As I write this, the Twitter feed belonging to the Mars Curiosity rover has reported “feeling” the tug of Mars’ gravity and is just 34 hours away from touchdown. Of course, the rover isn’t Tweeting from 352 million miles away; that honor probably goes to NASA’s social media department (which is doing a fabulous job, by the way). But it’s pretty cool to think that this car-sized, man-made object is communicating with Earth from such a distance.
I’m a sci-fi/fantasy author, so as you can imagine, I’m rather excited about the Curiosity mission. The rover already makes a cameo appearance in The Daedalus Incident (as does the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter), so I do hope it makes it there in one piece. I’d hate to edit out such an ambitious and exciting mission.
The Mars Science Laboratory — Curiosity‘s official name — didn’t come cheap. In fact, the total mission cost is roughly $2.5 billion. Seems like a lot, but we blew through a lot more getting to the Moon. The entirety of the Apollo program cost $25 billion — and that was in 1969 dollars (north of $135 billion adjusted for inflation today). Granted, we sent several people to the Moon, but even counting all of NASA’s Mars efforts, you’re looking at a modern price tag of maybe $5 billion, total.
And let’s not forget that Curiosity is going a lot further than the Apollo astronauts every did. The Moon is just 240,000 miles away, give or take. To put it on a different scale, fly a paper airplane across the room. Now try to fly it from New York City to Oklahoma City. That’s the difference.
In the end, though, there are folks who will question why we bother, and they have valid points. Even today, $2.5 billion is still a lot of money. It could feed and house a lot of people, frankly. But supporters of exploration, and I number myself among them, see the benefits in terms of that whole “give a man a fish, teach a man to fish” argument. Simply put, the exploration of the Solar System, and beyond, is an investment in the future of humanity.
We don’t know whether there’s much to use or exploit on Mars. In my novel, I posit that there are mineral and other resources there, such as deuterium (heavy water) and uranium, that have made it worthwhile to mine the planet. We know those resources exist, though it really is within the realm of science-fiction as to how we might profitably exploit them. If we can, though, those resources could be used in lieu of tearing up our own world.
In addition to the resources we know about, there may very well be things we discover once we get there. Mars — or the moons of Jupiter or Saturn — could hold immeasurable riches, either material or scientific, that could benefit humanity. Going further on, if we do learn to make Mars habitable for humanity, we may ensure our species’ existence for millions of years in the future.
In the end, we explore because it’s there, because we don’t know, because our curiosity — and our Curiosity — is an extension of our own humanity. We’re not perfect, and I do sympathize wholly with the cost arguments. But…I really do want to live in a universe where our robots, and someday our people, are on Mars. It’s an investment in our future, and a reminder of what makes us who we are.
Besides, according to my novel, we only have until 2132 to establish a mining colony on Mars. Let’s get cracking, people.