Todd Zwillich: It’s an honor to have you both on the show.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Happy to be here.
Buzz Aldrin: Good morning, Neil
NDT: Good morning, Buzz, how the hell are you, man?
TZ: Professor Tyson, let me start with you about Pluto, of course we’ve had the long running debate about whether Pluto is a planet or not and to Pluto planet lovers, you’re one of the villains. You referred to Pluto as a dwarf planet; you’ve referred to it noncommittally as a cosmic object. Where are we in our thinking about Pluto and its membership in the solar system?
NDT: Don’t shoot the messenger. All I did was to reveal to the world with a group of my colleagues back in New York, in fact it was almost exactly ten years ago, we opened the new Rose Center for Earth and Space, the then new facility. And when you have a new facility it gives you an occasion to rethink the trend lines in scientific discovery and how you might create an exhibit. So we put up an exhibit upon realizing that there’s some other icy small weird orbited objects in the outer solar system, we decided to group Pluto around them, which is now known as the Cyper belt of icy objects. And that’s really all we did. We didn’t kick Pluto out of the solar system, but we were the first to do this publicly. And there had been a debate sort of percolating behind the scenes and it finally hit a head in 2006 when the international community of astronomers voted to formally demote Pluto or reclassify it to dwarf planet status, and this pissed off a lot of people.
TZ: And to many people it was sort of kicking it out of the solar system because all of us had learned of course, “nine planets and Pluto is the smallest of them all,” and it’s kind of the darling. Have you discovered that? I know you have your new show, “The Pluto Files,” which is coming up next month; you’re kind of touring the country talking about Pluto.
NDT: Yeah, so the book that I wrote, “The Pluto Files,” was really a catharsis for me because I was branded as public enemy for having revealed this information about Pluto, and so in “The Pluto Files,” the special coming up on March 2nd share’s with the viewer, actually, it’s kids, 3rd graders sending me hate mail. A lot of it is entertaining and it’s all in fun, but it revealed something about the power of this particular cosmic object in the hearts and minds of Americans.
TZ: You still can’t say the P-word, can you? Buzz Aldrin, let me ask you, traveling to Pluto, the dream of that, far from it. The latest budget from the Obama administration as I know you know zeros out the constellation program. That is putting a major impediment on man’s scheduled return to the moon and on a manned space flight. How do you view where we’re at in terms of promoting man’s space flight right now?
BA: Well Neil is a troublemaker about Pluto and I grew up with Pluto, a Disney character and wondering what Pluto the dog was doing way out there, but I’m kind of a troublemaker right now, because we need to do some things that interject a changeover from government launch humans into lower orbit into commercial launching of humans. And that’s a pet project of mine, because we’ve been landing people for 30 years with the space shuttle and it wasn’t a mistake, it was a very technically complex vehicle, but to follow that by landing back in the ocean again is just not what we ought to be doing. That’s why I’ve been behind lifting body runway lander as soon as we can get it done on a very reliable Atlas 5 launch vehicle. And at the same time do all we can to close the gap so that we don’t have to buy rides to our space station from the Russians.
TZ: Neil deGrasse Tyson, either way man’s spaceflight is going to be slowed down with the budget cuts that we’ve had, whether it’s to the moon or beyond and whether it’s on an Atlas rocket or a constellation launch vehicle.
NDT: I’ve never been strongly opinionated about one species of launch vehicle or another, I know Buzz has been. But what Buzz has gotten right from the very beginning is the fact that you don’t have a sustained presence in space unless a space program morphs into a space industry. And without the commercial support for what we all hope to be a sustained presence in space then NASA has to go hat in hand to Congress every year. And so the silver linings of these new decisions regarding NASA in the Obama administration is the tacit statement that they want NASA to get out of the low earth orbit business and cede that over to commercial enterprise and that’s a very natural trajectory that the government has taken in the past. The government historically has made the initial investments in industries or activities for which the capital markets couldn’t value until it was established and then the capital markets swoop in and it creates thriving tax base for the country.
TZ: And in the meantime, before we sort out how to get higher orbit manned launch either to the moon or beyond, we’re gong to have to be satisfied probably with what we have, which is Hubble photos. I’m a huge fan of Hubble deep field photos, but we’ve got some new photos of Pluto.
NDT: Well, Hubble is a great substitute for going there; you zoom in and see what you’ve got. And the latest images from Pluto- like you said normally we associate Hubble with deep field objects across the universe, but it can look at relatively nearby objects as well. And these recent images of Pluto show that the surface is actually quite interesting. Highly varied, reflectivity and even some amber color that’s there that’s a little bit mysterious. But there’s a mission headed there right now, the New Horizons mission in the fast lane; it’ll get there in about five years and it’ll get the first very close up images of Pluto from a fly-by. But images of an object versus traveling there, these are two very different kinds of enterprises and you know Buzz is a hero because he went to a new cosmic object and, as a culture we value our explorers in ways that few other people in society are valued. We build statues to explorers, we write books and stories and novels about them, and so to remove that as sort of the dream that so many of us even took for granted during the 60s and early 70s, I think undersells who and what we can be as a nation.