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mars lander

If you allow me the indulgence, I’d like to once again take an article about something not exactly all that relevant to science and technology, and go off on an important tangent. In this case, the article is a rumination on American exceptionalism and the seeming insecurity of a wide swath of Americans who constantly need to be assured that their country is still number one at everything no matter what happens. Now, exercises in armchair anthropology are a political pundit’s bread and butter so it’s actually surprising that there aren’t even more pieces like this, but what does it have to do with science? Well, it features a very critical review of the previous president’s shot at reaching for the stars just like the nation did in its heyday…

When George W. Bush suggested in 2004 a manned mission to Mars, the proposal was mocked to death. Rightly so, perhaps, because it smacked of desperation and, what’s more, [was] designed to distract attention from troubling events and setbacks elsewhere.

Sounds about right and as far as the article is concerned, enough attention has been paid to it so we can move on. But for me there’s something even more important here. Certainly, many a space exploration enthusiast would object to mocking a manned mission to other worlds, taking it as a symptom of a society losing its ambition in favor of mundane, self-induced misery, but this is actually one of those cases where criticism is appropriate. What was being proposed was a flag planting mission, a chance for NASA to send astronauts to Mars to do some solid science, which is actually a very good idea, but more so, a chance for politicians to chant something patriotic as the lander touches down, check the red planet off the to do list, and gut the program as soon as the flights became too routine for the public. Keep in mind that even those who enjoyed tuning in as the unfortunately now late Neil Armstrong took his one small step, mostly thought the whole thing was a giant waste of time and money, and supported it only because it would prove that of the newly minted post-world war superpowers, the United States was the greatest.

When we let politicians plan our missions, this is what we get. Science is turned into a major PR project and as soon as the been-there-done-that effect sets in with the voters, they cancel the whole thing. Just think about the possibilities if NASA went forward with its plans for future lunar expeditions. There were drafts for lunar bases and the longer stays on the surface would allow a lot more research and science necessary to confirm a building site and lay down the foundation for a permanent outpost on another world. The advances in medicine and technology to treat all sorts of degenerative conditions and exposure to radiation would’ve been amazing, and when a colonized Moon was ready to become a launch pad to Mars and beyond, we would’ve seen even more of a research and development spike. This was a vision for the future that motivated many young men and women to go into the STEM fields, hoping to be part of this amazing journey at a very special moment in history. The politician’s response? Well, we beat the commies, yank the nerds’ funding, we need it for riders! The 2004 proposal would’ve been an encore of that.

Yes, I’ve written about the problems with listening to technocrats a little too much, and do realize that we can’t live in a world where budgets are dictated by research labs and billions are handed over without question for every blue sky idea. But we’re so far away from a world like that, we’d need to shift how almost $1 trillion in tax receipts is being spent before we start worrying. In truth, we’re living in another extreme, in which politicians who spend the vast majority of their tenure in campaign mode, and whose vision generally extends only to the next election, dictate the course of our technological and scientific advancements. And being completely ignorant in the subject matter doesn’t faze them one bit as they treat big projects and highly innovative concepts with thinly veiled disdain, looking at them from a purely political standpoint. Rather than wonder how many jobs the project can create, its practical applications, and its contribution to all of us in the grand scheme of things, they size it up for its potential to be cited as a waste of money and time in an attack ad by an equally self-absorbed, visionless politico. If it wasn’t for the sheer good will and prestige build up by NASA, they would gut space exploration completely, and if it wasn’t for DARPA and the military, robotics research would be nowhere near as well funded.

Consider living in a future in which politicians didn’t decry the price tag of exploration with such antagonism and embraced the idea that guided expansion into space came with huge benefits, hosting competitions for the most innovative and feasible ideas and designs to bring the space stations, robots, and cyborgs imagined in the 1970s and 1980s by this point in time, from retro speculation to science fact. We can grumble and say that these things aren’t very practical, but building the first houses and farms, then protecting them from marauders and weather, instead of carrying on with hunting and gathering and living in caves wasn’t all that practical either once upon a time. Computers and satellites were once luxuries for a small clutch of people and few believed that anyone outside of the military or various scientific research labs would ever have a use for the internet, hypertext, or large scale satellite imagery and communications. But we took a risk, we tried, and now look where we are. The exotic, bizarre projects of the 1950s and 1960s are today’s defining pillars of the First World. All it took was vision and patience, traits that are sorely missing from today’s political scene and stamped out when they are.

And at risk of repeating myself ad naseum, those who ask "why would we possibly spend any tax money on this when we need more jobs," need to consider that all these things aren’t just going to get built and tested by themselves. Contractors, universities, private companies hoping to win a contract through a competition, and government agencies, will need to, gasp, hire experts and support staff to engineer the complicated new machinery and perform highly involved tests that will require specialized equipment. You cannot outsource such high end research because just a small handful of nations in the world have the state of the art labs and facilities to do it, and of all those countries, the United States is the most innovative and technologically advanced thanks to its mix of first rate colleges and their wide collaborative networks stretching across the globe. We know the benefits of the research and development involved in these high brow projects, and we have plans for what to do with the technology if we had it. The real reason why we’re not making it happen is because the politicians refuse to do their job. They would much rather spend their time in the partisan muck, flinging insults at each other and fueling the party faithful.

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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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When you think of games in the mid 1990s, you might remember that desktops were still home to pretty good first person shooters and of those first person shooters, one stood above the rest. It’s title? Duke Nukem 3D. After selling some 3.5 million copies and generating an enormous fan base, the makers of the game decided to create a sequel to be called Duke Nukem Forever, a disturbingly prophetic name for what would become of the project. More than a decade later, the game is still to get to the market. In fact, there’s no finished game to package in the first place and if a recent article in Wired is to be believed, it won’t be done for years to come.

You’ve probably heard the other, more commonly used title for this long awaited sequel; Duke Nukem Taking Forever, since it’s creators at 3D Relams have pushed back release date after release date until finally saying that the game will be done when it will be done. An article on Cracked.com noted that every time we heard the development team release any kind of ad or teaser for the game, there seems to be less and less finished; from three and a half minutes of gameplay in 1998, to about a minute and a half of cut scenes in 2001, down to a minute of Duke lifting dumbbells and blowing smoke into a radiation symbol with a few jump cuts to alien monsters thrown in for good measure in 2007 with nothing even remotely resembling game footage. Wired’s tech and science writer, Clive Thompson, provides an explanation as to why that’s the case.

You see, George Broussard, the man who ran the Duke Nukem project since its inception, was so obsessed with being on the cutting edge of gaming that he couldn’t stop upgrading the rendering engines and infusing new ideas into the level design. That meant huge pieces of the product had to be rewritten from scratch every time a new engine came out and levels were constantly being added or redesigned. Flush with cash and with no supervision from a publisher that could pull the carpet from under his feet, Broussard didn’t take no for an answer and kept Duke Nukem Forever a work in constant, endless project. For those of us who’ve worked in a development capacity, his quest to always be technologically ahead sounds insane. Technology advances on a very steep curve and while you’re trying to be the latest and greatest, someone comes up with a new tweak or a new rendering method. Trying to incorporate every programming and graphic innovation into your games means that all you will be doing is upgrading and rewriting rather than making a game.

So it’s no surprise that this is exactly what happened to Duke Nukem Forever and the development finally had to be shut down as people left and Take-Two Interactive, the publisher waiting to release the game, was done playing nice and tolerating Broussard’s inability to lock the project down and finish the product. Of course now, things get interesting as Take-Two is trying to gain control of the franchise, get whatever 3D Realms finished so far, and complete the game for release on a tight schedule and with strict oversight. They won’t be starting from scratch should they succeed, but it’s very likely that the end product will suffer as there’s nothing that can slow down work on a development project quicker than sending a team of coders to sift through others’ code. Every developer has his or her unique approach and style. Some are incredibly efficient. Others leave their bit somewhat messy and rough around the edges. Consolidating and debugging all this code is a very intensive job in and of itself. Should the Duke Nukem sequel ever come out, it won’t happen any time soon.

While Broussard’s and 3D Realms’ attitude might seem obviously flawed and the outcome of their approach isn’t a big surprise, you may be amazed how many times this happens in the business world. Thousands and thousands of companies design custom software to run their operations and then continue to ask for change after change to it, claiming that every one of their requests is crucial for the business. Even moving a button to another area of the screen. As a result, many enterprise applications are under endless construction until at a certain point, they give out an a brand new version has to be built to undergo the same fate. And since work on every new enterprise app never ends, countless bugs and glitches left over from the development phase are never actually fixed because as soon as one set of changes is done, another twenty come down the pipeline. For those of you working in IT or thinking of another change to submit to your company’s developers about the software you use every day, read the Wired article carefully and take it for what it really is. A word of caution.

[ illustration by Olly Moss for Wired Magazine ]

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