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Mars Curiosity Rover - Is It Worth the Price Tag?

An artist depicts the moment that NASA's Curiosity rover touches down onto the Martian surface.Here's a short article I got started on back when the Curiosity Rover first landed, but then kind of forgot about and let linger. But, it's still relevant, so I've decided to finish it off and post it.

Whenever there's any type of science project in the news that doesn't seem to have immediate practical applications, some people inevitably ask why the research is being done. And when the price tag seems high, then even more people pose the question and lament the 'waste' of money.

I've written on this subject a couple times before. In this entry, Knowledge for Knowledge's Sake, I made two points defending science. First, as the title of that post suggested, that knowledge in and of itself is enough of a reason for some of us. "In the same way that some people may find beauty in a painting, others can find beauty in a deeper understanding of the mysteries of our universe." The other point was more pragmatic, that we don't always know where research will lead, and that there may actually be practical applications that we can't anticipate right now. Do you think that Albert Michelson and Edward Morley had any idea that their experiments looking for aether were one link in the chain that would eventually led to the GPS in my iPhone? My other entry on this subject, Why Study the Higgs Boson?, was mostly linking to other people making the same points, but more eloquently than I could. For example, I quoted Steven Weinberg, in reference to 19th century experiments on electricity, "If these physicists had limited themselves to work of obvious practical importance, they would have been studying the behavior of steam boilers."

So, those same points hold for the Curiosity Rover. But what about the price? The mission cost on the order of $2.5 billion (that's the American billion, or $2.5 thousand million for those of you using the long scale). That's a lot of money. Is knowledge for knowledge's sake really worth that much?

Let's look at some comparisons. The national budget proposed for 2011 was $3.69 trillion. The defense portion of that was $738 billion. Social Security was about the same. Medicare was $498 billion. So the Curiosity Rover was only .07% of the national budget, .3% of the defense budget (same for Social Security), or .5% of the Medicare budget. We're talking about a miniscule part of the budget.

Here's another comparison. Avatar (the movie) grossed $2.78 billion. That single movie grossed more than the cost of the rover. The next highest grossing movie, Titanic, was just about there with $2.19 billion. And several movies over the past two years have grossed over $1 billion. So the cost of the latest Mars rover would be covered by just one or two blockbuster films.

So yes, I think the Curiosity Rover was worthwhile. Whether or not the knowledge it yields will ever lead to practical applications, its overall cost is tiny compared to everything else the nation spends money on. And the cost seems especially reasonable when you consider that people were willing to pay more to watch a movie about visiting another planet than what it cost to actually send a robot to explore another planet.


For some reason, I had this link in the draft copy I'd saved of this entry. Maybe I had some profound point I was going to make, but that I've now forgotten. Or maybe I was using it as an example of why I think planetary exploration is important:
Interstellar Potatoes

Image Source: NASA

Comments

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this article shows you just how great curiousity has and continues to be. http://newsmoves.com/curiosity-continues-to-search-for-the-red-planets-secrets/
i think science is defo worth the funding as it benefits us via new technology.

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