The Curiosity Mars rover landing has caused a lot of people to get up in arms again regarding the necessity of the space program and more specifically, Curiosity. These complaints, while understandable, should be quelled already. Space is important.
The space program really doesn’t take up that much of the US federal budget. In the fiscal year 2012, NASA’s budget was estimated at just under $17.75 billion. This sounds like an insane amount of money until you consider that it makes up only about .5% of the federal budget.1 This is approximately the amount of money spent in 25 days of the Iraq war in 2007. 2 Assuming that there is some waste in the federal budget, a concept that neither Republicans nor Democrats have trouble embracing, this should not be a deal breaking amount of money. Neil DeGrasse Tyson explains this phenomenon. Even given this, it is certainly valid to argue that money is money and every penny spent on something pointless could be used for something important and I agree. But, the space program isn’t pointless.
Curiosity was a good call. As it turns out, NASA spent $2.75 billion and eight years on our little robot friend. Economically, it supported approximately 7,000 jobs in both the public and private sectors.3 What has this been for? Mars exploration attempts to, among other things, determine if Mars is currently or has ever been capable of sustaining life. This includes examining its climate, geological features and potential to cycle and distribute carbon dioxide and water. There are a good number of people who hope that humans might one day be able to call Mars home. If this is going to be a possibility, we first have to know what Mars has to offer. Obviously humans are a long way off from the microorganisms scientists are hoping to find, but these findings can mean a lot. If there is evidence that water and CO2 are still cycling, it would be is a good indication that Mars could sustain some form of life including, maybe, one day, human! Also, imagine if, in Curiosity’s research, it finds minerals like the Unobtanium in Avatar that will save the day, but unlike Unobtanium in Avatar, won’t kill all the giant blue alien creatures.* That would be cool, right? It is unlikely to happen, but it would be so cool!
As residents of Earth we are faced with all sorts of existential quandaries. “Why are we here?” for example. While generally I believe people should find answers to that on a personal level philosophically (maybe it’s to feed your cat every day, and that’s okay), it’s a pretty good question biologically. How has life formed very successfully on Earth while other planets show far less progress? Since we are really hoping to keep this whole thing going for a while longer, knowing why it didn’t work out elsewhere could prove invaluable. This might become incredibly practical one day when humans are attempting to outlive the Earth and our sun and we need to find another planet to sustain us. We are products of the universe, literally. We should really learn about the universe.
It gives jobs to people who deserve them. The word ‘deserve’ makes me uneasy. Sometimes I feel a little nihilistic and start thinking no one deserves anything. We are alive, that’s all that matters. With that said, the people who work at NASA have generally worked very hard to get through school with advanced degrees in intense topics. You cannot inherit a degree in astrophysics. It’s a sad day when these people, who have genuinely earned their minimal government salary in the name of pursuit of knowledge, are out of a job. People are always talking about the US being poor in math and science. Maybe let’s reward those who succeed in those fields by not causing their unemployment.
“For science” should be a valid reason. It is true that “for science” won’t put the proverbial food on the table, but it can do a lot. It is what will cure cancer, prevent massive losses in biodiversity, come up with renewable energy sources, and literally put food on the table. Reducing science to only experimentation with specific anticipated outcomes deprives the world of outcomes we didn’t know how to expect. Penicillin and microwave ovens were both discovered by mistake. Accurate additions to the collective of human knowledge will always benefit somehow and resistance to knowledge will always seem ignorant in hindsight. I would never advocate for wanton experimentation, but that is not what “for science” means. People who have dedicated their lives to a field usually have a vested interest in basing their studies on logical hypothesis. They want supportable outcomes and they want to contribute positively.
Save a dream, vote NASA. There is a reason that people are obsessed with Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly and Douglas Adams. People like space. It is unknown and cool and legitimately infinite and people want to explore that. Countless children, myself included, grew up wanting to be astronauts. My dad spent his 11th birthday in front of his television watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon. The idea that space was the ultimate glory provoked the US to space race Russia. People like Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Brian Cox have accumulated cult followings because, “an explorer of the universe is sexier than a musician.” Space is the greatest dream Americans have had in the last half-century and being a nation of dreamers is the “American way.” If we need to divert some of the massive amounts of money we spend on say, the military, to preserve that, I feel content.
*If this happens, can we please be careful and make sure we don’t make mistakes we can’t reverse? See: our dependence on crude oil. Also, I don’t really like Avatar. It has so very many problems. At least it was pretty?