Military vs. Space: why the Mars Rover is a great deal.


The United States military budget was 711 billion dollars for 2011, more than the next 5 highest military budgets combined. Some of the projects that Congress supports are things the Pentagon doesn’t want. Such as 3 billion dollars for refurbishing tanks that the Pentagon plans to replace anyway: with a model that doesn’t have a glaring weakness to IEDs. Or the drones and ships that Congress is forcing on the Pentagon to the tune of 4 billion dollars.

And yet, the 2.5 billion dollars spent on Curiosity is described as “budget busting.” In contrast to the 711 billion dollars in military spending, the entire 18.4 billion dollar NASA budget seems downright piddling. If the entire United States Federal budget for 2011 was represented by a dollar, the NASA portion would be about half of a penny. And the rate of return? A study by the Midwest Research Institute concluded that “the $25 billion in 1958 dollars spent on civilian space R & D during the 1958-1969 period has returned $52 billion through 1971 — and will continue to produce pay offs through 1987, at which time the total pay off will have been $181 billion.”

Maybe the reason war has a reputation for being so good for scientific advancement and the economy is because during wars is when governments are willing to spend money on research and development. Maybe if we took that knowledge and used it for R&D for things other than weapons, we could advance without blowing each other up. After all, you can’t tell me that this didn’t require advances in our engineering:

More than the present engineering challenges though, space exploration is inspiring. Some of the kids who are in elementary school today, who stayed up late last night, the kids who are writing reports about the Mars Rover, who are going to be naming their next pet Curiosity… those are the kids who will go into science and engineering to follow their newly ignited passion. When we make advances into space… the excitement, the wonder, the joy of discovery creates the next generation of explorers.

And for those of you who think that international affairs are more important than space exploration, consider how much smoother diplomacy would go if these were the mental images associated with Americans:

NASA’s Curiosity rover and its parachute as seen by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

People watching the Curiosity landing from Times Square.

…rather than this:

Tell you what: If you are really paranoid, we could reduce our military by 450 billion per year and still be the number one military spender on the planet – and have 450 billion per year to put into science, education and infrastructure and to eliminate the deficit.

To follow Curiosity’s progress, here is its Twitter feed.

(Edited to correct a “m” to a “b” for one of those “illions.”)


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4 Responses to “Military vs. Space: why the Mars Rover is a great deal.”

  1. Iron Knee Says:

    Completely agree! Good post. We have lost our way as explorers. What I find ironic is that much of the money that Congress is throwing at the military for unwanted tanks, planes, and ships they are doing in the name of jobs. I think the jobs at NASA are worth at least as much, if not far more.

    • David Byars Says:

      Thank you. I know what you mean by irony – spending on obsolete weapons is all about creating jobs in their districts – at the same time they pretend that government spending doesn’t create jobs in any other connection.

  2. JD C. Says:

    Great read, fact based with a little of your passion shining thru. I am hope yesterday’s landing and the many discoveries in the months to come will help focus the American people again. Has to be better than Jersey Shore right?

    • David Byars Says:

      Thank you. I hope people pay attention to this mission: if we as a species can’t muster enthusiasm for exploring other planets, I have no words to express the disappointment I would feel.
      Also, from what I’ve heard about Jersey Shore, I think that is damning Curiosity with faint praise.

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