Since the new NASA Mars rover touched down on Mars, I’ve been somewhat distressed to see a lot of complaints about its cost, some even calling it a “waste” of funds that could be used to feed the hungry hear on Earth. All of these posts seem to be based on a series of staggering misunderstandings, which I would like to address here.
First off, Curiosity did not cost $100 billion, as one popular meme is claiming. The price tag was not even 3% of that–for a measely $2.6 billion, we sent a 900 pound nuclear-powered science lab to the surface of another planet to open the way for humans to explore a possible second home for humanity, and to look for extraterrestrial life which could revolutionize our understanding of biology in a way that literally no earthbound discovery could.
All for a whopping cost to American taxpayers of about–$7 per person. Not “per year”–that’s a
total. We all could have bought a hamburger, or cooperatively sent up the first device ever capable of really searching for life on another planet while simultaneously testing unprecedented landing techniques necessary to eventually send human explorers to the most human-friendly known world outside of Earth. For $7 a piece.
Since the space race ended, Americans have gradually stopped appreciating–and funding–NASA. A lot of this probably has to do with the perception that the space program was military in nature–since we went to the Moon mostly to show our dominance over the people we were also seriously considering nuking.
Things like satellite imaging and GPS have become so commonplace that we scarcely give thought to the fact that it was NASA who pioneered these things–and who continues to pioneer new technologies with specifications more exacting than any that private industry could impose.
But that is such a tiny part of what NASA does. The Moon landing was a singular event that captured the world’s attention for a brief moment in time. The work of NASA over decades, on the other hand, is responsible for virtually everything we know about anything that goes on outside our own atmosphere, as well as a good deal of what we know about physics and Earth’s climate.
What else have we gained from NASA over the years?
Teflon-coated fiberglass used as roofing for many buildings and stadiums was invented by NASA. Portable cooling systems used for heat-sensitive injuries and illnesses were invented for astronauts. Modern firefighters’ light-weight breathing systems were developed for–who else–astronauts. NASA technology has gone into our cars, our airplanes, our cleaning products, our medical equipment–even our artificial hearts, for decades. After all, there’s nothing to spur innovation like charging a team of the world’s top scientists with developing lightweight, portable equipment that will function to support human life in a vacuum under fluctuating temperature extremes.
Knowledge of other worlds, and all this technology too! All on an annual budget of $16 billion, which is about half a percent of our total federal budget. Or about $53 per American per year. Not a bad subscription, if you ask me.
As such, I’d argue that Curiosity is arguably the best way our government could possibly have invested a mere $2.6 billion. Here’s why:
First and most obviously, we have the potential scientific boon. Will Curiosity discover life on Mars? No one knows. But it is a very real possibility–not just some sci-fi fan’s pipe dream. We’ve long known that the Martian atmosphere undergoes mysterious chemical changes throughout the Martian year–chemical changes quite consistent with the presence of bacterial life.
Perhaps it takes a biology geek to understand just how huge of a deal this would be. Currently, we have precisely one type of life to study: Earth life. Since all earth life is descended from the same cellular ancestor, this means we literally know nothing about the fundamentals of life or biology.
We’ve never seen any type of life except Earth life: we’ve never seen any cells that have a different way of passing on their hereditary traits, or of turning genes into proteins, or of doing any of the fundamental functions of life. If we found an independent origin of life on Mars, who knows what those organisms could teach us?
Who knows what staggeringly better ways of getting things done they might have developed, simply because they never thought of doing it our way? Who knows what this could mean for academic science, let alone medicine?
And of course, the question of life on Mars goes far deeper than the practical applications of such a discovery. One of the things we don’t know, since we’ve only ever gotten to study our own origin of life, is how common life might be in the universe. Or how common intelligent life might be in the universe. We don’t even know for sure that there is other life out there. This is kind of huge.
What does it mean for us if our neighbor has a whole separate origin of life from ours? It means that maybe life is common–maybe we need to expect to find ecosystems on other worlds as we explore further out, maybe we need to expect to get visited by extraterrestrials and maybe shut our interstellar radio transmissions down like Stephen Hawking said, so we won’t get invaded. I feel like “don’t get invaded, because seriously there is other life out there” might be a worthwhile thing for us to know, medical and philosophical boons aside.
Secondly, we have the new technology that Curiosity is testing. Humans just aren’t going to Mars on the technology that got the featherweights Spirit and Opportunity there. Those things were so small–and comparatively scientifically feeble–for a reason. It turns out that it’s really hard to land on Mars. In fact, 60% of Mars missions to date have crashed or otherwise been lost (though the U.S. has done slightly better than that in recent years). Curiosity‘s landing was so nerve-wracking because a ridiculously complicated string of precise, unimaginably complex calculations, computer programming, and mechanics had to go off without a hitch in order to safely lower the half-ton rover onto the planet which lacks an Earthlike atmosphere to slow spacecraft.
Guess what a manned capsule would need to land on Mars safely? That same technology. That we just tested for the first time on Sunday night. That worked. While the nearest human was 300 million miles away. Even ignoring the ultimate goal of landing on Mars, do we think that kind of technology doesn’t have some pretty serious commercial implications for things like, say, unmanned vehicles here on Earth, or computer programming of robotics in general?
The last major benefit of Curiosity I want to address is purely psychological. It may also be the most important. Some people will take “purely psychological” to mean “not real,” because it’s not an object you can pull out and put on a table and go “look, SCIENCE!” Which is completely stupid, given that virtually all of the problems in the world are purely psychological. Well, maybe not all–illnesses and earthquakes, not psychological. But that fight you had with your parents? Purely psychological. The part of world hunger where we have plenty of resources to feed everyone, but can’t seem to get them in the right place to do it–purely psychological. All war, everywhere, for any reason? It’s psychological, guys.
Carl Sagan was HUGE on the psychological benefits of the space program. Why? Because images and from space, unlike literally any piece of writing or art or photography or anything else done by another human being, show us reality as it really is. Not a human-centric universe, but an unimaginably huge one in which Earth is just a tiny speck. Not an Earth divided into color-coded territories, but a whole, finite, and objectively interconnected planet. Space exploration makes us aware of the dangers we face that we don’t like to think about and/or haven’t experienced as a species–“never mind that 99% of all species on Earth are now extinct, that won’t happen to us because it hasn’t happened before in living memory.”
Sagan believed that space exploration, as it showed Earth to be united and fragile in the universe, was a fantastic way to combat war. Space exploration is a concrete, physical sign of humanity transcending its violent, instinctive, short-sighted animal origins–and it is by necessity a cooperative effort.
As it shows us the true nature of things, it rallies us around a common cause.
Part of the reason some folks today don’t like the space program is that once upon a time, it was a powerful rallying point for the “in group” of the U.S. and its allies, against the “out group” that was the Soviets and their allies.
But everybody seems to have forgotten what Sagan once saw–that cameras turned back on the Earth from space show all of humanity as a single “in group,” a perspective which may be our only hope for surviving our own growing power over the material world in the face of our collective psychological problems. We won’t address these problems if we’re afraid of each other. If we all feel we’re on the same team, we just might.
Here’s a thought I had: NASA currently costs us about $53 per person, per year. How’d you feel about chipping in an extra $10? If everybody in the U.S. did that, it would put NASA’s budget up from $16 billion to $19 billion–that’s an extra $3 billion, more than the total cost of Curiosity. Every year. At a cost of $10 per person to us.
I think it may be time to lobby some Congresspeople. Or start a donation jar. Whichever comes first.