On November 18, 2007, Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg issued a scathing critique of NASA’s manned spaceflight program while speaking at a dark-energy workshop at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
“The International Space Station is an orbital turkey. No important science has come out of it…I could almost say no science has come out of it. And I would go beyond that and say that the whole manned spaceflight program, which is so enormously expensive, has produced nothing of scientific value,” he said.
“Human beings don’t serve any useful function in space,” Weinberg told SPACE.com. “They radiate heat, they’re very expensive to keep alive and unlike robotic missions, they have a natural desire to come back, so that anything involving human beings is enormously expensive.”
Weinberg is a particle physicist at the University of Texas at Austin and a co-recipient of the 1979 Nobel Prize in physics.
What’s going on here? Is Weinberg right? Is manned space flight a waste? After all, he did win the Nobel Prize, so he’s got to be extra smart – right?
Weinberg has a point when he discusses the cost of science within the manned space flight venue. It is expensive. When he points out that the unmanned Mars rovers have accomplished a great deal of very good science at costs way below nearly any part of the manned space flight program, he is telling it exactly like it is – sort of.
Let’s probe a bit closer. Weinberg is a particle physicist who had big plans for the Superconducting Super Collider, an enormous ring particle accelerator that was slated for construction in Texas, but scrapped by Congress in 1993 – because it was deemed too expensive and would have taken funds away from another project under consideration: the International Space Station.
That was a bitter pill for Weinberg to swallow, and one might reasonably surmise that he still smarts from that cancellation. Nevertheless, he is completely correct about the value of pure science coming from unmanned space exploration when compared to manned space exploration.
But Weinberg entirely misses the point.
Manned space exploration is not about science. It’s about human frontiers, far horizons, about humans going “where no one has gone before” – and eventually remaining there. Manned space exploration is not about science. It’s about vision, daring, adventure; it’s about exploration and hope, about humans being human – and ultimately, it’s about our survival, the survival of our species.
No, manned space exploration is not about science, but Weinberg is wrong when he says that nothing scientific has come from the manned space program. Modern life is replete with technology that has its roots in the manned space program. In the not too distant future, we will begin to beam power to Earth directly from orbit, and eventually, mine the Moon for Helium3, fuel for an endless, low-cost energy supply – both on Earth, and for expanding further into the Solar System. We’ll mine the asteroids for what we don’t have on Earth, and even move many manufacturing operations off-planet where they no longer will pollute our environment.
No, manned space exploration is not about science, but it is about everything that is good about humans. Humankind is taking its first faltering steps from its cradle, and Weinberg is decrying the cost of our shoes.