While I was live-blogging the spectacular landing of Curiosity on Mars last night, I knew in the back of my head at some point there would be a particular comment posted. It's a comment that gets posted any time there's an article about space exploration anywhere. It may be trolling, but it's consistent and common enough to address.
It's from the commenter who can't see the point, and thinks we're wasting money.
Now, it would be easy to just call this guy (a commenter named "Frank") an imagination-less, dead-inside jackass and be done with it. So let's do that!
Except for the "be done with it" part. Because it's never going to be done with, and I'll agree the question merits an answer. So let's look at the comment:
...Approximately 2.1 billion taxpayer dollars that could've been used repair roads and bridges, schools and veterans hospitals, to educate children and feed them actual food either ends up in bank CEO wallets or goes to low-res pictures of rocks?
I am seriously not trolling when I ask you to remind me how speculating on whether life may or may not exist out there actually helps the actual life down here. Because honestly, I took one look at that Spinoff website, saw NASCARs, and just closed the damn tab.
Let's start at the beginning there. Yes, a lot of money was spent. But making it seem like NASA's budget comes from the "Good And Charitable Things Fund" of the US Government is inane. No one's taking money from other needed projects to go to NASA. And, people tend to have a wildly exaggerated idea of just how much of the US budget goes to NASA. A 2007 poll showed most Americans think it's about 25%. The reality? In 2011, it was half of a percent. That's half of what we spend on foreign aid. It's about 1/50th of what defense gets, at 24.8% of the budget. Nobody's taking money from anything to fund NASA.
And regarding where that money goes — I can't think of any government agency with more tangible results for money spent. In the case of Curiosity, money is budgeted, and they sent exploration robot to Mars. It's pretty clear where the money for the project went, because it's a physical, tangible thing that works. They had a plan to send a robot to Mars, they got money for it, and did it. Wanna open an investigation?
The next part of Frank's comment there is the bigger part, though. We can all see Frank can't Google in that first part. But the second point — is space exploration worth it, fundamentally — is a bigger question.
Technologically, the case is pretty clear, if you bother to check more than one website that you close when you see the word "NASCAR." There have been an incredible number of advances made thanks to the intense demands of the space program on technology. Much of the miniaturization of computers that allows us to carry around hand-held porn-delivery tools that make phone calls is thanks to engineers figuring out how to cram room-sized computers into Gemini and Apollo capsules. Solar power systems owe much of their development and advancement to the space program. It's not just Velcro and Tang; like auto racing, space exploration provides the extreme situation and demands that spur technological growth.
But that's not even the big point. Anyone (other than Frank, apparently) can Google or just even empty their pockets to see how much the space program has given us. There's even more value in the intangibles.
We explore. That's what we do. That's why humanity isn't a bunch of rock-banging antler-gnawers. We're animals with imagination, and the pursuit of learning more — about almost anything — is why life is interesting. Sure, we could only use our resources to shore up bridges and keep people fed, and both are needed things, but there has to be more. Otherwise, why bother?
It's not that different than art. We make art because we have to, and we aren't always able to articulate why. You could argue that we shouldn't waste money making paintings or music or sculptures or books or those things that aren't helping to shelter or feed us. But who the hell would want to live in a world like that? The pursuit of science, of knowledge, of exploring is the same way.
There's also the very valid point that if humanity really wants to survive, space exploration is absolutely necessary. It's not just me saying this — a very respected wheeled scientist agrees. There's seven billion people on Earth now. Things are going to get pretty damn crowded soon, and it's going to be time to find some new real estate.
Colonization of space seems like a very pie-in-the-sky, sci-fi idea. I agree, it does. I was just thinking how it seems that way as I accessed a global knowledge network from a tiny device in my hand about a robot we just sent to Mars. Other people did this same thing while flying through the air, or cradling an infant who's embryo was implanted. With science. Things that seem sci-fi just aren't here yet.
Franks of the world aside, I could see in that room at JPL last night how people feel about exploring space. They feel invigorated, delighted, and alive. They feel inspired to achieve great things.
So, I guess what I'm really trying to say is this:
Fuck off, Frank.