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


Rich Kozlovich said...


The Cold War was the start of it all and the logical foundation for all of that expense. However, there were scientists who for years emoted unendingly that having to serve military interests was a moral betrayal of their Golden Calf; Science. But they knew the real reason for this presumed betrayal! The real reason scientists wanted to go to Mars is to show there is, or at least was, life on Mars; ergo, "Creation" didn't happen.

So the answer is simple; we are spending billions, taken from believers as well as non believers, in an attempt to prove God doesn’t exist. Only the believers are unaware of what is happening because the justification is hidden in the discussion about breakthroughs that does bring about some commercial value. So then, the question that should be obvious to the most casual observer is this. No matter what is or isn’t found; what then? And was it worth it?

Rich K.

Lime Lite said...

I for one stand in awe as to what these NASA men and women accomplished. I have watched the You Tube clip of what all had to happen to land the Curiosity on Mars. It is incredible. Yes, not much value apart from being able to say that they're landed on Mars, but what an achievement! Just think, the instructions to the Curiosity and the photos and data back have to travel over 352 million miles! Just boggles the mind. I think when man stops being curious about what's out there it'll be a sad day for mankind. Yes, it's a lot of money, but I think in this case it's justified.

Unknown said...

So you think is a bad idea to create technology that at some point is beneficial and makes a better future and a good idea to make more weapons and bloody the world more.

Interesting set of priorities

Alan Caruba said...

Scrooge, my point was that we have been to Mars, spent billions examining the planet, but live on an Earth that requires us to maintain a strong defense.

Guy in Ohio said...

I think my comment must have gotten lost in cyber-world, but I'm on the side of NASA and technology. We'd be in the dark ages without the space program. I certainly wouldn't be writing a blog comment on my laptop without the technologies NASA brought us, and we get every dollar we spend on NASA back in spades. Yes, times are tough, but we can fix our economy with cuts in entitlements and governmental regulations, and increases in productivity. We don't need to shoot ourselves in the foot and gut the only governmental agency that ever did anything productive ...

TexasFred said...

Mars is a lot like an Occupy Libber howling at the moon... Everyone knows it's there, no one really cares...

retch said...

Scrooge, the best thing they can come up with about "better technology" always seems to be Teflon-coated pans. Which are alleged to result in iron-deficiency. I rest my point.
Richard Dawkins writes (what do I know) DNA is exportable as it is digital. In that case, why bother? Just send out the code. The guys who'd set out to travel all those light years would never make it themselves, anyway.

Guy in Ohio said...

Folks, I know NASA is an easy target when federal spending is out of control, but this blog, and the computers we all use to comment on it, wouldn't even exist today if it wasn't for NASA. And, imagine the world without satellites ... our society would fall flat on it's face without them.

The robotic and remote control technologies being used in the Mars missions promise to bring us even more valuable spinoffs too. I don't think people realize how many things they use every day that we wouldn't have if we hadn't invested in the technologies that got us to the moon.

Given the choice between blowing tax dollars on entitlements and federal programs that make parasitic zombies out of millions of people, or investing in technologies that make our lives easier, grow our industrial base, and boost our GDP, I'll put my money on NASA every time.

Alan Caruba said...

@Guy. Good points and that $2.5 billion was spent right here in the USA.

Rich Kozlovich said...

Dear All,

I should probably clarify that I don't have any objection to the technology we are using and enjoying, and I will concede that the space program was responsible for a lot of that, but science don’t grow in a vacuum. Are we to believe that these things wouldn’t have been developed eventually anyway...and even maybe now without the space program? That can’t of course be answered, but as a rhetorical question it has merit.

It’s great that that money was spent here….but that money was spent! And spent on an increasingly expensive and increasingly unnecessary technological juggernaut that is unsustainable without government subsidies. And what is the return on that ‘investment’? What are their real goals, how much exploration should be done on Mars. How much more do we have to spend to find out that we can’t live there? I will tell you what. Give me a buck and I will give you the answer. Here it is; Mars in uninhabited and is certainly uninhabitable for humanity. There…and that dollar would be spent here.

Let’s try and avoid all this misdirection about the commercial value of the products developed for the space program, and try to remember what their real goals are…at our expense! However, I personally have loved all of this from the beginning when I watched Alan Shepard take off from Canaveral in the early 60’s, so I am not against space exploration. Let’s sell it. If it really is worth all the commercial value some believe….then someone will buy it. Let that define its value.

Rich Kozlovich

Angus McThag said...

That's $2.5 billion that didn't get spent on someone who's going to be a guest on Jerry Springer; and I am fine with that.

The technology that spun off the Apollo program is all around you and was a net positive for us, not a negative.

Guy in Ohio said...

Rich, you are correct when you say that all the same technologies might have evolved without the space program, but the key word there is MIGHT. And, one thing is certain ... it would have taken decades longer.

When we embarked on the quest to beat the soviets into space, everyone pulled together to push the envelope. We were united as a nation toward a common goal, and in a few short years we realized advances in technology that would have normally taken decades to achieve. Personally, I think America could really use another space quest to bring us together. We certainly can't be any more divided, and as that divide continues to widen, nothing good can come of it ...

Many of the technologies we've developed through NASA couldn't even be imagined before we tried to go into space. It took the strenuous demands of the spaceflight environment to spur those technological developments, and only afterwards were people able to look at some of these new materials and devices and say "gee, that would sure be handy for ....."

I don't wish to beat a dead horse here, but I think it's really important to fend off these attacks on NASA, because in my opinion, NASA is one of the best things that's ever happened to America.

Rich Kozlovich said...

Dear Friends,
This is not an attack on NASA! I thought I had already made clear that I had always appreciated the space program, and I will also concede that it is clearly one of the best things that ever happened to American....but all of these points that are not the points at issue. They are only red herring fallacies.

The issues are: unclear goals; unendingly expensive technology; it is being done with money we don't have; Mars is a dead planet and we cannot live there; developing the planet as a resource reserve is way beyond our technology. So why is this being done, and done expensively?

So let’s address the value of all of this. Once again….I will say this. If this is as economically wonderful as some of you seem to think then someone will gladly buy it, or set up their own commercial space program creating all of these amazing products that will make them gazillions. Right? So the question must be asked; why hasn’t someone done that?

However, if you wish to tell me you want a space program that tracts all the meteors that might strike the Earth and wreck devastation I can say the expense…even though it is borrowed money….is worth every penny, since defense isn’t supposed to be based on business concepts. But that isn’t your argument. All that you have said hinges on two points. NASA makes us proud to be Americans, and it bears commercial fruit. We can’t afford this kind of pride and ……once again….. if it is so commercially viable why isn’t some entrepreneur doing it? After all, does anyone care who develops all these marvelous products? Apparently it can’t be done without massive government subsidies, subsidies that no business could afford; therefore space programs aren’t economically viable in the real world. And at this point it isn’t economically viable in the world of government subsidies.