As a NASA junkie, it’s my unofficially sworn duty to follow and comment on the landing of the new Mars Rover, Curiosity. Here’s one of the first images transmitted just after its landing on August 6th, 2012.
Considering the previous rovers Opportunity and Spirit, this may seem like a been-there-done-that scenario but, behind the blue polo-wearing NASA employees with fancy, red lanyards and ID badges around their necks, there is a lot of money riding on the success of this project. According to the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), the total cost of this launch was $2.5 billion dollars thus, leading to one of the most common questions I often hear regarding NASA related projects and college tuition: why so expensive?
The truth of the matter is that science is and has always been expensive. Some of the greatest advances of our time were made by radical thinkers with lots of time and money on their hands. Isaac Newton, the father of Calculus, was born into a prosperous farming family and later attended and became a professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University. Ada Lovelace, considered the world’s first computer programmer based on her contributions to Charles Babbage’s Difference and Analytical Engines, was also fabulously wealthy, thereby providing her easy access to funding, as well as the privilege of circumventing the sexism of her era. Of course, it can certainly be contested that brain power will always trump financial power as long as drive and intelligence are present, but you can’t deny the fact that money certainly always helps.
Even I can argue that if I had been born into a generous, two-parent income bracket, my undergraduate education wouldn’t take nearly as long as it’s taking now. However, subtract the hours of bartending, table-waiting, telemarketing, computer-fixing, and sweater folding, would I still be as motivated about my engineering education as I am now? Probably not.
One of the first and most important things I’ve learned from hanging out in labs with professors and graduate-level research assistants is that funding equals progress and progress equals more funding. In the end, that funding is wrapped up in everything in and outside of the lab: research assistants’ salaries, materials, equipment, outreach initiatives, and even large bags of peanuts and gummy worms – typical fuel for any successful lab assistant.
Pessimistically speaking, it’s seems like science never exists for the sake of science, but only when a dollar sign casts a massive shadow behind it. Furthermore, while NASA’s budget seems to dwindle into an impending obscurity and cost-conscious politicians continue to scream bloody, fiscal murder on any government program that doesn’t produce a millionaire’s tax cut, we still remain curious.
This is science and despite the political and social rhetoric across the air waves – which couldn’t exist without the numerous studies of the Electromagnetic Spectrum, thank you very much – achievements like Curiosity continue to be a source of national pride. While the United States may not be the top producer of scientists and engineers, it doesn’t change the attendance roster in an engineering lecture hall, nor does it change the desire to explore realms beyond our own physical limitations.