Debate Center, 8/14

Curiously Curiosity

Kudos to NASA, but what if the Mars landing failed?

In the recent climate of Olympic competition we’re conditioned to cheer on winners.  NASA’s recent Olympic-level engineering victory in landing the one-ton Curiosity robotic vehicle 100 percent intact on the surface of Mars makes it easy to cheer on NASA and its mission as well.  But, what if the landing had failed?  What if the $2.5 billion dollars spent had ended up splattered over the face of the red planet instead?  What would have been public reaction?

There were high fives and loud cheers at Mission Control when the dust settled and NASA and the rest of the world were able to determine that Curiosity had made a safe landing on Mars. NASA scientists hailed the Mars rover Curiosity’s flawless descent and landing as a “miracle of engineering.” The rover began immediately sending back to Earth the first images from the mission, from the ancient crater in which it landed, that may hold clues about whether life took hold on Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor.

If Curiosity proves successful in its exploration goals, the next step in exploration would be a trip to Mars to collect samples and then return to Earth. However, searching for evidence of life or those elements needed to sustain life on Mars is not the only rationale for a sample-return mission. Equally important is that the detailed analysis of Martian minerals also could tell the story of what happened on Mars and why it ended up the red acidic desert that exists today.

The United States had planned to team up with Europe on a trio of missions beginning in 2016 that would culminate in the return of Martian soil and rock samples to Earth, an endeavor the National Research Council considers its top priority in planetary science for the next decade. Citing budget concerns, the Obama administration has terminated NASA’s participation in Europe’s ExoMars program, causing the U.S. space agency to re-examine its options before another flight opportunity comes and goes. Earth and Mars favorably align for launches about every 26 months.

The situation is complicated by massive budget overruns in the $2.5 billion Curiosity mission, intended to determine if Mars could now or ever have supported microbial life, and in the $8 billion James Webb Space Telescope, a successor to the Hubble observatory. Those overruns contributed to the U.S. leaving Mars exploration short of the multibillion-dollar commitment needed for another “flagship” mission of the scale it would take to fetch rocks and soil from the Red Planet and bring them home.

At a time of record deficits and budgetary cutbacks for NASA and most of the federal government, some have questioned the need to spend the billions of dollars exploring space. The mission for Curiosity was expensive and needed to be a roaring success. So far it’s the success NASA needed. The future of the space agency’s Mars exploration program was on the line.

Debate questions of the week:

Originally slated to cost $1.9 billion, NASA’s Curiosity rover program was delayed by 23 months and over budget at a final cost $2.5 billion for the taxpayers.  Regardless of the fact that the landing was successful, is this cost justified to the U.S. public or should the public and, more specifically NASA, yield space exploration to private industry?

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