Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Celebrity Salesman for the Military-Industrial-Complex

Photo Source Tricia McKinney | CC BY 2.0

The idea for this article came from one of those annoying “Recommended for you” thumbnails on YouTube. The title was: “Neil deGrasse Tyson: Trump’s Space Force Is Not a Crazy Idea.” Having written about and researched space weapons for over a decade, I was intrigued as to why a seemingly intelligent man (Tyson) would want to help promote an agenda that will literally imperil us all, namely the weaponization of space: the end-game of which is global domination in the interests of economic neoliberalism. So I clicked. Tyson was talking to host Stephen Colbert about the wonders of space militarization (by the US, of course, not its enemies).

It turns out that Tyson is promoting a new, co-authored book, Accessory to War: the Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military (W.W. Norton, released, tastelessly, on 11 September), which is all about the history of science militarization. The book is a disgraceful attempt to use history as an excuse to justify the continuation and expansion of taxpayer-funded R&D into hi-technology via military budgets. By now, the hi-tech sector dominates the top US corporations: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. Much of the innovations used by these companies were initiated in the military.

Tyson is doing the rounds on national media, including Colbert and CBS This Morning, to promote the book and more broadly continued public expenditure on the Pentagon. After a little digging, I found that America’s favourite astrophysicist is a glorified salesman for the military-industrial-complex.


Having graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, Tyson went on to earn a PhD in astrophysics from Columbia University in 1991. From 1996, Tyson has been Frederick P. Rose director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History.

Pretty soon, the George W. Bush administration was calling on Tyson’s talents for all things space-related. Under President Bill Clinton, the Space Command (later Air Force Space Command) announced plans to dominate the entire world by force, “Full Spectrum Dominance” as the successors continue to call it. In 2001, under Bush, the Rumsfeld Space Commission, sought ways to expand the  weaponization of space to reinforce US-led corporate globalization and the architecture — satellites, GPS, the internet, etc. — that supports it. In the same year, Tyson became a formal employee of the Bush administration. One of his biographical webpages states:

“In 2001, Tyson was appointed by President Bush to serve on a 12-member commission that studied the Future of the US Aerospace Industry. The final report was published in 2002 and contained recommendations (for Congress and for the major agencies of the government) that would promote a thriving future of transportation, space exploration, and national security.”

The Final Report of the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry,  on which Tyson worked, makes for an interesting read. It starts from an elite-nationalistic viewpoint, namely that of maintaining US supremacy in innovation before, discussing in Appendix G: “Astronautical research and development, including resources, personnel, equipment, and facilities; Outer space exploration and control.” “Control,” no less. Controlling space is a core part of “Full Spectrum Dominance.” Tyson’s biography also states that in 2004, he:

“was once again appointed by President Bush to serve on a 9-member commission on the Implementation of the United States Space Exploration Policy, dubbed the ‘Moon, Mars, and Beyond’ commission. This group navigated a path by which the new space vision can become a successful part of the American agenda.”

The follow-up Tyson-co-authored report, A Journey to Inspire, Innovate, and Discover, also makes interesting reading. It states:

“Of particular importance to the space exploration vision is a strong partnership between NASA and the Department of Defense, where research, technical assistance, and operational assets are often shared. The Commission believes that the role of the existing Partnership Council – wherein NASA, the Air Force, and National Reconnaissance Office coordinate mutual work and interests – should also focus actively on supporting the new vision.”

The report says the US should “DARPA-ize” (my phrase) NASA. DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency which uses taxpayer money to innovate the hi-technology which now dominates the top-ten list of US corporations. DARPA famously brought us the internet, for instance. The report says:

“we suggest that the Administration and Congress create within NASA an organization drawing upon lessons learned from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA is a highly successful organization that is chartered to fund high-risk/high return basic research in support of national defense priorities.”


The high-risk is paid for by the taxpayer who then buy back the given product on the consumer market. For example: touch-screen technology now used by Apple, for instance, came out of technology developed for the Air Force.

Disturbingly, the report recommends that NASA integrate a contract system like the US Missile “Defense” program, which is so  essential to the overall goal of “Full Spectrum Dominance” (on his recent CBS piece, Tyson doesn’t challenge the erroneous assumption  that the system is for “defense”), The report says: “In the case of U.S. Missile Defense, for example, the integrator is responsible for the overall system of systems architecture, and for integrating the space, air, land, and sea elements of the architecture.”

The goal of a successful propaganda system is to sell science designed and applied for military use (itself serving the dual-functions of ensuring US global corporate supremacy and innovation in the hi-tech economy) to the public as “cool” and fun. Enter Tyson. Since working for the federal government on these schemes, he has hosted the PBS-NOVA series, Origins; worked on The Pluto Files documentary; appeared on ScienceNOW; and has hosted StarTalk (funded in part by the taxpayer-funded National Science Foundation), which features comedians who attract laypeople to science.

Tyson joined the US military’s 15-member Defense Innovation Board (DIB), launched in 2016. The board advises the Defense Secretary on numerous issues. DIB continues the all-American tradition of ripping off taxpayers by using their money to invest in hi-tech innovation under the cover of a “defense” budget. DIB says:

“Some of the foremost topics the DIB is exploring include artificial intelligence, machine learning, workforce capacity, organizational structure, hiring and retention strategies, acquisition reform, electronic and drone warfare, software capabilities, and IT infrastructure.”


So, with this background, it’s not surprising that Tyson would appear on national television and talk up the Defense Department. But it’s crucial for any successful propaganda campaign that his record with the federal government be suppressed, minimized or justified. Hence, the failure (refusal?) of host Stephen Colbert to mention any of this to the casual viewer. The show gives the impression that Tyson is just a fun and intelligent man with no vested interests. In fact, Tyson lies and tells both Colbert and CBS: “I have no dog in this fight” in relation to Trump’s (read: the Pentagon’s) creation of a “Space Force.”

As noted, Tyson has been a government advisor and at the time of appearing on the shows was a member of a DoD board. In addition, we all have a “dog in the fight” of space weaponization because fragile and complex space systems could result in catastrophic failures, including miscommunications which can escalate into near-terminal catastrophe, as has happened many times in the past in relation to nuclear weapons (see, for instance, Daniel Ellsberg’s chilling book, The Doomsday Machine). Adding a space dimension to fraught and dangerous geopolitical situations only adds to the risk.

Last month, US Defense Secretary and war criminal, James “it’s fun to shoot some people” Mattis, told reporters that the Pentagon was advocating for a separate US Space Command in response to the Defense Policy Bill’s plan to integrate space systems under the Strategic Command (which also oversees nuclear strategy). Mattis was initially against this, says Space News, but has changed his mind in light of Trump’s (read: the Pentagon’s) insistence on having a “Space Force”.

With the new “Space Force” (as yet a nickname) potentially going ahead, the friendly faces of US imperialism are rolled out to justify expanding the militarization of space. Luckily, Tyson has a new book on the same topic to promote. In addition, Trump’s undeserved reputation as a moron (see my book President Trump, Inc.) required the media presence of a respected professional (i.e., Tyson) to promote the “Space Force.”


In Accessory to War, the authors write:

“A vibrant economy … depends on at least one of the following: the profit motive,  war on the ground, or war in space … Must war and profit be what drive both civilization on Earth and the investigation of other worlds? History … makes it hard to answer no … Star charts, calendars, chronometers, telescopes, maps, compasses, rockets, satellites, drones–these war not inspirational civilian endeavors. Dominance was their goal; increase of knowledge was incidental.

… The first few years after 9/11 were a fine time to be mercenary, a military engineering firm, or a giant aerospace company.”

Recall that Tyson worked to promote the aeroindustry. Tyson acknowledges that “the space research my colleagues and I conduct plugs firmly and fundamentally into the nation’s military might.” At a conference involving military brass, Tyson was directly exposed via live-feed to the realities of blowing women and children apart with hi-tech weapons in Iraq in 2003 from high-ground platforms. He writes, self-pityingly:

“Blinking back tears and fighting to keep my composure, I thought about leaving the conference. I began to choreograph my resignation from the board of the Space Foundation. But at the same time I felt I couldn’t just walk out of the sanctum of war…

[W]ithout the power sought by its participants … and without the tandem investments in  technology fostered by that quest for power, there would be no astronomy, no astrophysics, no astronauts, no exploration of the solar system, and barely any comprehension of the cosmos.”

That’s alright then. Tyson told CBS This Morning that he found a psychological trick to avoid feeling responsible, namely to blame everyone else: “I had to re-direct the causes and effects of this violence, and say, ‘No. It’s us, the electorate’ ” — they voted Bush in late-2000 (yeah, right). “If you have access to weaponry that can achieve a geopolitical goal that is noble then, I’m not there to stand in judgement of it,” he also told CBS.


Tyson is careful to avoid mentioning that both China and Russia have repeatedly advocated for signing a peace treaty with the US, both for space and cyber warfare— not because Russia and China are “good guys,” but because as much weaker military powers it is in their interests to constrain US military actions and not provoke the superpower by engaging in the same, unless the US does it first. In fact, on the Colbert show, Tyson even mentions the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and ridicules it as an equivalent of singing “Cumbayá.”

Meanwhile, groups are actively thinking up ways to transform military spending into peaceful R&D for a green- and other hi-tech economy.

A report by the German-based institute IFSH notes that military R&D is not an inevitability. Following the end of the Cold War, military R&D declined. But, “[e]ven in the US, civilian spending is now substantially larger than military spending.” Why, then, place emphasis on  military R&D, as Tyson does? In most countries, says the author, “There has been a major shift towards military use of technologies driven by civilian r&d, particularly in electronics.”

In terms of practical alternatives, Campaign Against the Arms Trade notes that skills shortages in the UK (the same applies to the US) means that renewable energy sectors would be glad to employ people previously skilled in the arms industry. Doing so lacks political will only. In addition, the Campaign Against Climate Change reckons that the UK could become a carbon neutral economy, employing one million people, for £19bn a year, which is about half the current military budget. This would also involve the kind of technological innovations currently privileged by the military sector.

The US transformed itself into a war economy during WWII and has remained that ever since. But, with enough public pressure, it can be transformed into a peace- and renewables economy. Don’t let intellectuals fool you into thinking there are no alternatives to war — and in this case, potentially terminal war.

T. J. Coles is director of the Plymouth Institute for Peace Research and the author of several books, including Voices for Peace (with Noam Chomsky and others) and  Fire and Fury: How the US Isolates North Korea, Encircles China and Risks Nuclear War in Asia (both Clairview Books).