Thursday, February 04, 2010

Weinberg Says That Obama Gets Space Funding Right

In light of the new proposed 2011 budget and the Obama Administration decision to cut spending on the human spaceflight to the moon and Mars, Steven Weinberg wrote an opinion piece that praised this step.

The manned space flight program masquerades as science, but it actually crowds out real science at NASA, which is all done on unmanned missions. In 2004 President George W. Bush announced a new vision for the space agency: a return of astronauts to the moon followed by a manned expedition to Mars. A few days later NASA's office of Space Science announced major cutbacks in its important Beyond Einstein and Explorer programs of unmanned research in astronomy. The explanation was that they "do not clearly support the goals of the President's vision for space exploration."

Soon after Mr. Bush's announcement I predicted that sending astronauts to the moon and Mars would be so expensive that future administrations would abandon the plan. This prediction seems to have come true.

The cost-to-benefit ratio, at least in terms of science output, is just not there for human spaceflight, and even the ISS for that matter. Decisions to do this have been based predominantly on politics, and funding appropriate home constituents. When one argues that such cutbacks can hurt science, and then to hear very prominent scientists disagree with that assessment, it kinda throw that claim into question.



Anonymous said...

A few years - hell, a few months ago - I might have agreed with Weinberg's sentiments. I too felt that manned spaceflight was a waste of time as far as science is concerned. I still feel that this is the case. But I also think there is a glaring gap in logic there. This is a case of a conclusion being strongly implied by the premise: there is an unstated assumption that if spaceflight - manned or unmanned - is to occur, then it must be to further science. This simply is not true. People may choose to go to space for entirely different reasons than scientific ones, just as once they chose to test their limits in what were once frontiers of human exploration on Earth.

Science may not benefit much from manned spaceflight. But please let us not say that spaceflight's raison d'etre is science, ergo manned spaceflight should be abandoned.

For more on what changed my mind see, for instance:

As usual, it was the physicist on the panel who had the most naive view. No offence meant, as I'm a physicist myself.

ZapperZ said...

That's fine. Then don't sell it as being an advancement for science. But that's not what they are doing. These things, and the ISS, were funded through NASA, and which has an explicit and implicit connection to science and scientific progress. If it were for military purposes, it should have been done through the military, and if it were for others, the same thing. But these there were predominantly sold as a science, and important to science.


Bradley said...


Certainly different people have different things they want from Space. Just don't forget that the real problem here is money. If there was plenty of it then we could have as many people in Space as you want and still do all the science on top of that.

But there's not that much money. Priorities must be defined. If you want to have lots of people in Space, then less science will get done. Are you sure you want that?

Allison said...

I completely agree with the reduced spending on manned space flight. Manned space flight is ridiculously expensive. There will always be loss of life in manned space flight, and when tragedies happen, it sets everything back years, costing more and more money. I agree with Bradley that pouring billions of dollars into manned space flight research takes funding away from medical research, climate change research, etc. We have too many problems on the ground to throw money away. Unless of course, the solution to climate change is to ruin this planet then find another one to colonize...