Would Money for Mars Be Better Spent on Earth?

Apr 21, 2015 | Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
Would Money for Mars Be Better Spent on Earth?

image by: Neal Simpson

Mars is more popular than ever, with pie-in-the-sky talk of manned missions within our lifetime. But such aspirations don't come cheap. Should we really be throwing money into space when there's so much good it could do on the ground?

My sister killed her baby 'cause she couldn't afford to feed it

And we're sending people to the moon

–Prince, "Sign 'O' the Times"

The popularity of Star Trek, the moon landings, space telescopes, Interstellar, and the little robot cars we send to Mars have been clear indicators of how much Earthlings love looking skyward and imagining a future in which we will no longer be confined to our Big Blue Marble.

But with problems aplenty on Earth, a planet that should be habitable for millions of years (providing we don't screw it up past the point of no return), is it pragmatic for us to be pouring billions of dollars into the goal of peopling Mars in the foreseeable future?

To pose such a question is not to question the value of knowledge and exploration. For the sake of argument, consider them priceless. Nonetheless, finance and resource allocation is a zero-sum game. Money and resources used for one purpose are not available to use elsewhere. A billion dollars spent on Mars is a billion dollars not spent on Earth—a billion dollars not spent on infrastructure, a billion dollars not spent on sustainable energy, a billion dollars not spent on education or healthcare.

The U.S. government has spent well over a billion dollars on Mars. For example, according to CNN just the rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012, cost $2.6 billion. And while Curiosity and other Mars missions have enlightened us about the Red Planet, even proponents of such exploration offer only abstractions—curiosity, progress, the search for life elsewhere—as justifications for the expense.

"It's the search for the meaning of life," Alden Munson, a senior fellow at science/technology think tank the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, told the Los Angeles Times as Curiosity approached Mars.

But isn't meaning where you find it? And for Homo sapiens sapiens, isn't meaning more easily found on Earth—the only place in the universe where our species lives—than extra-terrestrially?

The argument against spending money for Mars also hinges on meaning: the belief that nothing can be more meaningful than the amelioration of suffering. And whatever Mars exploration does, it does not ameliorate suffering on Earth. It's an obvious point, but one that few in the federal government seem willing to make these days.

This hasn't always been the case. As the Times noted, "[B]ack in 2004, when President George W. Bush was pushing an ambitious plan that included manned missions to the Red Planet, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (then a Democrat) said the billions of dollars NASA would require would be better spent 'right here on Earth' on healthcare, education and domestic security."

Proponents of Mars missions often point to how small a percentage of federal spending is funneled in this direction. For example, in the mid 1960s NASA as a whole was getting roughly 4.5% of the federal budget, whereas today it's down to around 0.5%. Such an argument, however, is irrelevant to the question of whether any money should be spent on Mars in a world where billions of people are suffering from a lack of clean water and food. Half a billion dollars may be a drop in the bucket, but it's a drop that could provide for a lot of essentials here on Earth.

The United Nations World Food Programme, for example, recently found itself unable to continue food distribution to 1.3 million people in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, the three countries hit hardest by the Ebola virus. The total cost to continue food distribution? Seventy million dollars. That means money for a single Mars mission could obviate such a crisis seven times over.

Moreover, spending money on a Mars mission is no guarantee of any sort of payoff. In fact, according to NASA eight of the 18 Mars missions undertaken since 1990 have been total failures, along with one partial failure.

There are two direct arguments in favor of spending on Mars. One is that related expenditures have resulted and might continue to result in the development of technology that turns out to be valuable on our home planet.  Called "spin-off technologies," NASA's continual search for new and more efficient means toward any number of ends has resulted in LEDs, MRIs, safety grooving on roadways, memory foam, enriched baby food, cordless tools, freeze-drying technology, solar power, and water purifiers, to name a few. And then there are the advances in computer technology and software development (such as for structural analysis).

But a negative indirect consequence of the quest to colonize Mars may be the message that Earth is disposable. Regarding Earth as the only place humankind can ever live—whether or not that is true—would provide the maximum possible impetus to preserve our planet, to (re)fashion our societal practices to maximize sustainability. But with Mars viewed as a possible alternative in the foreseeable future, many may be less moved (consciously or subconsciously) to preserve our place in the solar system. That is, after all, exactly what has happened on Earth itself, with earlier generations treating the land, water, and atmosphere as if they were inexhaustible resources, as if preservation were needless because there would always be more. And how's that working out for us?

The second direct argument in favor of Mars missions is that, on a long enough time scale, the continuation of our species depends on our moving on. Eventually Earth will become uninhabitable, whether because of the sun's eventual evolution into a red giant or some more immediate natural cataclysm.

Such thinking is presbyopic, in that it places undue value on the future. It is one thing to argue that we present-tensers should live sustainably so as not to yoke our descendents with the costs of our wanton excesses. But it is just as wrongheaded to value the survival of our species in abstract more highly than the amelioration of the suffering of the individuals living now and in the foreseeable future. We cannot know what lies in store of our kind, whether or not we colonize Mars, a million years hence. But we do know something about suffering on Earth in the 21st century, and how we might minimize it.

We humans have been horizon-expanders throughout our entire life as a species. As such, perhaps nothing could be more natural than our eventually moving beyond the confines of our home planet. But with so many problems on Earth, many of which can be addressed by money and resources that we're currently putting into space, perhaps now is not the time for such endeavors.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:  greggorymoore.com

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