USAF photo of Thule Air Base in Greenland, from above.
USAF photo of Thule Air Base in Greenland, from above.

Watching the Skies, with the US Space Command

Thule Air Base. Credit: USAF (Public domain).
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About This Episode

On this episode of StarTalk Radio, Neil deGrasse Tyson flies to Thule Air Base in Greenland, the United States’ northernmost base, to investigate the intersection of space exploration and the military. In-studio Neil is joined by comic co-host Chuck Nice, Laura Grego, PhD, the senior scientist in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Yale professor and astrophysicist Priya Natarajan. This episode also features Neil’s interviews with General John Raymond, commander of Air Force Space Command, and those on site at Thule including Colonel Thomas Colvin, General John Shaw, and Tim Norton.

You’ll learn why the Air Force needs a Space Command to begin with. Get the history behind Thule Air Base and its close ties with the Cold War. Discover why the workers at Thule must adapt to the unique weather conditions of being so far north. Find out how Thule detects imminent threats using the Upgraded Early Warning Radars which can detect possible threats from 3,000 miles away. Then, you’ll hear what happens after an incoming threat is detected. 

We debate how effective deterrence is as a national security strategy. You’ll learn how important satellite communications are to national security. You’ll also find out why Thule is called the space traffic controller for the global satellite communications network. General Shaw explains why space is now seen as a war-fighting domain. We discuss the recent administration’s proposed “Space Force.”

Thule also has telescopes that map deep space so we dive into the science of black holes. Priya tells us why every depiction of a black hole you’ve seen is wrong. Learn more about the scientific roots of the black hole seen in the film Interstellar. We also ponder if, like in the film Gravity, a chain reaction of satellite explosions could really happen, and whether measures are in place to make sure it doesn’t. Bill Nye drops in to get us thinking about the current state of global relations. All that, plus, Neil tells us why space exploration might be the greatest source of peace ever introduced. 

Thanks to this week’s Patrons for supporting us: Renee Douglas, Ernesto Chavez, Julia Lyschik, Sydney Reising, Andy Green, and Cherrico Pottery.

NOTE: StarTalk+ Patrons and All-Access subscribers can listen to this entire episode commercial-free.

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