1:25 AM, August 6th. “Touchdown confirmed! We’re safe on Mars!”
The words of then flight-dynamics engineer Allen Chen brought explosive cheers to the twenty-three million people watching the landing. While Curiosity’s landing on Mars was widely watched, Chen’s words will never reach the same legendary, instantly recognizable realm as the late Neil Armstrong’s first words on the moon: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Granted, Armstrong offers a more substantive phrase, but it is more to the point that until man steps foot on Mars, no intergalactic achievement will reach the same level of global attention. With no realistic plans for a manned mission to Mars until the mid-2030’s, the world will experience a treacherous gap without astronauts as heroes—treacherous because it is those very astronauts like Armstrong that inspire and move generations of youths toward not only space exploration, but the sciences in general. And it is this wave of keen interest in the sciences that will eventually sustain our planet.
The moment Curiosity, just after slamming into Martian atmosphere at thirteen-thousand mph, slowing to nine-hundred mph, and finally deploying a parachute, landed gently on Mars’ surface represents the culmination of years of research, planning, and failures. Just as it took the repeated failures of Rangers 1-6 to finally and safely land Armstrong on the moon in Ranger 7, it will be a patient and incremental process until man will walk Mars’ rocky surface. In the meantime, Curiosity, alone on the Martian planet, continues its trek that we hope will help determine the planet’s atmospheric and geological evolution, water’s role in its history, and if Mars ever supported life. The scientific knowledge and discovery that this rover will provide cannot be understated. These potential breakthroughs in turn can answer questions that have long been only matters of faith—how did life originate on Earth, and, most vitally, are we alone in this universe.
As Curiosity searches for answers on Mars, on Earth, we are faced with the realities and limitations of our space program. While the rover landing can largely be attributed to NASA, the program’s budget is in dire need of growth. Currently, NASA’s budget focuses on a variety of missions, including the development and training of future astronauts and preparation for future manned missions. NASA’s budget hovers consistently at around 17.7 billion dollars a year (compared to the 1.4 trillion dollars spent on defense and national security) or a mere 4/10th’s of a penny on the tax dollar. Seven billion dollars of the budget are spent on the maintenance of satellites for the armed forces, leaving NASA with about ten million dollars to spend freely. The budget, which astrophysicist Neil Tyson describes as a strip on the tax dollar “so thin you wouldn’t even come close to the ink on the bill,” threatens to widen the manned mission gap, making mid 2030’s a rather ambitious and unlikely goal for America. Naysayers that claim that funding NASA is a waste of taxpayers’ money are ignorant of NASA’s return of investment rate (around eight dollars, according to G. Scott Hubbard, former director of the NASA Ames Research Center) and stimulation of a 300 billion dollar aerospace private industry (by the calculations of Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium), and they disregard the economic and social impact of NASA technology.
In a country that is fighting to stay on top, the space program should be a strong cornerstone to strong sciences. Because science is the practical future of this country and the world, the consequences of an underfunded space program are incalculable. A space program, like the sciences in general, is a two-way street: while it requires economic resources to maintain, it spurs scientific development and instigates the economy on its own. It is no coincidence that America’s peak of development came when America was sending people to the moon. The very generation that was awestruck and inspired by the moon landings grew up to become the scientists who would develop and perfect the technologies of the information age, the computer and the internet. Today’s generation of children does not have the same incentive to pursue the maths and sciences; it is not a generation inspired by astronauts as heroes. To quote Tyson again, “every year, the U.S. graduates only about 70,000 scientists and engineers but about half a million lawyers. This means we are going into the future fully prepared to litigate over our crumbling infrastructure.” With a manned program, much like the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, NASA can create heroes to instigate interest in the sciences. The spotlight the media would shine on these heroes would effectively create such interest far more effectively than the billions of dollars spent on educational programs today.
If NASA’s budget was just one penny on the tax dollar, maintaining this country would be easy, for not only would it incur new discovery, research, technologies, and economies, but the extra half-penny would shorten the “hero-gap” and inspire the scientists necessary for such progress. One penny on the tax dollar is a small price to pay for the eventual sustainability of the planet. At humans’ rate of consumption, we will have to leave this planet eventually. If we have the ability to begin our journey into the cosmos now, it is our responsibility to do so. One day, space travel may be our only hope. Why not start now? #penny4nasa