites people to want to become scientists in the first place."

Colbert called astronauts "the supermodels of science" and said that without them leading the charge, the United States might lose its edge over other nations such as Russia in space, as well as some well-earned scientific prestige.

Colbert's show played a clip of Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas) protesting the Obama administration's plan to scrap manned spaceflight on the United States House of Representatives' floor on March 10. "If we stay the path the president's budget lays out," Olson said, "the United States faces the very real and very humiliating prospect of paying billions of dollars to Russia for years to hitch rides to the International Space Station that's been largely built by American taxpayer funds."

Colbert played in another clip, this time from a March 20 speech by Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), "Now even the Iranians have entered the space race . . . [in February], they sent a rat, two turtles and a worm into space."

"Here's what will be missing without the manned program," said Tyson about the slashing of United States' government funding for the astronaut corps. "When you're a kid in school, who are your heroes?"

"Not Iranian space turtles," Colbert replied.

Tyson said when he asks his colleagues who are champions of science in space and what it was that got them interested in space, they have responded "the astronauts."

Bucks for bots instead of astronauts

Colbert and Tyson worried about the impact that the planned shifting of funds within NASA from human spaceflight to robotic missions will have on the future of American scientific morale.

"Worst of all, guess what NASA plans to spend its budget on now that Obama has killed the Constellation program?" the comedic anchor asked. "$4.9 billion to develop better robots, and $3 billion for unmanned ships."

"Sending robots into space does not win glory for Americans," Colbert went on. "It wins glory for Roombas."

"You always want to invest in robots," Tyson said. "The problem is you don't want to do that to the exclusion of the rest of the manned program . . . People don't name high schools after robots."

Though NASA does intend to support commercial, private efforts to get people into space, Colbert and Tyson feel that the end of the astronaut era bodes badly for space science in general.

Colbert said that "Once upon a time, astronauts were America's heroes. Now we eliminate them in the third round of Dancing with the Stars," in reference to Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon, recently getting booted off of ABC's primetime dancing contest. "Buzz Aldrin is the only one of those clowns who's even been to the stars," said Colbert.?

Blasting past low-Earth orbit

A big reason for keeping manned spaceflight going strong — whether through the over-budget, flawed Constellation program or not — is to prepare mankind for the next frontiers in space, such as Mars, asteroids and beyond, according to Tyson.?

"It's been 27 years since we've been farther away from Earth than a couple hundred miles up," said Tyson, referring to the so-called low-Earth orbit where the International Space Station circles.

"The next time we leave low-Earth orbit I don't want it to be a three year journey [to Mars] not remembering how to do it," said Tyson. "So, yeah, you go to the moon. Next asteroid comes, visit the asteroid. Comet comes, check that out."

'If you only go into low-Earth orbit, this is boldly going where hundreds have gone before," Tyson said. "That's not advancing the space frontier."