Those missions are expensive endeavors that stretch the fiscal limits of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and cause politicians to wince when it is time to write budgets for the coming year. Curiosity, which sent back color pictures Tuesday of the Martian surface, cost $2.5 billion.
Or, as NASA administrator Charles Bolden told The Washington Post, Curiosity cost the equivalent of every person in the United States buying one movie ticket.
NASA officials are calling this Mars landing “the mission of the decade” for the U.S. space program. President Obama has described the landing — which happened after an eight-month, 352-million mile voyage — as “an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future.”
We agree. Missions to Mars fail more often than they succeed; thus far, Curiosity seems to be meeting the lofty expectations that come with such steep cost.
Critics of America’s space program point to the obvious — the money — and say the nation no longer reaps enough tangible benefits from it to warrant the cost. NASA is already facing severe budget cuts, like many government-funded agencies, and it can’t reach the International Space Station because of the ending of the Space Shuttle program. (Our friends in Huntsville surely have strong opinions about that.)
NASA has seen better days. But critics who say the $2.5 billion spent on this latest Martian landing are missing the bigger picture of the space program’s value.
This isn’t the Hollywood make-believe of Captain Kirk. This is real science, the exploration of the planets around us. What we learn is incremental; discoveries today become the building blocks of scientific understandings of tomorrow. And, as for national pride, well, yes, it feels good to have American scientists working on long-range plans to one day send astronauts to Mars.
The “mission of the decade?” That title perfectly fits.