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Renowned astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson puts outer space within reach.

As the director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium, the host of PBS’ NOVA ScienceNow, a frequent guest on programs like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Real Time with Bill Maher, and a prolific author, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has been outer space’s most ardent advocate here on Earth. He has brought astrophysics into American living rooms with the same amiable brilliance for which one of his idols, the late Carl Sagan, was renowned. On the eve of the release of his new book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, Tyson chatted with American Way about why there are stars in his eyes — and why there should be some in ours as well.

American Way: What prompted you to get into this line of work?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: It was my first visit to my local planetarium. I was 9 years old. It was the Hayden Planetarium. It was a family trip on a weekend. Keep in mind that as a city dweller, I had no relationship with the night sky. To see stars — I was so struck by what I saw that I wanted to know all I could about it.

AW: What question do you get the most from people on the street?
NDT: It’s a trade-off between “Is there life in the universe?” and “What was around before the Big Bang?” It tells us quite a bit about what kind of thoughts are going on.

AW: Do you think it’s possible that there is life out there somewhere?
NDT: Of course. The universe is huge and has been around for 14 billion years. The ingredients on Earth are the most common in the universe. Anyone who has looked at the numbers and studied it says yes to that question. But it’s different to say we’ve been visited. I’m not convinced by anything anyone has put forth as evidence. I need something good, like an alien carcass or a live alien. That would be the end of the debate. Keep looking, though. Knock on my door the day you have a dead alien.

AW: What did you want to say with your new book, and why did you write it?
NDT: [I wanted to share] every thought I ever had about our past, present and future in space. I wrote it to highlight the joys and the challenges of discovering the universe through an active space program and how that epic adventure can galvanize a nation to transform society intellectually, culturally and economically.

AW: Why is space exploration so important?
NDT: If NASA dreams big, then the country dreams big. I submit that the greatest investment a nation can make in its own economic future is to embark on a major adventure of discovery that a funded NASA operation would bring. Its influence operates all the way down to every citizen. Without it, we might as well just shrivel up.

AW: Why should people visit the Hayden Planetarium?
NDT: They should visit any planetarium. Any well-made show will grant you a cosmic perspective that is not something you would achieve doing anything else in life.

AW: You’re a wine enthusiast. If you could bring only one bottle with you into space, what would it be?
NDT: If it were a long space mission, I’d say a 1990 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. That bottle is not for sharing.

Did You Know?
  • The first Hayden Planetarium was built in 1935.
  • It was the fourth planetarium to exist in the United States.
  • The original building was demolished in 1997, and the Rose Center for Earth and Space, which contains the new Hayden Planetarium, opened in 2000.
  • The building’s central sphere, contained within a glass enclosure, houses the Star Theater in its top half and the Big Bang Theater — where an immersive, four-minute demonstration of the namesake theory is shown — in its lower half. The sphere measures 87 feet in diameter.