Neil deGrasse Tyson sees big business running with government space tech the way it did with GPS

Key Points
  • The space industry is long overdue in its shift toward commercialization, says astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
  • "This should have happened decades ago," he says.
  • Tyson points to the military's development of GPS and the industries that popped up in the private sector as a blueprint for business opportunities in space.
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on the future of investing in space

The space industry is long overdue in its shift toward commercialization, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson told CNBC on Monday.

"This should have happened decades ago," Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at New York's American Museum of Natural History, said on "Squawk Box."

"When we think of space, we think of NASA," but the government agency is "only a small fraction" of what's going on in space, said Tyson, who likes to comment on all things science on social media and television.

Among the top commercial space enterprises are Virgin Galactic, the space tourism arm of Richard Branson's empire that went public this year, as well as privately held rocket companies SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, and Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos.

Morgan Stanley forecast $800 billion in annual sales by 2040 for hypersonic travel, which means traveling in aircraft at more than five times the speed of sound.

Virgin Galactic is in the early stages of exploring how the technologies it developed for space tourism might apply, with Boeing venture arm HorizonX recently investing $20 million in Branson's firm, specifically to explore hypersonics.

However, the idea of companies forming around what was once the government's domain is not new.

Tyson, a bestselling author and host of TV shows, pointed to the history of Global Positioning System technology. "Now entire industries exist" because of the GPS development that started out as a military project, he explained.

"That's the future" blueprint for the advancement of space travel and exploration by companies, he predicted. But there needs to be an increase in regulation in space, he said, adding it's been "a little bit of a wild West" thus far, he added.

Tyson reiterated his support for a "space force" to protect U.S. interests in space.

Funding for the creation of that type of arm of the military, a priority for President Donald Trump, is contained in the $738 billion defense policy bill that passed the House last week.

— CNBC's Michael Sheetz contributed to this report.