Roving On Mars

I recently watched the NOVA episode telling about the building, launching, and successful landing of the Mars rover, “Curiosity.” It was amazing! I sat transfixed as the plethora of team members supported by hundreds of men and women worked their way through the thick tangle of problems connected with such an immense project. I followed closely as they considered every possible eventuality that could arise before and during a two-year venture on a planet where radio signals take fourteen minutes to reach us when the planet is at its closest.

I was inspired afterwards to check my computer for more detailed information about the rover and its myriad of technically sophisticated parts. Just think of the difficulties involved simply to get to the planet Mars safely — an extraordinary thing in itself. Though there had been three rovers before this one none was as complex, sophisticated, or heavy as “Curiosity.” The team had to think of every possibility and develop entirely new systems of delivery to get the capsule containing the rover safely to the planet millions of miles away and land it safely. And once there the two-ton mobile lab had to explore an alien surface in 60 degrees below zero temperatures, take and test soil and air samples, and send the results back to earth along with thousands of photographs. It really does boggle the mind.

It was indeed breathtaking and a marvel to behold, testimony to human intelligence and determination. At one point the parachute designed to slow the capsule down upon entering Mars’ atmosphere ripped apart in the wind tunnel during testing. It was about here that I started to  have questions. The team-member told us that after the first parachute ripped apart they went out and bought six of the most sophisticated cameras they could find to photograph the next test so they could figure out what went wrong. I am sure this was when I began to wonder how much all this must have cost and, the bigger question, why they were going to all this trouble. I never did determine the answer to the first question, but the answer to the bigger question was contained in the name of the rover itself: curiosity. It’s what makes humans climb impossibly high mountains and dive to the depths of the ocean. It is what brought Columbus to this continent (well, Bermuda). And it is an admirable quality indeed.

But probing more deeply into possible explanations we realize that the underlying rationale for what had to be an incredibly expensive venture involving hundreds of man-hours of some of the best and brightest people in America was to find out if there had ever been life on Mars. It’s certainly a question worth asking and I would love to know the answer.

But, again, as I thought about the program and read the material on the computer that gave me more details about the rover and its mission I read hundreds of words, but nowhere was it mentioned what the project had cost. Don’t they want us to know? It had to be hundreds of millions of dollars. And that was the thought that kept sticking in my craw. Hundreds of man-hours and hundreds of millions of dollars to find out whether or not there ever had been life on a distant planet. So I asked myself again, WHY?  What about life on this planet? Why aren’t we willing to commit this country to spending a fraction of that amount of money and man-hours to save this planet? I do wonder.

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7 thoughts on “Roving On Mars

  1. of course i liked this post! like you, i thirst for more information about what’s ‘out’ there, yet at what cost? and then i ponder; there is so much brilliance in all fields, and if one of those brilliant minds stumbles upon an ‘aha’ moment that propels us into a better era…

    our planet is such a speck of dust in this vast universe, and i often ponder that more advanced worlds are watching us the way we might watch a colony of ants! if so, did those cultures evolve through the same steps? are they going to step in if we push our planet too close to extinction/?

    the creative mind ponders many ‘what if’s,’ and only time will deliver answers to today’s questions!

  2. Hugh, these rovers and the science behind them are amazing! Glad you liked the documentary. The cost for the Curiosity rover and program was $2.5 billion (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/06/science/space/curiosity-rover-lands-safely-on-mars.html?_r=0). It seems like a lot, but it is actually less than what it cost America for one week of war in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2011 ($3.08 billion a week). (also consider that it cost $1.5 billion to build the new Yankee Stadium).

    What we get in return are a lot of the things you mentioned — this drive toward scientific exploration and growth, which includes technology, medicine, biology and more. And that almost always leads to applicable results for our planet, positive results. The huge advances in medical technology we’ve seen the past couple decades often have their roots in the space program or things associated with it — sometimes from studies done on the bodies of astronauts or animals sent into space, sometimes because of the need to make smaller, space-travel-ready devices which forces our scientists to think about microtechnology and turn it from theory into reality. My dad often questioned the need for the space shuttles and deep-space explorations, but I pointed out to him that his pacemaker, just a small little device now, derived from that technology. Microbiology and disease treatments, our computers, our TVs, our cars all have advances that have come from space programs or some of the scientists and technology companies that support the programs.

    My hope is that we begin to see even more of the advances lead to environment improvements. Even our cars today, as carbon-dioxide producing as they are, are improvements over cars of the 1950s and 1960s because of the on-board computers that help optimize fuel efficiency. Could they do more? Absolutely, so part of it is marshaling our will to our technology. In California they are now test-driving, en masse, driver-less cars and there are prototypes of hover-craft type cars. If those come to fruition, it would mean immense savings on infrastructure because cars would not need roads or bridges.

    I get really excited about this stuff — one of my passions along with baseball! So sorry if I run a little long here. The long and short is, this is really cool exploration and there is a lot of payoff for our planet — in ways we see every day, but also in ways that affect us every day but we may not think about. And that cost isn’t too bad compared to what we spend on truly frivolous things, just in America alone ($2.88 billion, legally, for instance, on sports betting in Vegas in 2011; up to $380 billion illegally nationwide on sports betting in 2011. http://www.americangaming.org/industry-resources/research/fact-sheets/sports-wagering). The shorter yet: a lot of cool reasons to enjoy these space programs!

    • I was afraid some would read my blog as an attack on space exploration. It was not. I simply ask why we are unwilling to make this sort of commitment to saving THIS planet! Thanks for the comment, Dana.

  3. Thanks Hugh. We had been missing that curiosity from our future scientists. By doing away with the space program and outsourcing it, many feared we would lose that dreaming of future exploration. So, as the MasterCard commercial says – cost = $2.5 billon; impact = priceless. Well done. BTG

  4. Hugh, I’d agree with BTG. I didn’t see your blog as an attack on space exploration, but just wanted to point out some of the benefits our planet does reap. I think it’s a win-win.

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