Curiosity Rover, Lewis and Clark Expedition... `Only Government Can Take These Big Risks for Big Rewards'
August 15, 2012 • 10:33AM

Editorials, op-eds, and science blogs continued appearing all over the United States Monday with the basic question: How can Obama be cutting the NASA, and especially the planetary science budget for years to come, when NASA is capable of this kind of achievement, discovery, and inspiration? The theme and challenge was already formulated by one Congressman, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), in his Aug. 7 speech at a Los Angeles conference and his newspaper op-ed Aug. 12.

In Houston, for example, the Chronicle's "Sci-Guy" column on Aug. 14 essentially said Obama was lying to the JPL leaders when he belatedly called to "congratulate" them Aug. 13. "To recap: No money for a Mars sample return mission. No money for a Jupiter-Europa orbiter. No money for the kinds of stuff that really stimulates curiosity in the public imagination. No money for the kinds of missions that would have the capability to find life elsewhere in the solar system.... If the President is going to give NASA's finest a commitment to protect these kinds of critical investments in planetary science, he ought to have a budget that backs that up." Author Eric Berger charts Obama's planetary science budget cuts, from $1.5 billion in FY2012 to $1.2 billion in the FY2013 request, to $1.1 billion in the FY2014 request, cutting "discovery" missions to every 5 years, "new frontiers" missions to every 6 years, and cutting out "flagship" missions like Curiosity entirely.

One of the best editorials was in the Gannett Chain's Staunton (VA) News Leader Aug. 14, "Big Risk and Big Reward for America's Curiosity." The long editorial compares Curiosity to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, an expensive and dangerous mission to the unknown — "Educated Americans at that time knew more about the Moon than they did about Montana" — and controversial in Washington. Curiosity is also likened to the building of the Erie Canal, the first railroads, and the Apollo Project, to make the central point: "Taking such big risks is the province of government", not private companies.

The Orlando Sentinel's "On to Mars" editorial today: "If the public can get so excited about an unmanned rover on Mars, imagine the reaction to human footprints on the Red Planet"; is typical of many others.

With so much attention focused on Mars, came the very interesting news on Aug. 12 that UCLA geologist An Yin believes he has satellite photographic confirmation that Mars, like Earth, exhibits plate tectonics — movement of large parts of the planetary crust. The satellites involved include the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which is also relaying from Curiosity; the orthodoxy has been, that Earth is the only object in our Solar System that exhibits plate tectonics.

An Yin believes that if his findings are borne out, Mars is more likely thereby to have sustained life, because chemical and mineral elements and water are moved around much more quickly through plate tectonics. Just as interesting, if multiple bodies exhibit such tectonics, is the question of a Solar System-wide origin for them, involving events and processes in the Solar System's formation within the galaxy.