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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

CURIOSITY TO MARS

Many of us are intrigued by the Universe.  I even once worked for NASA on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), and on 20July1976, 35 years ago, was in a group that first saw the image of Mars, line by line, at the Ames Research Center, before it was released to the public.


Carl Sagan was with us and I quote from SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Humanity:

Who knows, maybe fuzzy Green Ladies could have shown up. I still remember Sagan pontificating as to why the color of Mars had a salmon-tinge, and commented so in fine scientific detail…except, well into his elocution, a technician sheepishly commented, “Dr. Sagan, we haven’t yet applied the correction filters.” That’s the only time I saw Sagan visibly embarrassed. It turned out that the addition of the filters did not change the salmon hue.

This was exactly seven years after Neil Armstrong first stepped on the Moon, the Soviet Union remained ominous and space was a matter of national pride.  Our efforts in space helped bring an end to the Cold War, and much of this expenditure was worth the cost.

But times have changed.  I've since then many times questioned the high cost of Shuttle launches, the white elephant known as the International Space Station, and felt even experiments on Mars as a waste of money.  So on Saturday we send Curiosity (right) to Mars with a price tag of $2.5 billion.  Yes, billions.  This will be the 40th such attempt to/on/around Mars, and two-thirds have in some way failed.  The latest embarrassment only last month was a Russian effort to send a spacecraft with Chinese probe to Phobos, a Mars moon.  This one apparently got stuck in an orbit around Planet Earth, but only cost $170 million.

There is one scientifically justifiable, but societally fearsome, system component, carefully called a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, a power source that was successfully used on that Viking craft that sent back that original photo in 1976.  This is a nuclear powerplant and uses 10.6 pounds of plutonium dioxide.  What if Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, crashes into your backyard?  The odds are low, infinitesimally small, but....

The Apollo Project cost $25 billion (about $190 billion today).  Certainly, for the accomplishment and Cold War benefits, this was tax money well spent.  But, let's face it, any manned mission to Mars will remain a pipe dream for centuries, and there is no rational reason for again landing on our Moon.  Let China do it for their national pride.  Maybe, combined with military spending, they, too, will disintegrate as the Soviet Union did.  For now, let us focus on the needs of Planet Earth and Humanity.  Sure, continue some of the science, as for example, even an expanded SETI effort.

I wish Curiosity--name from winning essay of 12-year old Clara Ma--well, as I too am curious if there is water on Mars, plus the money has largely already been spent, mostly by two of my stocks, Boeing and Lockheed.  But, NASA, please, no more.

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The Dow Jones Industrials further sunk 236 to 11,258, reflecting similar declines around the world.  Gold fell $11/toz to $1693 and oil eased down, the WTI to $96/barrel and the Brent to $107/barrel.

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Kenneth, once a Category 4 hurricane in the East Pacific, is now only a tropical storm, and is weakening:


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