So the feat that NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory pulled off last night was to fly a large SUV sized rover over 352 million miles and land it on a planet using one of the most complicated landing procedures in the history of spaceflight. And do so without any human control during the process. Because there is a 14 minute delay in communication at that distance everything had to be programmed in advance and had we had to just wait to see if it suceeded. Within minutes of touching down the Curiosity was sending back images from the surface of Mars.
We did all of this for about 2.5 billion dollars. In comparison we are watching the Olympics from London which costs about 6 times that to put on. I’m not trying to say that we shouldn’t spend money on the Olympics. The national pride that comes from athletic competition is a very powerful motivational force for countries around the world and that has far ranging positive effects, plus if there is anything the global economy needs right now it is massive events that result in jobs (even temporary ones) and building infrastructure.
My point is that for 1/6th of the cost of the Olympics we can put a large Scientific Laboratory on Mars that will have far reaching effects on scientific, educational and technological advancement. It will motivate a generation of young people to take up science and technology as their career and will give us a reason to make technological leaps that wouldn’t be possible any other way. Those leaps don’t disappear when the mission is over, they are used as stepping stones for the next technology leap and filter into commercial applications in ways that we can’t even imagine today. For all of that the cost of $2.5 billion is cheap. We should be spending a lot more than that on exploration.
Last night I watched with uncountable others online as the NASA/JPL team tracked the spacecraft’s progress and celebrated with them as they went wild with relief and joy at having accomplished such an amazing goal. The energy and pride that was generated is worth every penny we spent on it even before we start the 2 year mission to collect data and images from Mars.
Currently we spend about 0.5% of our national budget each year on NASA and related projects. That should be a source of national shame. We can do better than that. We have to do better than that. That money goes to fund projects that are largely made up of American jobs and American manufacturing. We are spending it here..in this country and the payoff is priceless.