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.