Curiosity's Mars exploration: Is it worth the money? (+video)
The search for life on Mars has captivated the imaginations of many, but it is costly. Some say it's time to cut spending on NASA's Mars missions, while others say the research is important in the quest for understanding the 'meaning of life.'
Saturn has its famous rings and Jupiter is the granddaddy of the solar system, but no planet has entranced earthlings quite likeÂ Mars.
Humans have launched 40 spacecraft to the Red Planet, lured by the prospect that life might once have existed in what is now dry rocks and sand. The latest machine to make the journey is NASAâ€™sÂ MarsÂ Science Laboratory, a hulking, souped-up lab-on-wheels that will plunge toward the Martian surface next week.
But even as excitement builds, some wonder: IsÂ MarsÂ exploration a good investment?
It certainly doesnâ€™t come cheap. Itâ€™s hard to calculate a total price tag, but over the 48 years that NASA has been launching missions toÂ Mars, Americans have spent a significant sum. The Viking missions alone cost nearly $1 billion â€” in 1970s dollars. The twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity cost a total of about $1 billion to build and operate as well.
Curiosity, as theÂ MarsÂ Science Laboratory rover is known, is over budget at $2.5 billion.
Some in the federal government have suggested itâ€™s time to roll back the spending. President Barack Obamaâ€™s fiscal plan for 2013 would cut NASAâ€™s funds forÂ MarsÂ exploration from $587 million to $360 million.
Proponents insistÂ MarsÂ science is vital for the U.S. More visits to our next-door neighbor could answer lingering questions about Earthâ€™s history, reinforce U.S. prestige and get more children interested in science.
It also could bring humanity closer to answering the ultimate question: Are we alone in the universe?
Americaâ€™s love affair withÂ MarsÂ can be traced to astronomer Percival Lowell, who turned his telescope to the Red Planet in the 1890s and thought he saw an intricate system of canals that must have been built by intelligent beings. He never found them, of course, but Martians became a science fiction mainstay.
Earthlings got their first up-close view ofÂ Marsâ€™ rocky surface in 1965, when Mariner 4 flew by and photographed a surface that appeared as dead as the moonâ€™s â€” lacking water or active geology, two prerequisites for life.
But later missions, from the Mariner 9 orbiter to Spirit and Opportunity, helped establishÂ MarsÂ as a useful comparative laboratory for studying climate and geophysics on Earth. They demonstrated that the planet was once warmer and wetter than it is now. Long ago, it may have been a hospitable cradle for life.
When planetary scientists assembled recently at the behest of the National Academies to set research priorities for the next decade, the search for conditions that would allow life to emerge onÂ MarsÂ topped the list.
â€śIf thereâ€™s life or past life onÂ Mars, it means the chances that life exists somewhere else are much higher,â€ť said David Paige, who studies the moon and terrestrial planets at UCLA. IfÂ MarsÂ is barren, â€śit might make Earth more unique than we thought.â€ť
Some experts question the wisdom of focusing so intently on a single planet. Jupiterâ€™s moon Europa, which is covered with an ice-encrusted ocean, could have the potential to harbor life; Saturnâ€™s moon Titan, rich in organic chemistry, might as well.
â€śItâ€™s like the person who loses their keys and only looks for them below the streetlight,â€ť said David Jewitt, a planetary scientist at UCLA who studies comets.
But funds for planetary science are limited â€” and even those who favor a broader search admit thatÂ Mars remains the most practical site to explore.
A mission to Europa, for example, would take about six years to reach its destination. Curiosityâ€™s trip toÂ Mars takes about eight months.
Europa has other drawbacks too: For one, particles flung into space by Jupiterâ€™s magnetic field would likely fry a spacecraftâ€™s electronics in a matter of weeks, said Richard Greenberg, who studies the frozen moon at the University of Arizona.
â€śPersonally, I love Europa,â€ť he said. â€śBut objectively, both it andÂ MarsÂ are great places to look for life.â€ť
Regardless of whether life can be found beyond Earth,Â MarsÂ exploration boosts U.S. prestige.
â€śA lot of the warmest feelings people have had around the world have had to do with the space program,â€ť Munson said. â€śItâ€™s hard to put a value on that.â€ť
Space exploration is the ultimate status symbol. China and India have signaled their technological aspirations by establishing space programs. So have Iran, Pakistan, Venezuela, Israel, Mexico and dozens of other countries.
â€śIâ€™m afraid if we step back, it will be decades before we get back toÂ Mars,â€ť said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., whose district includes NASAâ€™s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, whereÂ MarsÂ missions are based. â€śWe have the expertise now. No other countries have been able to do this.â€ť
NASA has outperformed other space agencies by a wide margin, completing 13 successful missions (against five failures) since 1964. The Russians have had particularly bad luck, with 15 failed missions and only four partial successes.
The amount of money Americans devote toÂ MarsÂ is tiny compared to annual expenditures on other NASA projects, said Munson, who noted that in 2011 alone, the agency spent more than $4 billion on the International Space Station and the fleet of space shuttles.
Even that price tag is dwarfed by the more than $600 billion the Defense Department will spend in 2012.
Jewitt put it like this: Americans spend more than $7 billion a year on potato chips.
â€śWeâ€™re talking about a small amount of money in the grand scheme of things,â€ť Paige said.
Still, in the heat of an election season, some find it hard to justifyÂ MarsÂ spending as long as the deficit remains high and the basic needs of many citizens arenâ€™t met.
This time around, in the run-up to Curiosityâ€™s high-profile landing, itâ€™s hard to find people willing to criticize MarsÂ science in public. But back in 2004, when President George W. Bush was pushing an ambitious plan that included manned missions to the Red Planet, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (then a Democrat) said the billions of dollars NASA would require would be better spent â€śright here on Earthâ€ť on health care, education and domestic security.
Even those whoâ€™ve caught theÂ MarsÂ bug and are excited about Curiosity worry that with the new rover, NASA has â€śput all the eggs in one basket,â€ť said Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer and founder of theÂ MarsSociety, which advocates for manned missions to the planet.
When NASAâ€™sÂ MarsÂ Climate Orbiter andÂ MarsÂ Polar Lander both failed in 1999, work was already under way on several other missions that turned out to be successful, Zubrin said. But thereâ€™s not much waiting in the wings this time around.
Plans to send a lander to scoop up Martian soil and return it to Earth, as well as to visit Europa, have been postponed to save money.
After Curiosity, NASAâ€™s planetary scientists have only one major mission lined up: an orbiter called MAVEN, which will explore the Martian atmosphere and climate. It is scheduled for launch in 2013.
Â©2012 Los Angeles Times
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