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Hey, Curiosity, don't forget to look for a rusted-out Martian Beetle

August 07, 2012|By Paul Whitefield
  • Mt. Sharp is the peak the rover Curiosity eventually is expected to climb.
Mt. Sharp is the peak the rover Curiosity eventually is expected to climb. (NASA )

So, I’m just curious: Do you think the Mars mission is worth it?

Amid the applause and the backslapping and the hoopla over the successful landing of the Curiosity rover on the Red Planet, there has also been the inevitable second-guessing of the mission’s price tag.

Or, as CNN headlined it, “Mars rover: Is all this really necessary?”

PHOTOS: Mars rover mission

It cost about $2.6 billion to send Curiosity to Mars. Which any way you slice it is real money, especially in these tough budgetary times. 

But here’s a little perspective. The $2.6 billion that NASA spent would buy about two B2 bombers (cost: about $1.2 billion each). Or it would make a down payment on an aircraft carrier: The new Gerald R. Ford-class carriers that will soon enter service go for about $11.7 billion each. (In fact, consider this staggering factoid: It will cost an estimated $1 billion-plus each just to scrap the Nimitz-class carriers that the new ships will replace.)

And not to keep harping on the defense budget, but we’re spending about $5 billion a month or so on the war in Afghanistan.

INTERACTIVE: Curiosity: Liftoff to landing

So, it’s safe to say that we’re getting a lot of bang for our bucks from Curiosity.  Heck, if nothing else, we’ve given paychecks to a bunch of people who are a lot smarter than most of us.

But is the real problem that it’s a rover, a machine, and not humans on Mars?  After all, machines are great but, face it, we call it Columbus Day, not “Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria Day.”

Plus, yes, there’s a “been there, done that” feel to this mission. After all, what are we going to see this time that we haven’t already seen from the Spirit and Opportunity rovers? More pictures of Martian mountains, and rocks, and red soil? (C’mon, JPL, this is the age of reality TV. We want photos of Martian houses, or rusted-out Martian Beetles  -- or the ultimate, curious Martians staring into Curiosity’s camera -- or we’re changing channels.)

Well, here’s where I think everyone needs to take a deep breath.

Yes, manned spaceflight should -- must -- continue. But for now it’s just not feasible dollar-wise. That $2.6 billion to send a rover to Mars would be a drop in the bucket compared with the cost of sending humans to the planet. It’s money we really don’t have.

And as for “mission fatigue,” sending humans wouldn’t cure that either. Oh sure, the first folks to Mars will be big news, just like the first manned moon landing.  But what happened then? It quickly became old hat. Men on the moon? Yawn. 

Curiosity is going to do real scientific work on Mars. The brilliance of the engineering that went into the mission may well work its way into the commercial arena. The glow of the accomplishment may inspire other bright young people to go into science, and who knows what one of them may one day discover.

It’s an expensive rover, but it’s money well spent.

Although I’m still holding out hope that it discovers a rusted-out Martian VW.


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