He’s the legendary astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. Tyson’s new TV series, Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey, will premiere on Sunday, March 9 at 9 p.m. ET/PT, and again on March 10 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel.
Popular Science: Would you rather have a jetpack or flying car?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: What I would rather have is a transportation system that requires neither: a wormhole.
PS: What incredible thing will we see in our lifetime?
NDT: I think that we will know whether or not there’s life on planets other than Earth. And I think the best location would be on Mars or on Jupiter’s moon Europa.
PS: When we find life on other planets, is it going to come and eat us?
NDT: No. People’s first thought every time scientists discover something new is, “Oh, my gosh, you created a virus, so there’s gonna be a killer virus.” I’m not more afraid of something I might find on Mars than I am of a polar bear who’s pissed off because his ice floe is melting.
PS: What technical advance do we really need in astrophysics?
NDT: The ability to observe a spectrum of light passing through the atmosphere of an exoplanet. It would be able to tell us if there are biomarkers indicating that life thrives on the surface.
PS: What technical advance do we really need in space exploration?
NDT: Ways to shield us from cosmic rays from the galaxy and from the sun. Also, we’ll never travel to the stars unless we understand the fabric of space-time better or find out how to make a wormhole.
PS: China put its first rover on the moon in December. How will this affect the U.S. space program?
NDT: China says it wants to put stuff on Mars, and there’s no question that they are going to follow through with their plans. I don’t claim any deep geopolitical insight. But I do know that if we go back into space in a big way, it will not happen unless we feel militaristically motivated. Or, unless we feel we can make scads of money.
PS: What would a space program with only scientific goals look like?
NDT: If I put on my pure scientist hat, you wouldn’t send humans into space. You have to feed them and keep them warm. A robot couldn’t care less. We can design robots to do what humans can do and better.
_This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of _Popular Science.