The Aptly-Named Curiosity Rover
No one has, as yet, found any enormously and rapaciously profitable method for extracting stellar resources, though that will doubtless come.
Similarly, the percentage of space research that has resulted in Novel Devices for the Killing of Other Human Beings (a technical term, I’m assured) is minor relative to more terrestrial fields.
Gross profit and death being the things we typically hold against industries, one can thus see the appeal of a national space program. The worst anyone can say of it is that it costs taxpayer dollars and doesn’t give much direct return, and that quibble is so reflexively applied to every government program as to be — appropriately enough — weightless.
The Curiosity rover is an endearing exercise in its namesake. For those with no time to Google, its mission is theoretically to:
- Determine the mineralogical composition of the Martian surface and near-surface geological materials.
- Attempt to detect chemical building blocks of life (biosignatures).
- Interpret the processes that have formed and modified rocks and soils.
- Assess the long timescale (i.e., 4-billion-year) Martian atmospheric evolution processes.
- Determine present state, distribution, and cycling of water and carbon dioxide.
- Characterize the broad spectrum of surface radiation, including galactic radiation, cosmic radiation, solar proton events and secondary neutrons.
If that seems like a rather grandiose set of ambitions for one little robot, that’s because it is.
What we’re actually likely to get from Curiosity is a lot of raw data that might hint at some useful avenues for further study that could some day help put together a larger picture of any one of those six broad questions.
That sounds awfully insubstantial in a press release, so it gets prettied up into things like “attempt to detect chemical building blocks of life,” but don’t kid yourself. We’re not talking about “the robot stuck its shovel in the dirt and found bacteria so there’s life on Mars and maybe aliens yay!” We’re talking about wonks with very specific Ph. D.s arguing about what fragmented data means for decades.
That’s science for you.
Still and all, it’s better to be doing it than not.
I somehow missed the private-school intellectual’s fetishized lust for all things space-tech. I have wrestled with a touch of ungrateful discontent that it’s the Curiosity landing getting full-page congratulations in the newspaper instead of less cinematic but ultimately more meaningful developments in things like medicine, biotech, and even boring old civil engineering. But don’t let me ever be mistaken for someone that begrudges NASA its pittance in our national budget — at the very worst it does no harm (more than can be said for most agencies), and there’s something to be said for experiment with no obvious reward beyond the intellectual.
Sometimes you have to invest in the long-term, the impractical, and the unprofitable. Curiosity — and Curiosity — has its own value that defies budget-sheet logic.
Talk of jobs created and commercially-viable technology and educational opportunities for youth and so on are a necessary evil for any government-funded project. At some point you’re going to have to make someone who can’t see beyond the bottom-line happy. But that’s not really the point of Curiosity, and anyone with sense should be able to realize that much.
The real brains behind the Mars mission — the scientists that made the whole thing come off — sent a robot to Mars because they wanted to see what was up there. It’s up to more bureaucratic minds to beat their bizarrely-shaped finished product into a plowshare.
I have more fondness for innovation here on Earth than I do for celestial ambitions. But better to be exuberantly creative in space than not at all. So hurrah for the Curiosity landing — the object reminder that we can do great things without an immediate profit motive is, in my mind, sufficient achievement to justify its expense already.
Now all we have to do is make advances in medicine, genetics, civic engineering, and all the other fields close to our homes (if not our hearts) as non-controversial and widely-celebrated as a Mars landing.