Donna Shirley, author and manager of the Mars Exploration Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, argues there is a lot to be gained from investment in the ongoing exploration of Mars.
The most common question I'm asked about Mars exploration is: "Why should we spend all that money on space when there are so many problems to solve here on Earth?" Behind that question stand some assumptions:
1. That we actually spend a lot on space exploration.
2. That throwing money at problems on Earth will solve them.
3. That the money spent on space is wasted.
I'd like to address each question.
1. NASA's budget of less than $14B per year is less than 1/2 of 1 percent of the Federal budget, and other Nations spend even less on space exploration. The military space budget is far larger than NASA's, as is (probably) that of the National Security Agency, whose budget for spy satellites is classified. Much of this military space budget is for things which keep the peace, e.g. communication and spy satellites. But there are those who urge that we spend hundreds of billions on anti-missile defenses which have been amply demonstrated not to be technically feasible and which are of no use at all against, for example, terrorism or high altitude nuclear explosions which would wipe out communication satellites.
Let me give you a few numbers which put the NASA budget in perspective: The entire yearly NASA budget would buy about thirteen B-2 bombers, or would pay for about 14 years of what the U.S. spends on doggie treats--not regular dog food, but doggie treats. Enough money is wasted in the military budget each year to fund NASA several times over (wasted in the sense that it can't be accounted for, even ignoring cost overruns and performance shortfalls). Of the NASA budget about one half goes for human space flight and one half for science and technology. The Mars Exploration Program is part of the science funding and currently spends less than $200M per year, which supports two flights to Mars every 26 months. This is less than the cost of a single major motion picture per year. The movie "Waterworld" cost as much as the entire Mars Pathfinder project which successfully landed the rover Sojourner on Mars on July 4, 1997. And Pathfinder got much better reviews.
2. What evidence do we have that throwing money at terrestrial problems will solve them? Welfare was designed to help the poor and spent many billions of dollars with that paradigm. What it actually did was to create a multi-generational underclass and contribute to generations lost to drugs and crime. Government funding to clean up the environment is mired in legal battles and serves mainly to pay for hoards of lawyers. Any money spent by the Federal government is spent through bureaucracies, and because "we" want to make certain that no money is wasted the bureaucracies are far better at preventing money from being used effectively than at spending it effectively. Certainly the relative pittance that the NASA budget represents, were it to be spent on more "humanitarian" endeavors, would largely be ground up in the maw of pork barrel politics or bureaucracy rather than contributing to the solution of the major problems facing us: overpopulation, environmental despoliation, war, pestilence and famine.
- Is the money spent on space wasted? There are several points I'd like to make about the value of civilian space exploration:
a. From a pragmatic point of view, NASA money provides jobs to engineers, scientists, technicians, secretaries, etc. NASA rockets are not stuffed full of dollar bills and shipped off into outer space. Almost every penny of the money is spent for salaries. But, of course, that provides no more intrinsic benefit than government money spent in any other way.
b. From a trivial perspective, NASA missions provide a good value for the entertainment dollar. For about 75 cents per American the world got to experience the excitement of Pathfinder's landing on Mars on the 4th of July and for three months thereafter -- as contrasted with about $8 to sit through a 2 hour movie. And Americans value entertainment very highly. A major basketball player, for instance, is paid as much in a year as the entire cost of the Mars rover, Sojourner ($25M) which funded a team of 30 highly educated people for 5 years.
c. Human beings need to explore, it seems to be hardwired into our psyches. And there are essentially no more terrestrial frontiers, other than the deep oceans. Only a few can afford to personally experience the deep oceans or high mountains, or the few remaining remote places like Antarctica. Without the opportunity for a frontier, I believe that the human spirit will shrivel and turn upon itself. The popularity of extreme sports such as sky-boarding, bungee jumping, and the environmentally disastrous climbing expeditions to Mt. Everest tell me that the lack of true frontiers has already produced a craving for risk-providing substitutes. Space exploration provides the last frontier and even though only a few of us can experience actually going into space, robotic exploration provides a virtual trip for all of us.
d. Humanity needs something to contend with to create unity. The various hot and cold wars have provided the needed enemy to hold warring factions together. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union the factions are fragmenting and fighting to a degree not seen since the rise of industrialism. Contention with a frontier, i.e. human exploration of the solar system, could provide such unity. Indeed, the insistence by the current administration on bringing the Russians into the Space Station is based largely on a need to keep their technical people busy, rather than allowing them to be drawn into building weapons of mass destruction for countries like Iraq or North Korea.
e. Space exploration brings knowledge. The run-away greenhouse effect was discovered by robotic spacecraft flying past and landing on Venus. Its thick carbon-dioxide atmosphere traps so heat effectively that lead would be liquid on its surface. No one noticed the same effect on Earth until space scientists started projecting that we, too, could experience a run-away greenhouse effect by continuing to pour carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. The ozone hole that is a result of chlorofluorocarbons escaping into the atmosphere was discovered by a very modest earth satellite. And one big reason for exploring Mars is to find out why, when it was originally a warm, wet planet like the Earth, it went into a deep freeze billions of years ago, losing its surface water and most of its atmosphere. Could the same thing happen to Earth?
f. And finally, space is returning wealth to Earth. In 1996 the profit from commercial telecommunications satellites exceeded the NASA budget. These satellites were the descendants of NASA and military telecommunications technology from Echo in 1960 through the ACTS satellite in the 1990's. Commercial space telecommunications is booming. And that new industry is sparking another--cheaper, commercial launch vehicles. With cheap access to space and improvements in information processing and interpretation technology (which NASA is working on for the Earth Observing System) will come a profitable remote sensing industry. Some people are trying to raise commercial capital for riskier ventures like space materials processing and even space tourism.
So the next frontier, Mars, and the rest of space, will provide not only a mirror for us on the Earth, but a place to go beyond the looking glass into an unknown and exciting future.