What's 10 feet long, nine feet wide, seven feet tall and weighs 2,000 pounds? NASA's Mars Science Laboratory "Curiosity" Rover, which successfully landed on the Red Planet's Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012. With a price tag of $2.5 billion, Curiosity has been on the receiving end of much skepticism and criticism as the media and public question: why did Curiosity cost so much and is this money well spent?
The Mars Science Laboratory mission is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program. Curiosity's assignment is to "investigate whether conditions have been favorable for microbial life and for preserving clues in the rocks about possible past life." Launched on Nov. 26, 2011, Curiosity traveled silently through space for more than 350 million miles - a trip that took over eight months - before reaching the Martian atmosphere. This marked the entry, descent and landing (EDL) phase of the mission - a period dubbed "seven minutes of terror" - in which a guided entry, parachute descent, powered descent and finally, a sky crane, brought Curiosity to a soft landing on the Martian surface.
Now that Curiosity has arrived safely on Mars - a huge success for NASA and the mission team - it will be able to utilize its advanced payload of scientific gear to collect and analyze rock and soil samples to determine if conditions are favorable for microbial life on Mars. Throughout its 23-month mission, Curiosity will send to Earth high-resolution images and video using radio relays via existing Mars orbiters and NASA's Deep Space Network of antennas here on Earth, albeit with some delay since the signal will travel an average of 48.75 million miles.
It's difficult to hear or read about Curiosity without mention of its price tag. While $2.5 billion is no small chunk of change, it's important to consider that NASA spread the costs of the Curiosity mission over a period of eight years and includes the costs over the next 23 months while Curiosity is exploring Mars. The budget covers a variety of expenses, including the rocket used to launch the spacecraft (a two-stage Atlas V-541 launch vehicle provided by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, accounting for about 20% of the costs) and salaries for a team of highly skilled engineers, programmers, managers, scientists and independent contractors from around 20 states in the U.S., as well as Canada, Denmark and the U.K..
The $2.5 billion averages out to about $312 million per year - or one dollar for every person in the U.S. By comparison, in 2011 alone, Americans spent $50.96 billion on pets - or about $163 per person. This comparison does not imply that we should not spend money on our pets, but serves to illustrate how little money - in the larger perspective - has been spent on the Curiosity mission.
Is It Money Well Spent?
Though we don't have the technology yet to travel at warp speed like the Starship Enterprise, some of our most important technological advancements have been the result of U.S. space exploration. In his 2012 book "Space Chronicles," astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson lists a host of technologies that can be attributed to space exploration, including (but not limited to) kidney dialysis machines, aircraft collision-avoidance systems, LASIK eye surgery, GPS, hydroponic systems for growing plants, digital imaging, cordless power tools and athletic shoes.
Technological advancement is a primary source of economic growth. Space technology continues to be utilized in various economic sectors for non-space applications. NASA states: "The ancillary benefits of the space program (are) its ability to stimulate the economy; its applications to the solutions of earthbound problems; its contributions to international cooperation; and its creation of tens of thousands of jobs for our highly skilled scientists, engineers and technicians."
The Bottom Line
Looking at the numbers, every person in the U.S. spent about $8 total (less than it costs to go see a movie) to get an advanced scientific spacecraft safely to Mars. Sure, space travel fulfills our innate need to explore and to help understand our place in the Universe. However, the ancillary benefits of the space program, and the thousands of technological advances that have been funded and discovered because of it, also have to be considered when deciding if missions like Curiosity are wise expenditures.