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  • Opinion: Obama gets space funding right

    By Steven Weinberg
    Steven Weinberg
    Published: Feb. 5, 2010
    Opinion:

    Steven Weinberg received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979 and the National Medal of Science in 1991. He is a professor in the departments of Physics and Astronomy.

    In the federal budget released this week, President Barack Obama calls for increasing NASA’s funding by two percent while cutting its manned space flight program. If enacted by Congress, the cuts will likely end plans to return astronauts to the moon. Some claim these cuts will damage America’s capabilities in science and technology, but the president’s spending plan will likely boost both.

    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.

    All of the brilliant past discoveries in astronomy for which NASA can take credit have been made by unmanned satellite-borne observatories, and there is much more to be done. By studying the polarization of cosmic microwave radiation, we may find evidence of gravitational waves emitted in the first fraction of a second of the big bang. By sending laser beams between teams of satellites, we should be able to detect gravitational waves directly from collisions between neutron stars and black holes. By correlating the distances and velocities of many galaxies, we should be able to explore the mysterious dark energy that makes up most of the energy of the universe.

    None of this involves astronauts. The cost of all these projects would be a few billion dollars — not cheap, but nothing like the hundred or so billion dollars for a manned return to the moon, or the many hundreds of billions of dollars for a manned mission to Mars.

    It is true that astronauts made a large contribution to astronomy by servicing the Hubble Space Telescope. But if Hubble had been put into orbit by unmanned rockets instead of the Space Shuttle, so much money would have been saved that instead of servicing a single Hubble we could have had half a dozen Hubbles in orbit, making servicing unnecessary.

    In any case, the argument for using astronauts to service satellite observatories is now out of date. Current unmanned observatories like the brilliantly successful Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe and the European Space Agency’s new Planck satellite, which study an era of the universe’s expansion before the origin of matter, are not in low Earth orbits like Hubble, but at L2. This is a quiet point in space that always remains on the other side of the Earth from the Sun and is a million miles from our planet, beyond the reach of astronauts. The successor to Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope, will also be at L2.

    Giving up on manned space flight doesn’t mean we have to give up on the exploration of the solar system. The president’s budget calls for spending $19 billion on NASA, and for much less than the cost of sending a few astronauts once to a single location on Mars we could send hundreds of robots like Spirit and Opportunity to sites all over the planet.

    It is difficult to get reliable estimates of the cost of sending astronauts to Mars, but I have heard no estimate that is less than many hundreds of billions of dollars. The cost of sending Spirit and Opportunity to Mars was less than $1 billion. Unmanned exploration of Mars would not only be more useful scientifically; it would also yield more valuable spin-offs in technologies that are useful on Earth, like robotics and computer programs that can deal independently with unexpected obstacles.

    The only technology for which the manned space flight program is well suited is the technology of keeping people alive in space. And the only demand for that technology is in the manned space flight program itself.

    This article appeared in the Feb. 4 issue of The Wall Street Journal.

    • Quote 2
      Leon Gildow said on March 28, 2011 at 11:33 a.m.
      Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. After all I will be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again very soon!
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      Mikko said on March 13, 2011 at 3:30 p.m.
      There is no denying of the public excitement and interested in manned flights to the moon.
    • Quote 2
      Will said on Jan. 29, 2011 at 11:15 p.m.
      Hopefully the U.S. will continue to be the leader in space exploration
    • Quote 2
      Kumar said on Feb. 11, 2010 at 12:19 a.m.
      Dear all, I am still very hopeful about earth. Contrary to Ryan pointing out that we could extinct because we didn't land sufficiently on moon, I think there is lot of work still to be done on earth. Earth still offers so much which moon will not be able to offer. If it is about survival and prudent spending, we need to first care about the existing situation on earth. Probably going back to moon may not be as inspiring as the first one for a simple reason that it is already achieved. Until unmanned missions are absolutely incapable of finding specific impact on astronauts, it is a wise choice to direct more money on unmanned missions. In any manned space flight, adventure is restricted to few, but in a robotic space mission, it is passed on to all those who have worked even on simple aspects of making instruments work. And I do agree with Steven that it takes more science and effort in an unmanned robotics vehicle landing far from earth and still sending all that the chosen astronauts can feel. With all the present technology with NASA, we could still let earth survive much better than moon. Thanks for being patiently reading.
    • Quote 2
      Rob said on Feb. 10, 2010 at 6:53 p.m.
      Excellent comment Ryan, I have a friend who is a student at UT that created an Internet forum you'd be interested in, it's all about the privatization of space. Click on my name to check it out, and post about what you said here!
    • Quote 2
      Ryan Sovelius said on Feb. 10, 2010 at 6:00 p.m.
      The point of space exploration, and whether it be done through the utilization of satellites, physics, different telescopes, manned missions, etc. has always been, and in my mind, for the sole purpose of eventually putting human beings into the stars with the capability that they can not only survive but also thrive all throughout our universe. The survival of the human race depends on us being able to live in outer space. You can only learn so much about living in space through the monitor of a computer screen. Eventually men and women and children all need to be subjected to that vast unknown environment that we call space. Placing real men and women also helps market space to the public. Looking at pictures that telescopes like Hubble have taken are no doubt beautiful and inspiring, but no picture can inspire new generations to set their dreams on the stars like manned space missions can. The manned missions of the 50s and 60s inspired generations to go into many different space related fields. What it costs to get to mars is irrelevant. I guess the moon is boring since we have already gone there, but I still believe that it has a very important role in helping us to create space colonies. It is the perfect test bed for not only government agencies to learn how to get to mars, but it can also be a vital test bed for the private sector. I would also love for the private sector to simply do all of this on their own, but the fact is they simply cannot right now do to a multitude of reasons (small budgets, unorganized, etc). Because of the aforementioned, NASA and it's related manned space program continues to have a very important role in the future dreams of not only many American's, but also people all around the world. I think it is also important to attach some budget numbers to this. The Apollo program cost somewhere around 150 billion in inflation adjusted dollars. We recently spent nearly 1 trillion on a stimulus package that only a little over a quarter of which has been spent to date. We can safely assume that do to the knowledge that was gained since Apollo, and the improvements in technology since then, that a return flight to the moon, and the subsequent creation of a colony on the moon would not cost anywhere near what the original Apollo program cost. In 2009 the NASA budget was .55% of the federal budget, hardly a drop in the bucket. Concerns about the NASA budget, or lack thereof, should hardly play into the decision of whether or not NASA has a manned space flight program. We also need to take our eyes off of mars and focus on the moon again. I know the moon is boring for many since we have already been there, but it is absolutely vital for not only the manned programs but also the survival of the human race. This planet will not always be here, and it is because of this that we need to figure out how to survive in other areas of space, thus we can see the importance of a manned program. Putting an end to NASA's manned space program, and without the ability to get men back into space in the near future, is greatly jeopardizing the survival of the human race on Planet Earth.
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      Clyde Hoover said on Feb. 10, 2010 at 4:54 p.m.
      I am afraid what this shows on the part of Dr. Wheeler is a lack of vision or a sense of adventure. Manned space flight will not be cheap or easy anytime soon, and I'm betting those saying "I can do it cheaper and faster" will discover otherwise. Should the U.S. really abandon manned space flight, the money spent "saved" would not suddenly flow into robotic space exploration. It is likely that much of the purpose for doing so would also vanish - why reconnoiter when you're not intending to ever visit? The debate on whether manned space flight was worthwhile started even before Sputnik was launched. None of Dr. Wheeler's arguments are new - Dr. Van Allen (of Van Allen Belt fame) enunciated them over 60 years ago and they have not in my opinion, held up either then or now. A balanced program of manned and unmanned space exploration is preferable and maybe that is where we will finally end up. I shed few tears for most of the Constellation project but it was as much about inspiration as exploration. It appears that Dr. Wheeler finds little value in the former.
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      Clark Newman said on Feb. 10, 2010 at 1:26 p.m.
      It is interesting and he has a very valid point, but I think his perspective is a little narrow. It's not all dollars and cents when dealing with the entire space industry. Do you remember Dr. Mark's intro class where he discussed the ISS and how it was important to include Russians in the project post-Soviet collapse? Dr. Mark was at first livid that they'd rotate the orbit to ~53 degrees, but was convinced when he was told they needed to occupy Russian engineers and scientists who would otherwise work for the highest bidder, nations with dubious intentions. He also says the only demand for life support technology is manned flight itself. I support pushing the incentive to private companies because I believe that the demand for life-support technology will grow to space tourism and even beyond. Life support technology can also be useful for green technology; the perfection of balancing energy and materials use and maximizing efficiency can be used on the surface. This does not need to be done by NASA alone so I don't mind it being passed to private companies. Finally, we really don't NEED to know the things he's interested in like gravity waves; will that feed the poor? He discusses demand and return, but in a different perspective the return of probes to Mars is just as useless as people in orbit. I do not have this viewpoint. I for one put up with ASE school because the subject is fascinating to me and I'd love to experience it myself, but you and I both know the subject and the work have a long line of boring numbers and math between them. It's the inspiration that keeps me doing it instead of something simpler, or using my math skills on Wall Street. Human space flight is much more inspiring than robotic space flight and if that causes more people like you and I to learn science and engineering as a profession then you have to bring that added economic value into the equation. Whoa that was too long. Thanks for posting this! Cheers!
    • Quote 2
      Dale Gray said on Feb. 6, 2010 at 9:56 a.m.
      OK, I'm no rocket scientist, but even I know when people throw around words like "masquerades," they have some issues. This article is not science, it is an emotional appeal stating that his brand of science is more important that other brands of science. It is more important because he says so. He wants us to believe his value system is supreme to science. Sorry, Dr. Weinberg, your point of view is valid, but it isn't the only point of view. Despite what you say, human exploration of space is important, possibly the most important thing we can do for survival as a species and learning how to live and prosper in space is worth every penny (and I will agree with Dr. Weinberg that it will take a lot of pennies).
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