To the editor:
I was disappointed, but not surprised, with the results of a recent poll on The Daily Mining Gazette website which asked "Should the U.S. be spending money to explore Mars?" Fifty-seven percent of those voting said "No."
As a scientist, I find NASA missions exciting, and well worth the 0.53 percent of the federal budget that it received in 2011. The lifecycle cost of the Curiosity mission is $2.5 billion; that covers the five years of development, travel to Mars, plus two years of operating costs and data analysis. Any amount ending in -illion seems to be treated as "a lot", but to put that value in perspective, it comes out to a cost of $8 per American; total. I spent more on my ticket for "The Avengers."
NASA's 0.53 percent doesn't get squirreled down some rabbit-hole in D.C. (or packed into a rover and sent into space), either. Much of that money gets distributed across the country; in 2011 more than $2 million ended up in Michigan's first congressional district. That's our district. Funds from NASA went to Michigan Technological University, plus contractors in Allouez and Newberry.
Many may not realize that NASA's funding affects every state's economy, and that esoteric substances developed for the rigors of space or atmospheric flight end up in everyday things. The Discovery Channel provides a nice list online: tinyurl.com/dc-NASA.
As examples: scratch resistant eye glasses use a coating developed for visors on astronaut helmets. That memory foam in your pillow, mattress, or floor mat? Developed in 1966 under a NASA contract to improve crash protection for pilots and passengers. Ear thermometers used in hospitals? Based on techniques used by NASA to measure the temperature of distant stars. NASA may have even saved the life of a driver you know. Grooving used to improve the safety of wet take-offs and landings is now used on highways across the country to reduce the likelihood of cars hydroplaning.
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NASA is more than having a robot on Mars. As a scientist, that's enough for me. To those of a more down-to-earth mindset: the process of sending things to Mars generates new technology, brings money into every state, and creates jobs. We don't learn new things by repeating what we've done before. We learn new things by pushing boundaries, and sometimes that take us to other planets.