I was just a tyke when Neil Armstrong got out of the lunar module and walked on the moon. If you believe. I don’t remember the actual event, but like most kids of my generation I was fascinated by space. My family visited the Kennedy Space Center when I was 8 or 9, I thought that huge rocket building was the coolest thing. For a number of years, I had a plastic model of a Saturn rocket similar to the Apollo ones in my bedroom on the dresser. And of course, I watched The Jetsons and perhaps thought that George and Judy’s life might be the one we’d all be rocketing into at some point.
But things happened and time went by. We watched the Space Shuttles go up, and come back. We watched one Space Shuttle blow up a mile or two off the ground, incinerating all the astronauts within. And one by one, as each Shuttle returned and smiling astronauts stepped out, it seemed like … there wasn’t much to show for it except a photo opp or two and a fancy-looking jet that goes up higher than your run-of-the-mill 747. I grew up. After a while there was no rocket on my dresser (railroad locomotive, perhaps, but that’s a story for another day.)
Which leads us to today as some sort of robot launced by NASA landed on – yawn – Mars. Headlines this morning said “Anxiety abounds at NASA as Mars landing day arrives.” It explained that the odds were decent but no sure thing that the spaceship was going to be able to decelerate through Mars’ atmosphere from 12 300 MPH to zero in all of six minutes, then land without destroying itself. But if it did, if it became the 8th successful American probe to land there (out of 9 attempts), we’d get photos of the “Red planet” . After about 8 minutes. That’s apparently how long it takes radio waves to travel the close to 300 million miles between our planets.
What’s more, it will pick up some rocks and run a probe to see if it feels “marsquakes”… presumably so if the rock is shaking, we know where to build a New San Francisco if we go frontier-a-making.
Which all makes me second Love It Or List It (an HGTV show) star David Visentin’s tweet : “one of our measuring tools is touching down on Mars…on Monday. Odd how I am so ‘meh’ about it. How did that happen?” Meh, Amen.
Do you really care if there are earthquakes on Mars? Do you really have a need to see some bare rocky ground millions of miles away? And if, to the surprise of everyone, the cameras found some E.T.s cavorting around and posing for space selfies, do you really believe the authorities would share that with us? My answer to all those is “I don’t.”
What actually bugs me about it though, is the cost. This InSight probe, today’s landing veseel, will cost us about $2.1 billion dollars. The scientists proudly point out that is some $400 million less than the similar one they sent back in 2011 – they perfected the technology a little and had a few spare parts clanking around in the garage.
To me, a few photos of a barren land years away for any of us and perhaps a bit of data about what the rocks are made of is hardly worth over two billion. In all, NASA has a budget of just a whisker under $20 billion this year, or about $65 for every adult and child in the U.S. Now, to be fair, they do accomplish more than send a few probes out into space. We all use satellites, many of which they launch, for things like our phones and TV service and the weather forecasts we rely on that in turn rely on satellite photos of our planet. Still, it seems like maybe we could trim that down a few pesos and not be any the worse for wear.
Perhaps the prevailing reason people want to get to Mars and beyond is uttered by Space X/Tesla CEO Elon Musk. The eccentric Texas billionaire is planning to offer space trips to ordinary people soon, and recently signed up the first candidate – a Japanese fashion executive who wants to go to the moon. Musk says “we should take action and become a multi-planetary civilization as soon as possible”, just in case some “event ends civilization.”
Well, this earthling likes Earth just fine. I don’t want to go and live on some distant, barren rocky planet. It seems like instead of fretting over how livable other (we’re told) entirely uninhabited, lifeless bodies out in space could be, we might do better doing what we can to make our planet better. More livable. Less succeptible to “an event” which would end civilization.
Two billion dollars could do a lot to help create renewable energy which wouldn’t despoil our planet. Or maybe buy and plant about 400 million trees, which could reforest about 6000 square miles, if my math is right. Which would go a long ways to adding oxygen to and cleaning our atmosphere. Or finance the top-quality university education of something like 20 000 smart kids. – kids who adults could probably solve a lot of problems if they concentrate on earth and humanity, not rocks hundreds of millions of miles away. And probably tell me in a second if my tree math was correct.
But that’s just “meh” talking.