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Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson fills a leadership black hole

View Photo Gallery: The best and the worst leadership moments of recent U.S. presidents.

Quick: Name an astrophysicist. Any astrophysicist.

Can’t do it? You’re surely not alone. But not only is there an astrophysicist whose name was among the 20 most-searched terms on Google Tuesday morning—he also has more than 300,000 Twitter followers. With a new book released Monday, Neil deGrasse Tyson is making the rounds of The Daily Show, NPR, CBS Morning and the like. If he keeps getting attention at this pace, he may actually help to reinvigorate this country’s space program (which in 2012 will mark its first year in three decades without launching a manned space vehicle) by giving it something it appears to be missing: An outspoken leader.

Tyson’s day job is the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York; he is also a renowned space expert who began giving lectures on astronomy at the ripe old age of 15. He hosts several science programs on television, has served on presidential astronomy commissions, and is a recipient of the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest civilian honor given by the space program.

What I find most interesting about all the interest in Tyson and his book is that it comes along at the very moment Newt Gingrich’s fall in the polls seemed to coincide almost directly with his talk of moon colonies and trips to Mars. Our reactions to the two may simply be that we trust the head of the Hayden Planetarium when he talks about a base on the moon—something Tyson says is no more ambitious than Kennedy’s goal of walking there 40 years ago—but question a GOP candidate who says it while standing on Florida’s “space coast,” thinking it sounds nutty, if not pandering.

But it probably also has something to do with how Tyson talks about science and space exploration. He is not just a child prodigy with a lot of media appearances and a penchant for wearing celestial-themed ties and vests without a trace of irony. He is a gifted communicator who displays qualities of leadership that seem lacking in so many public officials. For one, he makes the reasons for space exploration accessible, putting its importance into simple and often humorous terms. “Venus has a runaway greenhouse effect—I kind of want to know what happened there,” he said in an NPR interview Monday. “Mars once had running water—it’s bone dry today; something bad happened there as well. Asteroids have us in [their] sights. Dinosaurs didn’t have a space program, so they’re not here to talk about this problem. We are and we have the power to do something.”

He also has a genuine passion and child-like fascination with what he does, and isn’t afraid to wrap the space program up in grand talk of bold adventure and big ideas. His enthusiasm is infectious—and credible—even for those who couldn’t care less about space and see it as a nice-to-have at a time of bloated deficits and economic pain. He thinks President Obama should be talking about upping NASA’s budget because “not only is it the grandest epic adventure a human being can undertake” but such an increase would “create a shift in the state of mind of people where they will say hey, ‘we are dreaming about tomorrow again.’ ”

Finally, he’s not afraid of criticizing the president’s current approach to space exploration and funding, saying that Obama’s “Sputnik moment” call for high-speed rail amounts to short-term thinking. “Is that how you’re going to use a new Sputnik moment? To do something you should have already had? Excuse me? Let’s use a Sputnik moment to do a Sputnik kind of thing.” In other words, he says things no NASA administrator could ever say, pushing for more funding with his enthusiasm, accessibility and credibility. Some have said Tyson is filling the void of Carl Sagan, who was a mentor of Tyson’s in his early years. Whatever unofficial role he may have, Tyson shows the power of both outside voices and outside leaders when it comes to generating attention.

More from On Leadership:

Obama and the state of race in America

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.



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