Nobel-winning boffin slams ISS, manned spaceflight

'Infantile fixation on putting people into space'

A Nobel laureate physicist has poured scorn on human space exploration, saying "the whole manned spaceflight programme, which is so enormously expensive, has produced nothing of scientific value".

Professor Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas at Austin, co-recipient of the 1979 Nobel Prize for Physics, was speaking at a workshop in Baltimore. His remarks were reported by Space.com.

Weinberg had especially harsh words for the International Space Station (ISS), saying that it was "an orbital turkey... No important science has come out of it. I could almost say no science has come out of it".

The irascible particle physicist went on to slam astronauts in general.

"Human beings don't serve any useful function in space," he said. "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."

He criticised astronauts for mindlessly playing golf in space while hardworking, relatively cheap robot Mars rovers brought home the scientific bacon.

Unsurprisingly for a particles boffin, the testy prof felt that the billions poured into manned orbiting turkeys would have been better spent on a really big atom-smasher.

According to Space.com, Weinberg is still cheesed off about the 1993 cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider, a monstrous particle-punishing magnetic carousel which was to have been built in his own Texas backyard. Apparently, Congress decided to spend the cash on the ISS instead.

"Coming from Texas, that memory is really a burning one," said the embittered scientist. He added that NASA should prioritise unmanned scientific missions such as those listed under the agency's "Beyond Einstein" push rather than funnelling cash into an Apollo-style crash effort to put astronaut boots on Mars.

"NASA's budget is increasing," said Weinberg grimly, "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".

Even as he spoke, NASA confirmed his worst fears by announcing that applications are now being taken for a new intake of astronauts, to commence training in 2009. The agency has not run a space-ace intake class since 2004, when it signed on 11 astro-rookies.

Wannabe astronauts who are undeterred by Weinberg's scorn will need a bachelor's degree in engineering, science, or maths and at least three years' experience. Historically, this has usually meant a career as a military fast-jet test pilot or an academic scientist or engineer; but nowadays NASA wants to recruit teacher astronauts too, and classroom coalface time can count.

Here at the Reg, we don't quite know what to think. The idea of manned spaceflight is frankly more appealing than just sitting here on Earth looking at the rest of the universe until the end of the world, maybe sending out robots now and again. On the other hand we're not terribly impressed with the idea of chemical rockets as the only propulsion technology for the foreseeable future, which is mainly what NASA plans on.

Maybe if the boffins got loads of cash for atom-smashers, deep space Einsteinian-physics-bender probes, etc, they might finally come up with hyperspace drives or antigravity or something. Then there could be a proper space exploration effort. It could be worth playing the long game.

Still, we here at Vulture Central come from a country that hardly puts any money at all into space projects, scientifically valuable or not. So we probably don't get a vote.

More from Space.com here. ®

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