Adventures for All

Curiosity Mars Rover: Waste of Money?

Congratulations on wasting $100 million landing a remote-controlled buggy on Mars. Not sure how this helps us poor people here on Earth, but great job.

Nope. These aren’t my words. It’s just a turdy bit of meme humor oozing its way around Facebook. I fixed the punctuation because … well, it drove me crazy the other way.

But not as much as the vapid message. Yeah, I know – it’s a sarcastic eCard. It’s supposed to be funny, biting commentary to bring us back from the heady excitement of the latest Mars rover. But I absolutely loathe it. Because some people agree. And they see validation in the caustic message.

Tell you what. If that’s the way you feel, I’m here to collect all the technology that came from the space program. You know, that stuff you use every single day that doesn’t help “us poor people here on Earth.”

First up, gimme your cell phone. In fact, give me everything that uses rechargeable batteries. Yep, that includes your cordless drill. Oops, I see a bunch of Velcro (or hook-and-loop fasteners, if you don’t like the brand name) on your clothes. I’ll take that. And if you ever wind up in need of a new heart? Sorry, but you don’t get an artificial heart while you’re on the transplant list. And no CAT scans for you, either.

Oh, and cough up your bicycle helmet. Guess where that came from? Yep, the “wasteful” space program. Hey, that’s a great show you’re watching on your SATELLITE FREAKIN’ TV DISH! Hand it over.

And there’s plenty more that I don’t have time, room or inclination to mention. Educate yourself instead: Google the term “technology derived from space program”. Better yet, read this great post by Jason Torchinsky on Jalopnik.com. And get a clue.

Let’s not forget another side benefit of the space program and projects like the Mars rover: inspiration. I hope your kids watch the exploits of Curiosity and every Mars rover to follow … and wonder what it would be like to expand humankind’s knowledge of the universe. Maybe they’ll study hard, get a doctorate, become a test pilot and be the first person to leave a human footprint on Mars.

God, I hope so. Kids need that right about now. I drive down the road and see empty storefronts, people making money by twirling signs, a proliferation of cell phone shops. If we can kindle some interest in the sciences, that can change. The Mars rover can help.

One last point – if you think the space program is a waste of resources better devoted to helping people on Earth, answer this: What’s the last thing you did to better the world around you? And how does it measure up against the people who put Curiosity on Mars?

12 Responses to Curiosity Mars Rover: Waste of Money?

  1. Gern Blansten says:

    We needed to go into space to learn how to make a bike helmet?

    I’m all for space exploration, but I think we have enough photos of Martian dirt to last us a lifetime. Time to stop dicking around and put a man up there.

  2. I’m definitely up for getting some humans on Mars. If you want a realistic ideas of why that seems like such a problem, read “Packing for Mars” by Mary Roach. You’ll get an excellent notion of just how damn challenging that is. Keep in mind, Curiosity has all sorts of other instrumentation doing much more than taking “photos of Martian dirt.” If you claim that you’d understand the data from the spectrometer, radiation, chemical and other instruments, by all means apply for a job at JPL. I’m sure the team there could use your help. Otherwise, enjoy the photos because it’s all you’re likely to understand.

    And no, we didn’t need to go to space to learn to make a bike helmet. But the technology that made the astronauts’ helmets turned into the way lighter, way stronger helmets I enjoy as a mountain biker today. Nothing motivates for making every ounce count quite like a risky endeavor … space travel, for example.

  3. Kevin says:

    (Editor’s Note: I don’t believe in censorship, so I’ll publish this long-winded diatribe. Like many ill-considered screeds, it contains a few kernels of truth: I can agree that NASA in its current iteration needs reform. Most of the rest of this comment, though, will make you lose brain cells. Be forewarned.)

    Fuck the Mars rover Curiosity. There have been probes on Mars for over 3 decades yet people are carrying on like this is something new.

    So supposed lovers of science, the supporters of Curiosity really ought to understand a few logical fallacies.

    For one, Velcro and Tang were not developed by NASA, neither were cordless tools, plastic, phones, TVs or microchips. True, NASA adapted many pre-existing technologies for use in space, but this is hardly the same as inventing them from scratch. NASA advocates often either lie or are willfully ignorant (Editor’s note: Kevin offers no proof of this, and this is solely an expression of his own that doesn’t reflect the thoughts of this website.) when they present their list of “inventions”. NASA didn’t invent the smoke alarm, NASA invented a TYPE of smoke alarm, for example. Even rockets themselves were being developed before NASA existed. Even if we accept certain inventions (more like additional developments, but lets pretend) this commits an either/or fallacy; That is, it is the assumption that if something wasn’t invented by one party, it would never have been. This is a bad assumption because throughout history there are examples of parallel invention; The Wright Brothers were not the only ones developing a heavier than air flyer, they were just the first to be modestly successful. The light bulb, the transistor, the computer, computer networking…all of these things were being invented independently in different places at more or less the same time.

    Exploring Mars in such a way also ignores the much better ways of spending the money and brain power, like exploring the ocean. 3 men have been to the deepest part of the ocean, James Cameron being one of them, while 12 have walked on the moon…and only one of those 12 was a scientist.

    There is also the fallacy that assumes if something was necessary in the past, it must be necessary for the present or future. NASA is a cold war relic, it is slow, inefficient, funded through forcible taxation. Besides, private companies can and do launch Sats into orbit and soon, tourists. The internet (then called Arpanet) was a military and later educational curiosity until it was turned over to, or more correctly, allowed to mesh with, private interests, after which it exploded in popularity, usefulness and profitability. Why should space exploration be any different?

    Now of course comes the part where the defender of NASA will say something along NASA’s non-profit altruism and then say something like “But NASA’s budget is relatively small…the military budget is huge!” This commits another either/or fallacy. Just because the military budget is bloated and wasteful, it doesn’t justify a smaller, but still wasteful, space program. I might also note that the space program frequently lifts technology from the Air Force or Navy. And yes, GPS was put into place by the military, not NASA.

    Then there are the usual arguments that the money was spent on earth, on engineers and scientists all paying bills and so forth. This commits what is known to economists as the broken window fallacy. Sure, some scientists, engineers, managers, bureaucrats and janitors were all employed to make the rocket, probe and so on, much in the same way a glazier might be employed after a shopkeeper’s window was broken. But here is the rub; the money the shopkeeper (or tax payer) paid for the new window (or mars probe) could have been better spent and there is still a net loss of wealth. Aside from the money, the true cost of Curiosity is the time, which can never be recovered, spent on something superfluous, rather than something useful which actually creates value.

    They have been saying for 36 years how exploring Mars would change our world for the better. It wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now.

    Of course maybe they will find life on the red planet, and for that I am not holding my breath, but if it was, it would almost certainly put an end to any notion of a manned colony on Mars, much less terraforming. For to do so would radically alter the environment and likely kill indigenous species. It is one thing to do that on a planet on which we evolved, it is quite another to do it on alien soil. But maybe there isn’t life on Mars…maybe there never was, but at least we will have lots of pictures of rocks.

  4. Daniel Guzman says:

    But NASA does have projects that study the ocean. Aquarius was a satellite launched a while ago. There are also more gadgets built at Goddard space center. NASA isnt just about stuying outer space, it also studies the earth. How is studying the ocean any better than studying space? Studying anything in science can have a benefit.

  5. Kevin says:

    Earth based satellites are comparatively cheap and can be launched privately, so anything NASA can launch to study the oceans, the private market can do better. Such as it is, the Oceans have a far more immediate effect on life on the planet than anything in space (that we can do anything about in any event). The ocean holds vast mineral and metallic resources, and rather than going 10s of millions of miles to wonder weather or not such resources are on Mars, we know for absolute fact that they are in our own back yard. On top of that, there is very little we can do in the case of a space-based emergency like a gamma ray burst, but such things can be studied, for relatively little money, from telescopes and satellites. The oceans on the other hand, we can have a profound affect on how we manage them and how they affect us. They are also a potential goldmine when it comes to lifeforms which might be engineered to remove waste or some other application. But space is cold, dark and filled with radiation. Mars is a wasteland. We have known this since Viking 1.

  6. Kevin, there are most certainly vast mineral and metal resources on Mars. Volcanoes = porphyry metal deposits. And when you have a dormant volcano like Olympus Mons and many smaller ones … you are looking at a mind-boggling bonanza of mineral wealth. You know, Rio Tinto has spent more than 10 years exploring and trying like hell to get a land swap to tap a deep-lying copper ore body in Arizona. The top of the deposit starts a mile below the surface. If the land swap ever goes through Congress, RT expects another 20 years of work before getting the first bit of copper out of it, and a 50-year lifespan for the project. That’s for a bunch of ore that contains less than 10 percent copper per unit (the figure 6 percent sticks in my head). What does that tell you about the state of mineral resources in the world right now? Good news for Rio Tinto, though: Some guy on the Internet says they should just troll the ocean because that’s just so easy. Piece of cake, no regulatory hurdles, no environmental impact, right? Guess they’ll be happy to hear that.

    You can also bet there are plenty of asteroids packed full of rare metals.

    And exactly why do you see this as an either/or proposition? Explore and tap both resources. Expand humankind’s knowledge in as many ways as possible.

  7. Jimmy Carter says:

    All those inventions give no credit for the mars mission, only credit to human minds. The romans were great inventors and they did not venture into space. We would have invented all those things reguardless of stupid photos of dirt.

  8. Someone with a UK email address named Jimmy Carter – hysterical!

    And of course, who can disagree with such a potent, articulate, well-reasoned argument?

  9. Journey2Heaven says:

    While many of the inventions are awesome and needed, many are not. I can understand the comment you posted from another at the start of your article. I have no idea how much of a dent $100 million can do to assist the homeless, the addict, the senior citizens in need of home/health care, the disabled mentally and physically, the educational system, health care, unemployment, etc. But I bet it would definitely do a whole hell of a lot.

    What I do to better the world around is take money from my pocket, and I am a struggling single mother of 4, and make lunches for the homeless on skid row with the assistance of my children. I volunteer at a local food shelter once a month. I take missionary trips to El Savador and Haiti once year alternating destinations. I help raise money to build wells in Haiti and El Salvador. I help lead a meeting called CR (Chemical Recovery) on Sundays. All while working a full-time 9-5, raising 4 children by myself without child support. Now I have a son graduating who wants to attend USC and I have to figure out how that’s gonna happen. I believe it will because of the good we put out in the world, but looking at my finances, yeah, it wouldn’t happen although he deserves it.

    So, my $0.02 is that the money could be used for a greater good. but we are nosey and a selfish people. That’s just the world we live in so I hope they find some caring Martians to make that money worth while.

  10. Boing says:

    The only problem with this notion that we got technology out of space program is that what was needed in order to travel through space has mostly been invented already. In the beginning we needed to create everything from rockets, rocket fuel, guidance systems, special windows, velcro etc. Now we have all those things, many of which are incorporated into technologies on earth such as cars, computers etc. In the future there will be new things that still need to be invented in order to go into space, but it will be much fewer and less often. In other words, in the beginning we spent billions and got a lot of cool things back. Now we will spend billions and get very few new things back in return. That’s the sad part. I like space travel, but the question is will it still continue to be worth it financially. I hope so…

  11. There’s a problem with your line of thinking. You’re looking at everything in retrospect. Take Magnetic Resonance Imaging (aka MRI). It is a descendant of the technology used to monitor astronaut’s physical well-being. On other words, researchers at the time didn’t set out to develop it. The medical community saw a different application from something that existed or was refined to a degree by NASA’s requirements. Nobody predicted before the space program that it would exist. So we haven’t the slightest clue what technology will result from greater space exploration. And here’s something else to think about: The Apollo program used fuel cells in the command modules – somehow, the auto industry hasn’t been able to use this 40-year-old technology yet (or hasn’t wanted to thanks to oil interests). So we’ve probably only scratched the surface of what’s possible … from work done in the 1960s. And you seriously don’t think more space exploration will further our knowledge of the universe around us? Or result in something practical? My guess is you probably don’t know many people who work in the sciences.

  12. Kevin says:

    Now that it has been an exciting* few weeks for Curiosity, I thought I might check back in.

    “Kevin, there are most certainly vast mineral and metal resources on Mars.” No kidding? Mars is also what, 100 million kilometers away? It cost 2.5 billion dollars just to get a rover on Mars, and that is a one way ticket. A rocket which can return would undoubtedly be far more expensive, not including the payload. The average weight of a car on American roads is about 1,800 kgs, most of that weight being from steel, about 900 kg more than curiosity. Want to place a bet on how much it would cost to extract that much iron from Mars and send it to Earth? Granted, the escape velocity is less on Mars, but you have to either bring all your fuel with you or make your own on Mars. Neither of which is economically feasible. Not to mention you need machines to do the mining and a processing center to sort the useful materials from the useless. So to compare that to Rio Tinto’s efforts, I’ll put my money on Minerals and Metals on Earth. Especially considering Rio Tinto is trading at about $55 per share today compared to about $14 per share ten years ago. And of course Rio Tinto employs tens of thousands of people and earns billions of dollars a year; it does not seize it from taxpayers without their consent.

    But hey, lets play a game; Lets assume it takes 2.5 billion dollars to extract one kilogram of copper, and send it to Earth. (A preposterously low number but we’ll pretend that Curiosity 2.0 will cost the same and have some means of metal delivery) On the other hand, a post-1982 American penny carries .0625 grams of copper, so one could get the same amount of copper from 16,000 pennies at the face value cost of $160 plus the cost of extraction. I don’t know what the cost of extraction would be, but to keep the math simple, lets say the total cost is $500, $160 for the pennies, $340 for the extraction.

    That means that the 1kg of copper is Five Million times less expensive than the fictional 1kg of copper extracted from Mars The true cost of returning a kg of Copper (or anything) from Mars is anyone’s guess.

    Now back to reality; On the London Metal Exchange, Copper has been pretty high recently; $8,330 per metric ton…pricey! That works out to $8.33 per kilo(hence why it is more profitable to mine copper than hoard pennies) meaning 2.5 billion dollars could buy about 300,000 tons of copper.

    What does THAT tell you about the state of mineral resources in the world right now?

    As for the environmental impact, what do you suppose the environmental impact is on making rocket fuel and keeping it cold?

    Everything has tradeoffs. One cannot pull a potato from the ground without some kind of cost and environmental impact. The benefits must outweigh the costs. In the case of Curiosity, there is hardly a comparison. Apart from the egos of a few supporters, Curiosity improves nothing on earth and is a net drain on the world. A migrant selling oranges on the side of an off-ramp contributes more, and costs less, to society that Curiosity.

    But hey…rocks. They are up there and apparently it is worth stealing from people to sniff them.

    *excruciatingly boring

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