When did you first get excited about science?
I got stung by a bee—I might have been 3½. My mom put ammonia on it, and it had this distinctive smell. My brother had a chemistry set back when they were dangerous—he made ammonia, and it was magical. In other words, you can get it at the store, but you can also make it from these other materials. That was amazing.
Your PBS kids’ show, Bill Nye the Science Guy, ran for five years and inspired countless children’s interest in science. Is it gratifying to see the emphasis placed on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education now?
I’m the CEO of the Planetary Society. … I think that if we had a better-funded space program, [and] if we had some extraordinary national goals in space, you wouldn’t have to have everybody running around chanting “STEM STEM STEM,” because it would be organic. The expectation that the future is better, the expectation that we can accomplish great things: That is inherent in a space program. That’s one of the reasons I’m doing what I’m doing now. The other reason is I want to find life on other planets.
Do you think we will? Will that kind of space travel be possible?
At the Planetary Society we advocate for a humans-orbiting-Mars mission in 2033. That turns out to be a very favorable orbital opportunity with respect to the positions of the planets and their orbits around the sun. It is achievable by 2033 without increasing the NASA budget. What everybody has to get their heads around is that NASA now competes for funding just like every other government agency.
So attitudes toward the space program have changed?
People remember a time when the NASA budget was almost exactly 10 times as big as it is now. Cars had rocket fins, the building in Seattle was called the Space Needle. Expectations were different—the Jetsons were flying around …
How many people have flown in space?
Five hundred-something. It’s no longer to “boldly go where no one has gone before.” It’s to timidly go where 550 people have already been.
Why do you think the funding for the space program was reduced so drastically?
The funding was cut after the Cold War. After the United States got to the moon before the Soviet Union, the funds were cut. The real telling thing—you can find a picture of Richard Nixon in his office in December of 1969, a few months after humans walked on the moon. There in his office if the picture of Earthrise taken by Bill Anders on Christmas eve 1968. That was in his office. But after he succeeded in getting Congress to fund the space shuttle program in CA—largely at McDonnell-Douglas—then he took that picture down and put up a picture of a western landscape. In other words, after that was secured, he didn’t need the space program anymore, so he took it down. That’s when NASA was converted from an exploration agency to a jobs program.
The Planetary Society just tested the LightSail, an experimental solar sail. Would that be useful for space travel?
It’s a new way to propel spacecraft and we show that you can do it with a low budget. Tthere’s certain missions where solar sail is ideal. Not taking humans to Mars–it moves too slowly. But, for example, if you wanted to monitor what’s called solar weather, sunspots, the surface of the sun, the solar sail would be ideal. You put it in orbit about the same distance from the sun as the planet Venus and then it would be held there by solar pressure—you’d have it synchronized with the orbit of the Earth—you can orbit relatively slowly if you can hold yourself in position with the solar sail…
It would also be an ideal position if you’re looking for asteroids. It’s really undesirable to have the Earth get hit with an asteroid. When I was a kid, no one had any idea what happened to the ancient dinosaurs. No one had a reasonable theory. They had small brains, mammals took their food—it was stupid, not stupid, but no one was satisfied with it. But in my lifetime we discovered that the ancient dinosaurs were almost certainly finished off by an asteroid. As the saying goes, if the Earth were to get hit by an asteroid, it would be like ctrl-alt-delete for civilization. It would wipe the drive.
Who frustrates you more: creationists or climate-change deniers?
The creationists are charming. They’re a throwback, they’re thoughtless. The only problem with them, of course, is that they’re affecting young people. … But the grown-ups can overcome their upbringing. I say this based on emails and stuff I get. People discover later in life that creationism is completely unreasonable and unscientific.
Climate change is serious because you’re talking about enormous changes to the way everyone in the world lives at an extraordinary speed. It’s not that the world wasn’t once warmer; the problem is the speed at which the changes are happening. … Creationism is bad for the future, but climate-change denial is catastrophic.
This is the fight I fight. Welcome to my world.
You have a book coming out, Unstoppable. (Nov. 10, St. Martin’s Press, $27) What is it about?
It’s about the heavy industries that will be required to address climate change. It would be great to have better transmission lines, electrical transmission lines. But the main thing is better energy storage—batteries. If we can come up with a big, improved energy-storage system, better transmission lines, a way to desalinate water that takes less energy than it does today…
The main thing is policy change. If we have something where whenever you make a ton of carbon dioxide you have to pay 10 bucks or 40 bucks, then that money would go into a fund for what would be traditional research. Rich people make more carbon dioxide than poor people, so they would pay a higher fee. For example, Mitt Romney said he had seven houses, so he’s going to use more energy. Each house has a hot-water system and a furnace and a garage door opener, etc. … so he would pay a higher fee. It’s inherently fair.
If you’re importing stuff on ships—the big container ships use dirty diesel fuel and pump CO2 into the air. If there were a fee on that CO2, then you would raise the cost of goods shipped by that means and then maybe manufacturers would choose to manufacture in the U.S. rather than overseas.
What do you think of Las Vegas?
Oh, gosh, I love Las Vegas. People like to disparage it, at least the people I meet. But I think it’s cool in moderation—though Vegas isn’t really about moderation. I love the shows. Last time, I saw Penn & Teller. I love Cirque du Soleil in any version. I always have a good time.
Also, do you know how much money I put in slot machines in Las Vegas? Zero! Not a penny. Look around: All those huge hotels and amazing stuff, enormous energy and intense use of water, of everything—most of it was paid for 25 cents at a time. There are a few $10,000 poker games, but most of it is people putting quarters in slot machines. That kind of gambling is a tax on poor people, a tax on people we have failed to educate about probability. It’s a tax on people who don’t know math.
Life Is Beautiful, Learning Series, 7:19 p.m. Sept. 25, LifeIsBeautiful.com.