yes, science is worth it. now please start giving a damn about it.

August 16, 2012

curiosity in shell

If you were one of the people who approvingly sent out this little bit of self-absorbed science-shaming on Facebook regarding NASA’s new Martian rover and admit to it, I will probably call you a twit. And no, I won’t be sorry for a breach of decorum. We already have far too many overly polite exchanges about crucially important matters in which harsh things that need to be said are left without mention. Adding on to this painfully polite cowardice would simply be a disservice to public discourse at large. Now, after I’ve hypothetically insulted you, allow me to explain why you deserved this insult and why space exploration and curiosity-driven research that puts robots on Mars or smashes atoms at 99.99% the speed of light isn’t only helping everyone, but probably the most important thing humans have ever done and will ever do, aside from the simple fact that pie-in-the sky projects are responsible for things you couldn’t live without today despite constant nagging from critics of research grants.

First and foremost, Curiosity cost $2.5 billion and it’s not exactly that we launched a pallet of money to Mars and just left it there while the mission controllers at JPL shouted “yeah! suck it poor people!” when they got confirmation of a safe touchdown. It was used to create thousands of jobs for scientists, engineers, mechanics, programmers, and designers, all the way up to and including janitors, cafeteria cooks, and a similar complement of staff working for subcontractors. The spinoffs from its technologies can help us make more powerful and efficient spacecraft, faster and more radiation resistant computer chips to be used to monitor nuclear reactors, better algorithms for boosting packets being sent via the web, and a laundry list of other really useful stuff, since NASA is in the spinoff business and despite all the criticism, it’s been doing a stellar job at it. (See what I did there? NASA? Stellar? Oh, I slay me. But seriously, no pun intended.) Just to give you an idea, without Apollo’s proof of concept for the power of integrated circuitry, say goodbye to your smartphones and computers.

What’s that? Someone would still make them anyway? Possibly, but the fact of the matter is that NASA helped make the case for the designs that underpin our lives today and there’s nothing quite like a mission into the cold, alien unknown where it’s do or die to bring together multiple novel technologies and make the definitive case for how well they can work. Still, there are people out there who insist that they don’t quite buy “the spinoff argument” for space exploration even though they think NASA’s mission is noble and needs to be better funded. These critics may as well say that they’re enthralled by evolutionary biology but think that the whole natural selection thing is rather iffy. Look, the spinoffs is why we do science. We learn how things work and then we use the newfound knowledge for our benefit. Look at a modern convenience and you can trace it through history to a purely curiosity-driven experiment that end up laying the groundwork for it.

Today’s Martian rovers, lunar bases, and plasma rockets can be the precursors for tomorrows self-sustaining cities on other worlds, relativistic rocketry, and intelligent deep space probes that pave the way for future generations to settle the solar system and beyond, mining nearly limitless resources along the way. And they can be these precursors not because we’re too far away from using them as stepping stones to the technology in question, but because the biggest obstacle they today face is the public’s seeming inability to give a damn about them until the flag planting moment. Were people to start caring about how many jobs investing in space exploration and advanced technology would generate, how many great uses for the products of these programs there could be, and how much they’ve benefited from NASA and other scientific agencies over the last 60 years, who knows what we could accomplish. We might even get half of the scientific budget Americans think we actually have

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  • Brett

    My personal response to this kind of crap is usually as thus:

    Every single scientist throughout history – even before Galileo – could have had someone come up to them and ask, “Why are you fooling around with those silly contraptions or complex math problems when you could be growing food or taking care of children?” Do you honestly think we’d be better off as a whole if they had listened?

    Jobs and side-benefits aside, this kind of stuff enriches us, often in ways we don’t understand until later.

  • Badbass

    Unfortunately these naysayers will always be with us. Be they selfish or just not able to think to the next step, they constantly carp about ” the incredible amount of money wasted when we have so many problems here at home”. I have a feeling a lot of them pay for groceries with food stamps. I personally know a couple of people who have made this statement, and though they are reasonably intelligent, I’m convinced they couldn’t win a two stage argument. I will say that the cost-cutting at NASA has given us more bang for the buck. Look at the last two Mars rovers. Expected to last 9 months, one went 6+ years and the other is still active after 8+ years. That’s a bargain in anybody’s book. Go NASA


    This is why privately held or publicly held companies will have a hard time at space exploration. The benefits of the spinoff technologies won’t come soon enough to satisfy owners or shareholders, plus companies don’t like to share info with outsiders who will exploit their investment. Absorbing failures is not feasible. National pride, even if it is only at the flag planting ceremony would be nil. In this “all government programs are communism” rage we’re seeing now, I’m rather pessimistic that anything significant in the way of humans in space will happen in the next 50 years unless there is some kind of hybrid cooperative between business and government where some businesses kick in some cash in exchange for the opportunity to bid on future patents and the government guarantees against loss of capital. If you didn’t invest in the future you could get left behind. Money risk can be managed. Incentives is paramount.