an open letter to those who think curiosity was a waste

August 22, 2012

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Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Why is NASA spending $2.5 billion to land a rover on Mars when there are poor people still starving on Earth and the national debt has to be paid down? I’ve posted about this again and again, but it bears repeating. If you’re someone who thinks that we shouldn’t peruse high budget, high stakes science because there are starving orphans in the world, then you simply don’t understand math or science, and may well be a hypocrite to boot. Allow me to explain. How many of those who expect us to equate a Martian rover with starving children have a roof over their heads, food in the fridge, and computers on which to vent their frustrations at NASA’s “waste” in news story comments and on Facebook? Why do they not give up most of their possessions and give them to the needy? Why bother with a computer when half of all people on Earth can’t read? How do they justify a trip to the grocery store to buy fresh produce when more than a quarter of the world’s population has to go to bed hungry? And if they take vacations, what possible excuse can they make for such luxuries when a third of the planet is mired in abject poverty?

Seems a little ridiculous to be so demanding, doesn’t it? Well, it’s equally absurd to argue that we need to give up advancing the species forward until Earth is a utopia where no child goes hungry and no adult falls victim to a terrorist or a secret police of an authoritarian thug. Ultimately, there’s only so much we can do about poverty in general and this well-meaning effort to save the planet despite the fact that throwing money at poverty and hunger won’t solve these problems alone, can’t become a giant anchor around our neck. The Martian rovers are generating jobs and technology we can use in the future. Manned space exploration helps us discover more about our bodies and come up with new ideas for treatments of degenerative diseases, the kind that almost invariably kill or hobble us. To forgo this research so another wad of cash can end up in the greasy palms of some neo-feudal warlord or dictator, as it so often does, is a far greater waste than even the worst scientific experiment. At least we’d learn something from that.

And when we tackle the idea that ditching Curiosity could’ve helped us pay down the national debt, that’s when things get really asinine. Do the people who advocate this know how big the debt is? Do they realize that they’re talking about the equivalent of helping to pay off the mortgage on a modern luxury apartment at the London Ritz Carlton with change they find on a street corner? The entire budget of NASA amounts to one tenth of one percent of the debt, a rounding error barely even worth mentioning in the same breath. But then again, Americans think that NASA’s funding is on par with the Department of Defense despite the fact that if the space agency had a tenth of the defense budget, it would be so ecstatic, it would redefine what is it to have a multiple nerdgasm. If those were the figures with which we were dealing, humans would be flying to Mars on plasma rockets on a routine basis by now and we’d be taking vacations on the Moon. In fact, NASA provides such an amazing bang for our buck that to start ridiculing it for “wasting” $2.5 billion on building and landing a nuclear-powered SUV on another world while helping thousands of jobs in the process, is utterly absurd.

The national debt is as bad as it is today not because we flew to Mars just a few too many times but because more than a trillion dollars were spent on war (some necessary, a good deal not so much, to put it mildly), another trillion plus was spent on bailing out banks which gambled with the mortgage market, lost, and threatened the public into a lucrative bailout, and many billions were spent trying to induce them into hiring more people in the bizarre belief that companies will magically give people jobs if they get more tax cuts, tax incentives, and tax havens rather than do what’s in their best interests and pocket the profits. At no point in American history has the nation spent so much on science that it didn’t have enough money to buy ammo and issue social security checks. Likewise, no nation that I can think of was ever held back by investing in science and technology. Muslim sultans and European kings didn’t lament that astronomers found better navigation techniques, engineers built better roads and more advanced weapons using algebra, optics, and new advances in physics, and more soldiers could be treated by medics who found new medicinal uses for herbs that would make their way into modern medicine. We constantly underfund science and education, and yet it helps us move the world forward on a pittance. To lament that even this is too much is simply not a sane or informed argument.

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  • Bruce Coulson

    The phrase used to be ‘Why are they throwing all that money away in space?’ which to my youthful ears conjured up images of astronauts with sacks of dollar bills, busily tossing money out the hatch to float away in the aether. I remember being disappointed when someone explained the prhase; it seemed so much more mundane and petty.

  • HikerTom

    Although I am an engineer, let me think about this from an economic view. Funding science and technology is an investment. Sometimes its a short term investment, sometimes a long term investment. And not all investments pay off. You can’t tell for sure ahead of time. But, it is hard for me to see that how the great majority of the science and technology funding won’t eventually pay off somehow. So it seems like a no lose situation to me to provide the funding. And in a similar vein as the post, if people have such a hard time with the absolute dollars where is the outcry about the many millions spent on political campaigns? In my opinion that is money truly wasted that could be used to either alleviate suffering or for job creation.

  • Rob Reid

    Very well put (nerdgasms – haha!), and the comparison to the megabucks ploughed into ammo can’t be repeated enough. Getting out into space will give us a whole new perspective on Earth’s squabbles.