Thursday, August 9, 2012
Our $2.5 Billion Mission to a Large Rock
By Alan Caruba
Perhaps because Mars can be seen with the naked eye and is “close” to Earth there has long been a fascination with the fourth planet from the Sun. Earth is the third and the largest of the solar system’s four terrestrial planets. Mars has no life and Earth is teeming with it. Lucky us.
So why did the U.S. which is bleeding billions in all directions and weighed down by some $15 trillion in debt just spend $2.5 billion to send the “Curiousity” lander there to devote at least two years or more exploring Mars’ surface? The short answer is because we can.
The longer answer dates back to the Cold War between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union when a space program was the perfect cover for the development of missiles that could be used to blow each other to smithereens.
There was little practical value in sending men to the Moon beyond the breakthroughs in missile technology that made it happen. There have been no more manned missions there in forty years; probably because there is no other good reason to go there.
Nations, like men, often do things for the prestige involved and to demonstrate their superiority in some respect. What struck me most about the August 6th Mars mission was the way, on August 7th, the story had fallen off, not just the front page of newspapers, but virtually all media coverage, televised and print.
Most of the story focused on the NASA scientists who had burst into shouts of joy and hugs all around. Theirs was, indeed, an engineering triumph. The effort involved a nine-month voyage of 352 million miles. Meanwhile, however, our space shuttles were retired in 2010 and, if we want to visit the space station, we have to pay a lordly sum to the Russians for a ride.
Having been to the Moon, there is even less reason to send men to Mars. The standard reply about such missions is that it expands man’s knowledge of our neighboring planet, but Mars is currently the object of five spacecraft, three in orbit and two on the surface, including a couple of inert landers and rovers. It is, like all other planets in our galaxy a very inhospitable place.
Aside from being a planet, Mars is essentially just a big rock.
Is there water on Mars? No. Liquid water cannot exist on the surface of Mars, but it does have two permanent polar ice caps that appear to be made of water though geologists have concluded liquid water may have existed because of the presence of two minerals, hermatite and geotite, both of which sometime form in water.
Our galaxy is one of what has been estimated to be more than 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe. Galaxies are a collection of star systems and clusters, along with interstellar clouds. In between exists something scientists have dubbed “dark matter”, but it is likely it is just space; lots and lots of space.
Other than accumulating more knowledge about Mars, I fail to see any reason to be spending billions on space missions. Might we not spend more time exploring our planet’s oceans or any of the many other areas of concern that would advance our knowledge such as how to deal with the diseases that afflict mankind or that would enhance the planet’s ability to produce more food?
I suppose part of the interest in Mars is the ancient question of whether there is life on other planets and, with billions of other galaxies, the odds are there is, but it is also probably too far away to ever bother visiting our little planet. Any other life form observing us might well conclude that the humans here are far too violent to merit contact. Not a day goes by without humans killing other humans.
The next time we have the urge to spend $2.5 billion, I hope we build some aircraft carriers and other armament against the crazies bent on killing us and much of the rest of mankind in order to prove that their god is better than our god. Ironically, Mars is named for the Roman god of war.
Why Mars? Why bother?
© Alan Caruba, 2012