Neil deGrasse Tyson on the ties be­tween astronomy and war.


Dur­ing Amer­ica’s in­va­sion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, Neil deGrasse Tyson faced a hard choice. Tyson — as­tro­physi­cist, sonorous TV host, poet lau­re­ate of the sky — was at­tend­ing a sym­po­sium of the non­profit Space Foun­da­tion, which pro­motes space ex­plo­ration. The meet­ing brought to­gether univer­sity sci­en­tists, ex­perts on space war and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the mil­i­tary in­dus­trial com­plex that sup­ports them both.

Be­tween ses­sions, con­fer­ence-go­ers watched CNN cov­er­age of Amer­i­can weaponry pound­ing tar­gets in Iraq. “Ev­ery time a cor­po­ra­tion was iden­ti­fied as the pro­ducer of a par­tic­u­lar in­stru­ment of de­struc­tion, its em­ploy­ees and ex­ec­u­tives in the au­di­ence broke into ap­plause,” Tyson writes. He blinked back tears. He thought about walk­ing out and re­sign­ing from the foun­da­tion’s board. But then he de­cided in­stead to “ex­plore other ways to rec­on­cile my emo­tions.”

In his book “Ac­ces­sory to War,” Tyson pur­sues his rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. Through am­ple re­search and nim­ble sto­ry­telling, Tyson and his co-author and long­time edi­tor and re­searcher, Avis Lang, trace the long and tan­gled re­la­tion­ship be­tween state power and astronomy. The nar­ra­tive re­veals key mo­ments in the con­ver­gence of astronomy and war. In 1608, for ex­am­ple, Hans Lip­per­hey, a maker of spec­ta­cles, showed up at The Hague to pre­sent the world’s first tele­scope to Prince Mau­rice of Nas­sau, just as the Dutch were ne­go­ti­at­ing with the Span­ish to pause the Eighty Years War. Both sides rec­og­nized that the de­vice could be used to spy on dis­tant en­e­mies, an ad­vance that per­haps has­tened Spain’s de­ci­sion to sign a truce.

The tele­scope then fol­lowed two paths, one that pointed to the heav­ens and the other to the bat­tle­field. Galileo built a bet­ter ver­sion and found the moons of Jupiter and what would later be rec­og­nized as the rings of Saturn. Mean­while, Spain and the Nether­lands soon re­sumed fight­ing. In recog­ni­tion of the new tech­nol­ogy’s ca­pa­bil­ity in war, Span­ish artist Diego Ve­lazquez painted a scene fea­tur­ing the vic­to­ri­ous com­man­der Am­bro­gio Spinola hold­ing “a spy­glass nearly two feet long near the fo­cal point of the paint­ing, as if to em­pha­size its role in the vic­tory,” Tyson and Lang write.

The mix­ing of astronomy and the mil­i­tary comes into sharp fo­cus in the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury. The au­thors re­count how mil­i­tary satel­lites meant to sniff out ther­monu­clear tests dis­cov­ered gamma-ray bursts, brief flashes from en­er­getic stel­lar ex­plo­sions in the far reaches of space. The Air Force funded sur­veys of the en­tire sky in in­frared light. Stud­ies of the nu­clear tests at Bikini Atoll helped astro­physi­cists learn that the chem­i­cal el­e­ments that make up hu­man bod­ies and ev­ery­thing else were forged dur­ing the life cy­cles of stars.

In fund­ing and projects, the as­tro­nom­i­cal sciences are the poor stepchild of the mil­i­tary. Con­sider the Hub­ble Space Tele­scope. This low Earth or­bit in­stru­ment was seen as a unique mis­sion fa­mous for its vivid im­agery and sci­en­tific con­tri­bu­tions. In fact, Hub­ble wasn’t so unique. Around the same time that NASA launched Hub­ble in 1990 to in­ves­ti­gate cos­mic mys­ter­ies, the U.S. Na­tional Re­con­nais­sance Of­fice’s Key­hole pro­gram was al­ready man­ag­ing 20 sim­i­lar yet big­ger spy satel­lites. NASA sci­en­tists grasped this fact only years later, once the satel­lites were de­clas­si­fied. If Hub­ble sci­en­tists thought they were lead­ing the way, they were mis­taken. “Hub­ble was a KEY­HOLE-class satel­lite, not the other way around,” Tyson and Lang write. The gulf in re­sources be­tween sci­ence and mil­i­tary projects be­came even more ap­par­ent in 2011, when the same mil­i­tary of­fice regifted two spare, bet­ter-than-Hub­ble mir­rors to NASA. And to­day NASA still lacks the money to launch them.

Tyson and Lang also re­count the peace­ful and not-so-peace­ful ex­plo­ration of space. They trace the U.S.-Soviet Cold War com­pe­ti­tion and the United Na­tions’ ef­forts to es­tab­lish in­ter­na­tional space law, in­clud­ing the 1967 Outer Space Treaty gov­ern­ing states’ ac­tiv­i­ties in the cos­mos. The au­thors out­line the kinds of space mil­i­ta­riza­tion long un­der­way with an em­pha­sis on sur­veil­lance and com­mu­ni­ca­tions dis­rup­tions rather than on lasers and ex­plo­sives. They as­sess the cur­rent astro-strate­gic bal­ance of power and show the United States cling­ing to an out­dated idea of dom­i­nance and China ap­pear­ing as­cen­dant.

Given Pres­i­dent Trump’s recent pro­posal for a U.S. Space Force to bun­dle ex­ist­ing space-se­cu­rity ef­forts into a new mil­i­tary branch, this dis­cus­sion seems es­pe­cially timely. Read­ers hun­gry for an en­gag­ing, well-re­searched primer on space mil­i­tary pol­icy and its his­tory will be ed­i­fied. Read­ers who pre­fer astronomy and want to learn about satel­lites that look up into space rather than those that look down at ri­val na­tions might find these sec­tions less com­pelling.

But get­ting astronomy-lovers to sit with this ma­te­rial, of course, might be the point of the book, and in the fi­nal chap­ter Tyson and Lang at­tempt to re­solve the mil­i­tary-sci­ence ten­sion with brief sketches of a pos­si­ble hap­pier fu­ture. Since as­ter­oids have plenty of met­als and comets plenty of water, even­tual space min­ing tech­nolo­gies might end the kind of scarcity that some­times drives war, they ar­gue. And as­tro­physics it­self — by en­cour­ag­ing us to con­tem­plate the cos­mic sub­lime — might “re­di­rect our species’ urges to kill into col­lab­o­ra­tive urges to ex­plore,” they write.

Only a few quib­bles: When the book veers into space pol­icy, it be­comes less fo­cused. Al­though Tyson and Lang re­peat­edly ar­gue for a two-way street be­tween war and astronomy, the con­tem­po­rary cases they pre­sent seem to show oth­er­wise — that astronomy isn’t so much an ac­ces­sory to war as a col­lec­tor of mil­i­tary scraps.

Tyson and Lang do not set­tle the moral an­guish that trou­bled Tyson when the bombs were fall­ing on Iraq. How does he feel now? That mo­ment haunts the book, just as its nar­ra­tive is likely to haunt as­tronomers crushed be­tween their field’s wide-eyed hope­ful­ness and its deep in­debt­ed­ness to na­tional se­cu­rity fears. Still, ku­dos to Tyson and Lang for point­ing out the quandary, tak­ing a deep and elo­quent look at it, and of­fer­ing a way for­ward. Joshua Sokol is a free­lance sci­ence jour­nal­ist in Bos­ton.


When the Hub­ble Space Tele­scope launched in 1990, NASA sci­en­tists didn’t know that the mil­i­tary al­ready had sim­i­lar tele­scopes in or­bit.

By Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang Nor­ton. 576 pp. $30

AC­CES­SORY TO WAR The Un­spo­ken Al­liance Be­tween As­tro­physics and the Mil­i­tary

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