Happy Birthday, NASA

Appeared in NASA's 50th Anniversary Magazine

October 2008

Dear NASA,

Happy birthday! Perhaps you didn’t know, but we’re the same age. In the first week of October 1958, you were born of the National Aeronautics and Space Act as a civilian space agency, while I was born of my mother in the East Bronx. So the yearlong celebration of our golden anniversaries, which begins the day after we both turn forty-nine, provides me a unique occasion to reflect on our past, present and future.

I was three years old when John Glenn first orbited Earth. I was seven when you lost astronauts Grissom, Chaffee, and White in that tragic fire of their Apollo 1 capsule on the launch pad. I was ten when you landed Armstrong and Aldrin on the Moon. And I was fourteen when you stopped going to the Moon altogether. Over that time I was excited for you and for America. But the vicarious thrill of the journey, so prevalent in the hearts and minds of others, was absent from my emotions. I was obviously too young to be an astronaut. But I also knew that my skin color was much too dark for you to picture me as part of this epic adventure. Not only that, even though you are a civilian agency, your most celebrated astronauts were military pilots, at a time when war was becoming less and less popular.

During the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement was more real to me than it surely was to you. In fact it took a directive from Vice President Johnson in 1963 to force you to hire black engineers at your prestigious Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. I found the correspondence in your archives. Do you remember? James Webb, then head of NASA, wrote to German rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun, who headed the Center and who was the chief engineer of the entire manned space program. The letter boldly and bluntly directs von Braun to address the lack of equal employment opportunity for Negroes in the region, and to collaborate with the area colleges Alabama A&M and Tuskegee Institute to identify, train, and recruit qualified Negro engineers into the NASA Huntsville family.

In 1964, you and I had not yet turned six when I saw picketers outside the newly built apartment complex of our choice, in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. They were protesting to prevent Negro families, mine included, from moving there. I’m glad their efforts failed. These buildings were called, perhaps prophetically, the Skyview Apartments on whose roof, 22-stories over the Bronx, I would later train my telescope on the universe.

My father was active in the Civil Rights movement, working under New York City’s Mayor Lindsay to create job opportunities for youth in the Ghetto—as the inner city was called back then. Year after year, the forces operating against this effort were huge: poor schools, bad teachers, meager resources, abject racism, and assassinated leaders. So while you were celebrating your monthly advances in space exploration from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo, I was watching America do all it could to marginalize who I was and what I wanted to become in life.

I looked to you for guidance, for a vision statement that I could adopt that would fuel my ambitions. But you weren’t there for me. Of course, I shouldn’t blame you for society’s woes. Your conduct was a symptom of America’s habits not a cause. I knew this. But you should nonetheless know that among my colleagues, I am the only one in my generation who became an astrophysicist in spite of your achievements in space rather than because of them. For my inspiration, I instead turned to libraries, remaindered books on the cosmos from bookstores, my rooftop telescope, and the Hayden Planetarium. After some fits and starts through my years in school, where becoming an astrophysicist seemed at times to be the path of most resistance through an unwelcoming society, I became a professional scientist. I became an astrophysicist.

Over the decades that followed you’ve come a long way. Including, most recently, a Presidentially initiated, Congressionally endorsed vision statement that finally gets us back out of low-earth orbit. Whoever does not yet recognize the value of this adventure to our Nation’s future, soon will, as the rest of the developed and developing world passes us by in every measure of technological and economic strength. Not only that, today you look much more like America—from your senior-level managers to your most decorated astronauts. Congratulations. You now belong to the entire citizenry. Examples of this abound, but I especially remember when the public took ownership of the Hubble Telescope, your most beloved unmanned mission. They all spoke loudly back in 2004, ultimately reversing the threat that the Telescope might not be serviced a fourth time, extending its life for another decade. Hubble’s transcendent images of the cosmos had spoken to us all, as did the personal profiles of the Space Shuttle astronauts who deployed and serviced the telescope, and the scientists who benefited from its data stream.

Not only that, I’ve even joined the ranks of your most trusted, as I serve dutifully on your prestigious Advisory Council. I came to recognize that when you’re at your best, nothing in this world can inspire the dreams of a Nation the way you can—dreams fueled by a pipeline of ambitious students, eager to become scientists, engineers, and technologists in the service of the greatest quest there ever was. You have come to represent a fundamental part of America’s identity, not only to itself but to the world.

So as we both turn forty-nine, and begin our fiftieth trip around the Sun, I want you to know that I feel your pains and share your joys. And I look forward to seeing you back on the Moon. But don’t stop there. Mars beckons, as do destinations beyond.

Birthday buddy, even if I have not always been, I am now your humble servant,

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History