So we put a landrover on Mars — big deal.
The project cost $2.5 billion, according to the New York Times, and for that, we’re going to get some pictures, maybe find carbon-based molecules?
In the past few weeks, we have seen mass shootings here, rolling blackouts in India, and a big British bank accused of laundering money for Iran.
This is on top of the usual problems: Cancer cells keep growing. The planet keeps getting warmer. There’s an obesity epidemic here, and famine abroad.
Why, then, are we spending our tax dollars landing a high-tech mobile camera on Mars?
It’s a question worth asking, because it’s easy to feel pessimistic about space travel these days. Really, it’s always easy to feel pessimistic about space travel.
When we landed on the moon in 1969, author Kurt Vonnegut pooh-poohed the cost of the multibillion-dollar enterprise.
“We should have spent it on cleaning up our filthy colonies here on Earth,” he told Walter Cronkite.
A year later, in 1970, a nun in Zambia sent a letter to NASA. She wanted to know how the U.S. could justify the expense of space exploration in the face of starvation in Africa. She received a response from Ernst Stuhlinger, Associate Director for Science at NASA.
His argument: Space exploration benefits humankind at large by crafting huge solutions to highly technical problems that later can be applied to real-world issues in previously unexpected ways. It improves our day-to-day communication with satellites, leads to the development of better heart monitors and, in simple terms, offers a clearer perspective of how our planet fits into the universe.
“The space age not only holds out a mirror in which we can see ourselves,” he wrote, “it also provides us with the technologies, the challenge, the motivation, and even with the optimism to attack these tasks with confidence.”
Stuhlinger’s argument holds true today.
Among the grim headlines of recent weeks, it’s heartening to see a clear success. As President Obama’s science adviser John P. Holdren said after the landing, “There’s a one-ton automobile-size piece of American ingenuity. And it’s sitting on the surface of Mars right now.”
Few doubt that the effort to make that feat possible ultimately will benefit us in our day-to-day lives.
Russia is the only other country to successfully land anything on Mars. Their rover quickly went silent in 1971. Ours is working just fine. It’s equipped with lasers that vaporize rocks and the most advanced movable lab ever sent to another plant.
It cost about $8 per American citizen.
It is named Curiosity.
It is a big deal.