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Steven Weinberg is critical of NASA’s human spaceflight program, arguing that the money would be better spent on robotic missons. (credit:

An interview with Steven Weinberg

Steve Weinberg told a dark energy workshop in September that, “I see on the part of the president and the administrators of NASA… an infantile fixation on putting people into space, which has little or no scientific value.”

In turn, Michael Griffin said last week, “Like it or not, the Space Station is a feature of American space policy. At this point, the failure to recognize that, accept it, and deal with the consequences in a mature fashion consigns one, in my mind, to the ‘kids table’, while the adults converse elsewhere.”

Both charges have merit. The International Space Station (ISS) has not accomplished much science. NASA’s cancellation of the Crew Return Vehicle and X-38 made it difficult to house any dedicated science researchers on the ISS. But by denying the very strong support for the ISS (including from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas), the scientific community has been ineffective in obtaining the budgets that it wants. Instead of demanding money be moved from one pocket of NASA to the other, both groups could have joined forces to advocate bigger NASA budgets to fund both of these constituencies.

By battling in the press and in the halls of Congress, advocates of different approaches to science budgeting are diminishing the case for each other’s spending by more than they are increasing their own. This also appears to be happening with the Congressional holdup of some of COTS funding because Rocketplane Kistler and NASA could not work out differences in budgeting without resorting to Congress. Groups that call for merit budgeting, then cry foul when they lose and go to the GAO or Congress, may sound like poor sports (or petulant children). But tens of millions to tens of billions of dollars are at stake, so it is naïve to think that losers will not use any means necessary to obtain satisfaction. Interests should realize, nevertheless, that they are participating in a repeating game. If they throw a stone through their neighbor’s glass house, they should not be surprised when they get cut too.

By battling in the press and in the halls of Congress, advocates of different approaches to science budgeting are diminishing the case for each other’s spending by more than they are increasing their own.

Both manned spaceflight and robotic space science craft are Cold War legacies that have little justification in terms of national security, national prestige, or economics. The historical pride and accomplishment in both fields is now a pretext for obtaining federal money for jobs. Does advanced science make the nation worth protecting? Is human participation in low Earth orbit spaceflight worthy of a national laboratory designation and the key to opening up the frontier? Maybe. But the internecine battles within NASA constituencies and space constituencies in general threaten to dissipate the very illusion that allows any of them to be funded.

With different constituencies approaching the “adults” who converse in Congress, the result is likely to be to none of the constituents’ liking. There is little hope of reconciling diverse opinions, frameworks for arriving at those opinions, and incentives of the many constituencies. One possible path is to drill down on particular opinion makers and spokespeople and identify the kernel of their arguments so that substance gets debated on point instead of passive-aggressively through demagoguery in brief press pieces and Congressional back channels.

In an interview with Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg (conducted before Griffin’s most recent comments), The Space Review investigates Weinberg’s charges, thinking, and motivations.

International Space Station

Sam Dinkin, The Space Review (TSR): You called the International Space Station (ISS) an “orbital turkey” and got the media’s attention. Do you think it’s a turkey shoot to pick on the ISS because they didn’t really even schedule any science for the first couple of decades of the project?

Professor Steven Weinberg: Yes, I think the ISS is just one example of NASA’s ridiculous overemphasis on manned spaceflight. It may originally have been intended to serve as a platform for going on to the Moon and Mars, but then the orbit was changed to make it accessible to Russian rockets. As a result it doesn’t even have that. There have been continual efforts to justify it in terms of science done on the ISS. It’s hard for any one scientist to judge work across a range of fields. I can say that in my own field, which is fundamental physics and astronomy, especially cosmology, it has produced nothing. I would have heard.

In other fields I have heard talk about crystal growth and biological studies. There, I’m not competent to judge myself so I’ve asked people whose judgment I trust. Uniformly I hear nothing important has come out of it.

TSR: It hasn’t really even started to do any research on that score. It’s not even active as a laboratory, but I agree with you that the crystal growth and the industrial and research justification of the ISS seem weak. Even if you do come up with some fabulous new way to produce something in orbit, is it really worth building a production facility up there with costs what they are to come back?

Weinberg: Yes, it’s ridiculous. As a matter of fact, as Robert Park has pointed out, the cost of bringing things up to orbit with the space shuttle is so high that if on the ISS they found a way of turning lead into gold, it would not be worth it—literally—because it costs $10,000/lb. to bring things up to orbit with the shuttle. (p. 70, Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud, 2001, “And what could be manufactured to justify the transportation costs? On the market today, gold closed at $311 per ounce. The cost of launching that ounce of [lead] into low-Earth orbit using the shuttle would be about $830—and it would cost about the same to bring it back.)”

TSR: So bringing up the lead and bringing it back as gold still wouldn’t pay. That’s pretty funny. [Gold is up to $870/ounce this month, which is half the break-even price according to Park.]

Weinberg: It’s silly.

“I think the ISS is just one example of NASA’s ridiculous overemphasis on manned spaceflight.”

As a matter of fact, after the President announced his Vision of going to the Moon and Mars, shortly after that NASA announced that from then on, activities in the ISS would be limited to those that support the President’s Vision. Which as far as I can see that means testing space equipment and above all, I suppose, observing the effects of the low gravity environment on human beings. I do agree that the only way you can really do that—study the long-term effect of low gravity on human beings—is to put them in orbit.

That raises a larger question: is it worth doing that?

TSR: Maybe better investing in some cheap technology that would allow us to have artificial gravity like a cable between two spinning objects.

Weinberg: I’m not arguing that. I’m willing to grant that maybe the ISS is a good place to study the effect of low gravity on people, but I don’t care about the effect of low gravity on people. That’s only of interest if you are going to go, [i.e.,] continue human exploration. In the next century, I don’t see the point of it.

TSR: Even if we decide we want to continue with exploration and there are bad effects from low gravity, why subject one person to low gravity when we’ll find out with the next person we send. No real moral justification—it’s not like we’re solving diseases of millions by subjecting one person to trials.

Weinberg: There are other risks that are even worse, like dangers from cosmic rays and solar flares. The danger from solar flares is much worse on the trip to Mars than on the ISS because the Earth’s magnetic field protects you on the ISS. I don’t see the point of the ISS. No.

NASA and science

Weinberg: There’s one episode in particular that really shows NASA’s contempt for science as compared for its concern for the mission of sending people into space. There’s a collaboration headed by Sam Ting, a Nobel Laureate at MIT, that has built an instrument call the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), whose purpose is to study primary cosmic rays of high energy above the Earth’s atmosphere. Cosmic rays above a certain energy can only be studied on the ground indirectly by studying the showers of charged particles that they produce. It’s been very hard; for instance, you lose all information about the direction they came from. You lose essentially all information about the composition of the cosmic ray. All you can really tell from the shower is just the energy that the particle carried.

This collaboration wants to, for the first time, study high-energy cosmic rays directly above the Earth’s atmosphere. They built the spectrometer at a cost of over $1 billion. The money did not come from American sources; it came mostly from a European consortium. NASA had told them that it would bring it up to the ISS using the shuttle. It has now apparently reneged on that. It has said it does not want to devote a quarter of a shuttle load—which is what it would take, I’m told, to bring the AMS up to the ISS—and they just have turned their back on this commitment.

TSR: Even on the low gravity research, they’ve turned their back on a similar commitment to the Japanese with their centrifuge.

Weinberg: Which is very funny because the only good argument that I ever heard for completing the ISS was that we made a commitment and we should honor our commitments. They are honoring their commitment to complete the thing, but they’re not honoring commitments to use it!

TSR: Exactly. So you get a big empty ISS.

Weinberg: The ISS is just one thing, the ISS costs a big amount of money, but compared to the President’s vision of going to the Moon and Mars, it’s a small amount of money. The ISS, I’ve heard, costs $25 billion up to $60 billion. I don’t know, maybe it’s a $100 billion.

The Moon-Mars mission: nobody doubts that it would be hundreds of billions. I would not be surprised at all if the Moon-Mars mission would cost a trillion dollars. A trillion here, a trillion there, it adds up.

TSR: Nobody’s talking about funding it all in one year.

Weinberg: That’s true.

TSR: Even if we do it at the continued level of $16–20 billion (one percent of the federal budget) it’s still crowding out every other program that NASA could be doing instead.

Weinberg: It’s continuing with some things. It [has] cut way back on science. I don’t want to be unfair. It is continuing with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and every year they have to cross their fingers, but so far the funding has kept up for that.

There’s a program called “Beyond Einstein” which was originally supposed to have a number of different components:

  • One component to study the dark energy;
  • Another component to study the microwave background looking for signs of the effect of gravitational radiation;
  • Another component to study gravitational radiation directly—this is the so-called “LISA” satellite that will serve as an incredible gravitational wave antennae in space; [and]
  • Another program called CON-X to study x-rays from things like colliding black holes.
“We could send several dozen robotic missions and explore every part of Mars for much less than the cost of sending one manned mission that would arrive at only one spot on Mars. If what they found wasn’t interesting, who would then care?”

Apparently only one of these will go forward. The National Research Council has recommended it be the study of dark energy, which I personally think is the best one. The others were all worthwhile. People have spent large parts of their careers working on them. They expected they would go forward in some sort of orderly way. There’s no sign that any but this one will be funded.

There’s another program, called Explorer, which deals with projects of a lower cost. The kind of cost, for instance, that the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) cost. Some of these—originally there was supposed to be a general competition for Explorer projects. Now, that competition has been called off. The whole Explorer program is on ice.

TSR: Disappointing.

Weinberg: This goes way back in the history of NASA. NASA cancelled the two Apollo missions, Apollo 18 and 19, that were supposed to be specifically dedicated to science.

TSR: So the Apollo was pretty light on science and the science per dollar of even those two missions was probably pretty tough?

Weinberg: No, at the time of Apollo, the astronauts did do some useful things. They brought back Lunar samples. They placed a laser reflector on the Moon that has been used ever since to monitor the motion of the Moon with incredible accuracy. Those were useful things that could have been done by unmanned rockets, but in those days, the state of the art in computers and robotics was not what it is now.

These days we can do things so well with robotics. We don’t have to bring the robots back. Spirit and Opportunity are crawling around Mars. They don’t want to come back to Earth.

Spirit and Opportunity cost under $1 billion to send to Mars. Compare that with the cost of going to Mars—a thousand times greater to send people to Mars. We could send several dozen robotic missions and explore every part of Mars for much less than the cost of sending one manned mission that would arrive at only one spot on Mars. If what they found wasn’t interesting, who would then care?

The point of NASA: human spaceflight?

TSR: Do you think NASA has become just a jobs program?

Weinberg: Well, it always has been, like all federal programs, a jobs program. No, I don’t think so. I wouldn’t say, “just a jobs program”. The leadership of NASA sincerely is sold on the mission of human exploration as a good in its own right. I find the present administrator of NASA, Michael Griffin, quite honest about that. He says, in effect, we try to make room for science, but science is not the only mission of NASA. President Bush, has said, in effect, we’ve got to go to the Moon and Mars. And that’s what we’ve got to do. Human spaceflight is an end in itself. That’s what I challenge.

TSR: You called it “an infantile fixation on putting people into space.”

Weinberg: That’s what it is.

TSR: Do we need a NASA if we don’t have human spaceflight?

Weinberg: I think spaceflight, meaning unmanned missions, is tremendously important. Certainly space technology has enormous economic and military value, as well as scientific value. Some of that can be done by the private sector, like communication satellites. Some of it, the military part, certainly has to be done by government. That’s not done by NASA. The scientific part, which advances the technology, which also has spinoffs to the military and economic applications, is tremendously valuable scientifically.

TSR: Since the shuttle was built, has NASA really tried to push the envelope on the technology of space?

Weinberg: I think, for example, the WMAP satellite was very impressive. It went out, looped around the Moon, picked up enough speed from the Moon’s gravitational field to get out to the L2 Lagrange point, which is a million miles from Earth. That’s where the JWST is going to operate also. There, a million miles from Earth, neither can be serviced; they have both got to work the first time. I think this is pushing the state of the art.

Spirit and Opportunity, the rovers, are pushing the state of the art in robotics. This has important spinoffs for people on Earth. Robotics offers opportunities on Earth for doing things that human beings would find boring, difficult, or dangerous. I think NASA should have a very vigorous program of unmanned spaceflight. Since we’ve invested so much in the manned spaceflight program, I’m not saying we should completely abolish it. I think we should keep it in being. Maybe it will turn out to be useful in the future. For example, astronauts can continue to do things like servicing low Earth orbit missions; the Hubble servicing, for example.

TSR: Even if it’s not economically cost effective, we keep the skills current and we keep the program, we keep its national prestige value. Even if we can’t really justify a large budget, a small budget is reasonable.

Weinberg: Yes, I think so. I think a small budget is reasonable. I think it’s useful to maintain the technology, perhaps advance the technology, always with the ideas that they be doing something useful. These grandiose plans of having people do incredible things like going to Mars when there really isn’t anything useful for them to do there.

TSR: Not yet anyway.

Mars opportunity

Weinberg: Suppose one of these robotic missions discovers signs of life or past life on Mars, and after attempts to analyze robotically, you decide you really need a person there who can make the kind of judgments human beings make. I would then support that.

TSR: I don’t think I would because if your question is, “How does life emerge?” even that might not be worth $100 billion to figure out. If you spent $50 billion on Earth, you could probably devise artificial life here.

“Spirit and Opportunity, the rovers, are pushing the state of the art in robotics. This has important spinoffs for people on Earth. Robotics offers opportunities on Earth for doing things that human beings would find boring, difficult, or dangerous.”

Weinberg: Well, no, I don’t agree with that—I think there’s a great mystery. Something that people in general, including me, want to know is, “How common is life in the Universe?” We have no way of calculating that. I don’t foresee that we’re going to be able to calculate, “What is the probability that given a planet a certain distance from a star, with a certain chemical composition, what’s the probability that life starts?” Maybe we can calculate it at some future time, but we’re nowhere near being able to calculate that. We know it’s not zero because life started on Earth. We don’t know. Maybe given Earth-like conditions, it’s ten percent. Maybe it’s one part in a trillion trillion trillion trillion.

TSR: We know it’s not one.

Weinberg: We don’t even know that because we haven’t visited any planets that are Earthlike. People think now Mars used to be Earthlike. We don’t know that for sure, but that is gradually becoming reasonable. Did that Earth-like Mars give rise to life? If it didn’t, then we know the probability is fairly small.

TSR: It could be. We’d have two data points.

Weinberg: We’d have two cases. In one case it occurred. In the other case it didn’t. If life arose on Mars, then I would say we would say that we would be safe in inferring that life is very common throughout the universe. It’s an entirely different picture of the universe we live in. I’d spend a lot of money for that. But, as it is now, to send one astronaut to one location on Mars—

TSR: They’re going to send another dozen survey missions before they send a single manned mission.

Weinberg: I would like to see another dozen survey missions before we even start spending money on sending a man.

Mars moral calculus

TSR: What if it was a just one-way mission to Mars like Spirit and Opportunity? What if someone volunteered to go and stay? Would that change your feelings about it? It might cut the cost by more than half if you don’t have to have the return fuel.

Weinberg: I don’t like thinking about that.

TSR: Think of how many lives we could save with half a trillion dollars going to medical.

Weinberg: I know. This raises the question of the kind of moral code you have. I think philosophers have a phrase, “deontological morality”. Do you judge actions just by their effect, just adding everything up? Or do you look at the quality of the act? There’s something repugnant about a government program that involves the suicide of an individual. I realize it’s only one person and with that money you could save a lot of other lives, but I’m not—

TSR: What if you sent them with enough supplies with a good chance to live out the rest of their lives? You could send a lot of oxygen and food for one person if you didn’t send any fuel.

Weinberg: Are you going to ask me where to draw the line? I don’t know. I don’t want to go there.

TSR: Fair enough. That’s a government program. Any objection to a private party risking their blood and coin to develop and settle space? Explore space?

Weinberg: Not in principle. Not as such. I do have an objection to an economic system that puts that much money into the hands of individuals to do what they want with. I don’t think people should be that filthy rich.

TSR: If someone has $10 or $20 billion to finance a shoestring Mars mission?

Weinberg: I would say go, “OK, go ahead and do it.” But I would question the economic system that let him have $10 or $20 billion.

TSR: Our economic system also supports some pretty good physics research.

Weinberg: Oh, I would like to tinker with it, not abolish it. I don’t want to go to the opposite extreme of a rigid egalitarianism. But I think we’ve gone too far in the direction we have in terms of an enormous gap in wealth between the richest and the poorest. That’s a whole other issue.

TSR: That’s another moral issue: “How much envy can you stomach to achieve better lives for the worst or better lives for the average person?”

“If life arose on Mars, then I would say we would say that we would be safe in inferring that life is very common throughout the universe. It’s an entirely different picture of the universe we live in. I’d spend a lot of money for that.”

Weinberg: I believe equality is a good. It’s not the only good. We should take egalitarianism into account as one of the things we work for along with a lot of other things. I certainly prefer—I don’t believe any society is ever perfectly egalitarian. The societies that have made egalitarianism their essential creed have always had a group of people at the top who run things.

TSR: Right. Animal Farm.

Weinberg: Exactly. Bakunin said, in effect, it is impossible to make workers into governors, because if they become governors, they are no longer workers.

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