A physics Nobel Laureate issued a scathing critique today of NASA's manned spaceflight program and questioned the scientific usefulness of the international space station.
"The international space station is an orbital turkey," said Steven Weinberg, a particle physicist at the University of Texas at Austin and a co-recipient of the 1979 Nobel Prize in physics. "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."
Weinberg made the comments while speaking at a dark energy workshop at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
While praising NASA's robotic missions like the Mars Exploration Rovers, Weinberg said the manned part of the space program has contributed essentially nothing to science.
"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."
Launching humans into space and landing astronauts on the moon in the early years of the space age captured the public imagination, but those days are long past, Weinberg argues.
"I think the public imagination gets very rapidly bored with the sight of humans in space knocking golf balls around," he said, referring to a recent commercial publicity stunt in which cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin hit a golf ball during a space station maintenance spacewalk.
"On the other hand, [the public] was fascinated by the kinds of things done by rovers on Mars," Weinberg said. "I think our political leaders underestimate the intelligence of the public in thinking they won't be fascinated by real scientific discoveries. I think enormous sums are wasted on manned spaceflight that continually crowd out science missions."
History repeats Weinberg pointed to NASA's treatment of its Beyond Einstein program as an example of the agency's misplaced priorities. Beyond Einstein consists of five proposed space missions designed to build upon and expand Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity.
"Only one of them is slated to go ahead, and given NASA's record, if we suddenly run into extra expenses in the manned spaceflight program, that will be put on the back burner, just as has been done time and time again by NASA," Weinberg said.
A recent report by the National Research Council concluded that the Joint Dark Energy Mission — designed to investigate a mysterious force that scientists think is accelerating the expansion of the universe — is the only Beyond Einstein mission ready to begin construction.
"All the others have been put on the back burner," Weinberg said. "This is at the same time that NASA's budget is increasing, with the increase being driven by what I see on the part of the president and the administrators of NASA as an infantile fixation on putting people into space, which has little or no scientific value."
For Weinberg, the federal government and NASA's treatment of the Beyond Einstein program is a repeat of what happened to 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.