Artist concept: NASA`s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, a mobile robot for investigating Mars

Is the Mars Curiosity Rover Worth the Cost

Artist concept: NASA`s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, a mobile robot for investigating Mars
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"Is the Mars Curiosity Rover Worth the Cost"
Caption: Artist concept: NASA`s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, a mobile robot for investigating Mars
Image by: NASA
© This file is in the public domain because it was created by NASA.

Critics of the space program have questioned its cost as far back as NASA's early Mercury missions that opened space exploration to Mankind.

The criticism heightened during the amazing Apollo missions that saw Americans accomplish the age-old dream of humans walking upon the surface of the Moon.

Many of the critics then raised issues of cost (Apollo's price tag was about $20 billion), the danger of risking human life in the unforgiving environment beyond Earth, and the ultimate return on investment. They argued that robotic space probes could accomplish many of the tasks done by humans.

Years later their arguments were muted by the discovery that every dollar invested in the Apollo program returned as much as $20 overall.

Even with the passing of Neil Armstrong on August 25, the first man to step onto the surface of another world, the debate over manned versus unmanned missions to the solar system continues. Yet recently, the focus of the debate has narrowed. With a bad economy and the nation facing a deficit of $16 trillion and climbing, space exploration naysayers have turned their anti-space rhetoric against the unmanned space missions, including the current NASA Mars mission, the rover Curiosity.

Curiosity: worth every dollar

Why is money being spent on space? Why have missions to the Moon and Mars, to Jupiter and beyond? Wouldn't the money be better spent on research into diseases, housing for the homeless, or food for the starving?

These are arguments raised all the time against spending money on space exploration. The simple answer is: money, and lots of it, is already being spent on all those things and many more things as well.

Another simple fact: more money will not solve those Earthly problems, nor ease the human condition any time sooner. More than $4 trillion has been spent to eliminate poverty in the USA since the mid-1960s and in 2012 the percentage of those at or below the poverty level remains virtually the same.

Concentrating on the present exclusively at the expense of planning for the future is one condition that keeps many poor and nations are no exception.

Exploration increases knowledge. That knowledge eventually leads to new technologies and the creation of new wealth.

The 1800s were the age of the millionaire, the 1900s the billionaires, and during the 21st Century the first trillionaires will be made. Some think that's a bad thing, but billionaire Bill Gate's success is a good example of what happens when new wealth is created: Microsoft products created many thousands of new multi-millionaires, tens of thousands of millionaires, and hundreds of thousands of new businesses all over the world. Millions of business were positively impacted by that. The same can be said of Apple's impact and many thousands of other companies that push against the frontiers of knowledge.

NASA's space projects and technological research benefits the entire world.

Good Technology notes that the actual cost of exploration is negligible. They write: " Those who say NASA is an economic leech have no idea how tiny a share NASA has, so here’s a quick visual. Turn a tax dollar into one hundred pennies. Pick up one penny. Now, take a pair of shears and cut off a sliver of that penny, something slightly less than half. That sliver is NASA. And the Curiosity rover? Per capita, it cost each American seven dollars. The war in Iraq, by comparison, will cost each of us around $12,000. The $850 billion Wall Street bailout cost more than NASA's entire 54-year existence."

A new space race?

The future is not something to throw away lightly either. The USA has led the world for decades in the exploration and (eventual) exploitation of space resources. Now a space race of sorts has begun and China, Russia, Japan—even India—have announced their intentions to go to the Moon.

US News & World Report quotes Robert Zubrin, the president of the Mars Society, arguing his point about the perception around the world of America's decline: "We're batting .700 in a game where the rest of the world is batting .060. Why should we cut off one of the areas we are still showing superlative excellence?" Zubrin says. "Every person on the moon has been American, every Mars rover has been American, every probe going to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune has been American. [Cancelling Mars missions] is not merely accepting national decline, it's causing national decline. It's throwing away a national treasure."

Artemis Westenberg, president of Explore Mars told US News "Curiosity's discoveries could start an all-new space race, but instead of facing just the Russians, other countries will be in the running, too. With its new-found interest in Mars, the European Space Agency could also be a strong contender."

The Chinese program is playing catch-up, achieving what took America decades in a handful of years. Both the Russians and the Chinese want to go to Mars.

"If we don't get our act together, the first human on Mars will be Chinese," Westenberg says.

Laying the groundwork for humans on Mars

Artemis Westenberg, president of Explore Mars told US News that "We believe in staying curious. Do you go to the moon to plant a flag and take pictures or do you want to go to a place to have a presence there? Curiosity will bring us answers, but we'll also get more questions. This is a prelude to more. Rovers and robots can only do so much. In the end, we will have to send humans."

Curiosity team member James Bell told CNN that unmanned missions will never be able to replace missions with human beings.

Cnn observes that "…Curiosity is performing a scouting mission for a manned U.S. mission to Mars that President Barack Obama predicts will happen in his lifetime." Perhaps a manned mission will embark for the Red Planet before 2030. So why all the robot missions?

"We don't want astronauts to be surprised," Bell explained to CNN.

More about this author: Terrence Aym

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