"For some people, space is irrelevant. But when the asteroid comes, I bet they'll think differently."
Renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted that provocative message Wednesday night as he began a rambunctious but thought-provoking talk about space exploration at the University of Houston's Cullen Performance Hall.
Tyson came to UH to deliver this year's "Elizabeth D. Rockwell Lecture on Ethics and Leadership." And deliver he did.
A rapt audience listened and laughed often for more than two hours as Tyson discussed the past, present and future of space exploration in the United States. The capacity crowd of 1,601 remained in the auditorium after the lecture for a lively question-and-answer session, and many pleaded for Tyson to stay even longer.
"Let's talk about space. There's no better place to talk about space than Houston," Tyson said as he began an engaging talk that included his concerns that the U.S. is not the leader it should be in space exploration.
"America is fading and fading fast," Tyson warned.
Tyson is director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, host of PBS' educational science television show "Nova scienceNow," and the author of numerous books. A staunch and outspoken advocate for science education, Tyson is known for his unrestrained style and ability to explain science, particularly space exploration, in an interesting and accessible manner.
And Wednesday night's Rockwell Lecture was no different. But Tyson's entertaining talk carried a serious message about science education and a commitment to space exploration.
"If you're bored with the manned (spaceflight) program, it's because the manned program is not extending our frontier," he said.
Tyson said the U.S. is too focused on the past accomplishments of its space program.
"We have a dose of Apollo worship," Tyson said. "Why is it we continue to genuflect in front of the Saturn 5 rocket?" he said. The massive rocket that sent astronauts to the moon is a scientific marvel, but Tyson lamented that there really hasn't been anything to follow it, such as a rocket to Mars.
"We're stuck when science and technology don't advance," Tyson said.
Tyson challenged the nation to unite around a new space mission to Mars, saying that such a goal would bring together the best scientific minds and lead to a more scientifically literate society.
"Then you change the Zeitgeist of the nation," Tyson said. "Then you change the Zeitgeist of the world."