I sent this letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal following its running of an op-ed (Feb. 3, 2010) by Nobel prize winner Steven Weinberg, PhD. The Journal has not published the letter.
To the Editor:
Dr. Weinberg’s column endorsing the cancellation of NASA’s plans to return astronauts to deep space returns to the false argument that we must choose either robotic science or human spaceflight. Both robotic exploration and the talents of human beings in space are necessary to reap the intellectual and economic rewards of space.
Dr. Weinberg attacks the tired straw man of an astronomically expensive human mission to Mars. We’ll only send astronauts there when it is affordable and technologically feasible; neither is true today. I contend that it has been our long-term interest in one day sending human explorers to Mars that has driven the pace and number of robotic successes we have seen there thus far.
The plucky Mars robots have done a terrific job, but the most difficult scientific questions about the presence of life there will probably only be answered when human minds and hands can join their robot extensions.
I have flown on four space shuttle missions that delivered significant scientific advances in Earth science, astronomy, materials science, and biomedicine. But aside from losing such benefits, the unintended consequence of scaling back human spaceflight will be lower public support for NASA overall. Congress will soon divert research funds to pet projects more important to members’ re-election bids, and robotic exploration will wither, too.
The Nobel winner further seems to think that NASA’s sole mission is to promote scientific research. That’s the job of the National Science Foundation. Even so, NASA devotes a full third of its budget to space science activities, a higher proportion than at any time in the agency’s history. The president’s NASA budget further expands science funding.
NASA’s Congressional charter directs it not only to conduct scientific research, but to preserve “the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology,” and its “preeminent position in aeronautics and space through research and technology development…”
Those goals can only be met by declaring that our nation means to keep its astronauts at the forefront of human exploration. We must send them into deep space, beyond the International Space Station, to tap both the wealth of knowledge there and reap the energy and material resources necessary to spur our economy and keep our technological edge.
Without that commitment, within a year we will find ourselves with no better capability to exploit space than nations like Russia, India, and China. The latter has clearly stated its intention to send its explorers to the Moon. The president’s budgetary disinterest in U.S. human spaceflight guarantees we will be unable to follow.
We can afford both science and human exploration of space. What we cannot afford is the lack of vision that will discourage our young explorers, and turn away from the riches and promise of the final frontier. Congress and the American people should reverse the president’s shortsighted space policy.
Thomas D. Jones
The writer is a planetary scientist and four-time space shuttle astronaut. His latest book is “Planetology: Unlocking the Secrets of the Solar System” (with Ellen Stofan).