An astute reader, who I very much respect, called me out on the “why Mars” question.
His question: “why this, over feeding the hungry, curing cancer, or stopping AIDS?”
First, if his argument is to have any merit, it has to apply to all basic science. Astronomy, geology, archaeology, paleontology, etc., all have the same lack of immediate practical import that makes them vulnerable to this argument. Mars is only the most visible precisely because it is so noticeable, which is to say, because it is so cool. But we do them all for the same reason, to use our treasure to satisfy our curiosity. (For that matter, his argument is easily extended to funding of the arts, which puts him on a slippery slope that he might not want to start down.)
I’ll split feeding the hungry from the other two, because it’s not clear that rearranging federal research spending has anything to do with solving the problem of hunger. The entire cost of the Mars missions, $820 million, is chump change aganst the hunger problem. As for research into cancer and AIDS, the effective doubling of the NIH budget over the last five years has left us with research funding that is essentially maxed out. Pumping more money into those endeavors has reached the saturation point. AIDS and cancer need time and smarts right now. Those research communities are pretty well funded. (There’s what I think is a dangerous diversion going on right now in infectious disease research as we demand “homeland security”, but that’s a separate question.)
To say we’re wasting the money because we’re giving it, as Verbal says, to “a dysfunctional, wasteful organization” ignores the complexity of NASA. I would agree if he were to describe the human spaceflight program that way, but the robotic satellites have been hugely successful at a tiny fraction of the cost. The entire Mars missions, the both of them, full life cycle costs, are of order about the same price as a single shuttle flight these days. Well, come to think of it, the shuttle isn’t flying these days, which makes the per-flight cost infinite, but before last year’s deadly boo-boo, that’s about what they were running. While the humans in space thing is a continuing disaster, bureaucratically as well as in terms of the body count, I think the NASA folks sending up satellites and robots to do science are doing things pretty damn well.
There’s an argument to be made, on which Verbal and I might agree, that within the basic research budget of the federal government, maybe Mars probes are not the most cost-effective of basic science tools. That’s tougher, but in judging the benefits we get, looking at the grinding load on JPL’s web servers suggests some important public desire is being satisfied here.
There’s also a separate argument Verbal hints at but doesn’t go to, which is the amount of federal research money spent on military technology. Defense R&D is larger than the non-defense stuff we’re talking about here, and is probably worth pulling into this discussion.
So Verbal, if you’re arguing that we should not fund basic research, and spend money on health research instead, I’d say we already we’ve reached a level of significantly diminishing returns. If you say we should not fund basic research, and fund hunger instead, I’d say we’d blow our wad in a week, end up with no basic science and make nary a dent in the hunger problem.
But if you wanna just shift stuff around within the basic research portfolio, I know some archaeologists who would be ecstatic. They pretty much just need gas money and the cost of a new trowel, and $820 million buys a lot of those.
(The AAAS has a helpful compendium of federal research spending data that illuminates these issues.)