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Roving Curiosity: Why NASA's Jaw Dropping Mars Mission Is Worth Every Penny

NASA's role—"to reveal the unknown for the benefit of all humanity"—could never be fulfilled by the profit-oriented, risk-averse private sector.

At 9:44pm last Sunday evening, I walked into Griffith Observatory, perched high above Los Angeles, to witness an event. It wouldn’t involve a telescope—the city’s glow drowns the stars out so effectively that during the power outage following the Northridge earthquake, police received calls from concerned citizens about how strange the sky looked. The event I'd come to see was to take place far beyond the reach of the Observatory's telescopes.

Eight months ago, NASA and Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory strapped a car-sized rover worth $2.5 billion to the top of an Atlas V rocket and sent it on a one-way ride to the red planet. Now, on the evening of August 5th of the following year, the Curiosity Rover was landing. In 40 minutes, it would begin to enter the thin atmosphere, the first step in the most audacious, batshit crazy, there-is-no-way-that’ll-work landing sequence ever devised. Because it takes 14 minutes for signals traveling at the speed of light to traverse the 156 million miles to Earth, Curiosity would have to do everything on its own: fully automated, without human observation. If all went according to plan, the confirmation of a successful touchdown would arrive 7 minutes after it all began: 10:31pm.

A live feed of mission control at JPL was the closest we could get to watching the landing, and the observatory had it on the main screen in their auditorium. The crowds had beaten me there—the place was packed. People sat on floors, stood in aisles, leaned over railings, some had friends or children up on their shoulders.

At 10:24pm, the descent began. Eight years of research, development, and assembly were hitting Martian air at 13,000 mph. On screen, engineers exchanged quick, tense communication. The crowd hushed.

The week before, two friends of mine got into an argument. Brandon, excited for the landing, brought it up to Sam, who was decidedly not: "Pretty cool, but I wish they spent that money forgiving my student loans." His law school debt was, in a different sense, astronomical.

Brandon bit back. "No offense, but I think that space exploration trumps having another blood sucking lawyer around."

Sam didn’t flinch. "What’s the benefit? What have we gained from Mars or the moon? Why not spend the cash on other research--infectious diseases perhaps? Government has limited resources; If it spends money, the results must benefit the populace."

Brandon was having a hard time articulating his point. "The benefit is exploring," he said. "It's to gain as much understanding of the universe."

Sam was unconvinced. "That’s open-ended," he said. "Exploring for shits and giggles should be left to the private sector. There's got to be a benefit, otherwise the government should be spending the money on more pressing things."

This argument occurs, year after year, at dinner parties and in Congress alike. Every time, someone asks the question: why are we paying for NASA? Why did we send Curiosity, at such enormous cost, when we’ve already sent three rovers? Why do we continue to spend billions on rovers and space telescopes and shuttles and space stations when there’s so much to fix here on earth? Just, why?

First, the easiest part of this to answer. Those who say NASA is an economic leech have no idea how tiny a share NASA has, so here’s a quick visual. Turn a tax dollar into one hundred pennies. Pick up one penny. Now, take a pair of shears and cut off a sliver of that penny, something slightly less than half. That sliver is NASA. And the Curiosity rover? Per capita, it cost each American seven dollars. The war in Iraq, by comparison, will cost each of us around $12,000. The $850 billion Wall Street bailout cost more than NASA's entire 54-year existence.

Over those 54 years though, NASA has paid dividends. Any long distance communication--voice, television, data, GPS--has NASA to thank. They developed the first satellites, accomplishing that would’ve been far too risky and expensive for any private company to pioneer. The list of aviation safety and medical technologies NASA developed or helped develop is too long for this screen. Cordless appliances, LEDs, water filters, memory foam mattresses? All NASA. One out of every thousand US patents belongs to NASA. Economic studies have found that NASA generates between 3 and 7 dollars return for every 1 dollar invested.

While all these facts certainly fulfill Sam’s demand for "a benefit," it is not, in fact, the answer to the "Why." Carl Sagan freely admitted that our travels to the moon supplied "nothing of short term, everyday, bread-on-the-table practical value." In fact, virtually none of NASA’s projects ever will, and the reason is simple: that isn’t NASA’s job. They aren’t in the business of bringing down your mortgage payment, increasing your mileage, or making a better microwave oven. Nor should they be. NASA's role could never be fulfilled by the profit-oriented, risk-averse private sector, and it's a reason that justifies every penny NASA spends.

In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus published a small book titled On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres. It delivered a startling conclusion: the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of our universe. Our planet was in fact third out in a pack of seven: as average as you can get. It’s common knowledge today, but back then, it changed everything. The Copernican Revolution shifted the paradigm so drastically that it single-handedly sparked the Scientific Revolution—a period, according to historian Herbert Butterfield, that "outshines everything since the rise of Christianity, and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes.... It [was] the real origin both of the modern world and of the modern mentality." Humanity was forced to swallow its ignorance and to confront an unpleasant concept: if the fundamental idea of our universe—the Ptolemaic model—had been wrong, what else had we gotten wrong? What else did we have to learn?

And therein lies the Why.

NASA’s sole purpose is this: to search for truth. "To reveal the unknown for the benefit of all humanity"—that's its motto and that's what Brandon was trying to articulate. When we push back the frontier of space, that is when we are at our best. The old among us find renewed hope, the young, new aspirations. It inspires us in a way no other science does. Infectious disease research simply does not make jaws drop. NASA germinates new generations of scientists and innovators, individuals who can solve our terrestrial problems. It galvanizes the world, as Sagan noted, “to address problems in other fields that also have never been solved. It gives currency to critical thinking, the sort so urgently needed if we're going to solve hitherto intractable social issues." If we can do this, we ask, what else are we capable of?

Back at the observatory the clock showed 10:27pm. Curiosity was still decelerating, the heat shield cooking away at 3000 degrees. Then at 10:28, while traveling 1000mph, Curiosity deployed its parachute. Telemetry showed 9gs of force, but everything remained in the green. The rover was slowing--700mph, 500, then 300.

At 10:29, the rover jettisoned the heat shield, allowing it to scan the ground and pick itself a landing spot. Moments after, a voice over the comm: the rover had switched to powered descent. The Skycrane system had detached from the parachute and was now descending the final 3000 feet on rockets. At mission control, a few pumped their fist and high fived; this was the home stretch. Over the radio, an engineer called out speeds. “Descending 70 meters a second... now 50.” The room fell silent as altitude and speeds continued to fall.

Tense moments passed on screen as the clock turned to 10:30. Over the comm, the announcement came: the Skycrane system had started; the rover was lowering itself to the surface of a foreign planet on a cable from a fully automated hovering rocket-powered platform. A man next to me looked his friend and mouthed “Holy shit.” An engineer at mission control involuntarily stood up, like a spectator willing the ball to clear the fence.

Then a signal—a "tone" in the parlance—that had left the Martian surface 14 minutes ago to travel millions of miles through space, arrived at JPL to declare to the world that we humans had just successfully parked a nuclear-powered six-wheeled robotic science laboratory on a foreign planet. The auditorium exploded with cheers. On screen, engineers were jumping up and down in unbridled joy. Some just stood and wept. Someone next to me popped a bottle of champagne. Strangers hugged strangers. Others broke out in chants.

A few moments later, a grainy, black and white image appeared on screen—a quick snapshot to confirm the landing. A shadowy wheel was visible in the foreground, and beyond, a dark rocky plain stretched out towards a distant glow. It was the sunset. In the auditorium, on the faces of the young and old, I saw the same emotion: awe. We were spellbound, in disbelief at our own achievement.

Over the next few weeks, Curiosity will use new instruments to divulge the nature of Mars’ organic carbon compounds to discover if it once possessed the chemicals of life, and maybe, just maybe, to discover if it harbored life itself. Any data will improve our knowledge of how life began here on Earth, but in the off chance they find vestiges of alien life, it will be the greatest scientific discovery in centuries, a 21st century Copernican Revolution: Earth is not unique. If Mars had life right next door, where else did life occur? Where does it still? How can we get there? That chance alone is worth my seven dollars.

Images Courtesy of NASA/JPL

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