Science Funding and the Survival of Spirit

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

The better parts of ourselves, even collectively, continue moving forward despite any terrible things others might do. Even as we work to correct any wrongs that are committed, it is important to remember the great and wonderful accomplishments of which we are equally capable.

Some of us believe that money and power should not hold such a central focus for the aspirations of humanity. We believe that the universe itself and our mysterious existence within it is an incomparably better focus for our energies. If there is such a thing as “trickle down”, our better understanding of the principles that define our fundamental reality offers far more to humanity than green paper, numbers stored in bank computers, or the elevation of some individuals who might impose rule over us. If leaders, distant from the realities we all face, are what we must have, my hope is that these leaders learn to rule with a subtlety which enshrines the more noble aspects of our nature rather than our more gross and primitive instincts like greed and territory.

Above is a picture of the Mars Rover “Spirit”, one of two ground-roaming probes we sent to the planet Mars more than four years ago, in January of 2004. They were expected to survive for 90 days. Today, almost five years later, they are still operating, sampling soil and rocks from various terrain and analyzing the chemical composition of the Martian atmosphere as it changes across the Martian seasons.

Some day we might all travel to Mars, just as people traveled to America from Europe on transatlantic ships. We know that Mars used to have water, and still has vast polar ice caps. We currently have several probes both on and orbiting Mars, continuing the exploration. Plans are in the works to send people within the next few years, who will utilize the natural resources we have found to sustain themselves. At this point, humanity will have taken its first real step into inhabiting a far more vast and wondrous universe than we have ever known. What becomes of territorial boundaries, in this?

Spirit, for all these years, generates its power to function by harnessing the light of the sun. But as you can see, Mars is very dusty; an almost powdery dust. If the solar panels get too dusty, no sunlight can be absorbed. But Mars also has many, many dust devils that whirl constantly about, across the landscape, which have, through a happy accident, worked to keep the solar panels clean. It was not just chance that helped these rovers perform their mission so well. The scientists and engineers took their time to design and build good stuff, and do it right. Monetary budgets can wreak havoc with good science. More than half of all “budget” missions NASA has farmed to private sector corporations have failed. However, the missions built in-house at NASA have a stellar success rate.

Interestingly, NASA does not blame private sector corporations for their failings. Instead, they blame the US Navy. Apparently the US Navy produced a report many years ago that suggested private sector companies can do the same work the government can, only much cheaper. Somehow, this report has become gospel. Now, private sector companies, as an unspoken rule of government funding, receive only this fractional allocation of money to get the same job done. And where NASA projects are concerned, this can be disastrous. Most likely, this is true with any leading science-based projects.

Ah, but mortgage lending bankers and assorted usurers need their Christmas bonuses. Just so we know, we could have completed 1,000 comparable Mars missions with this money. Or built 20 more space stations. We could even have started another war! Actually, it would have been nice just to have a tiny fraction of that money to complete the space station we already have, to its original design.

It makes me a little curious. Which costs more money: the wasteful habits of scientists who work in government and academia, or the necessary profits that private companies must produce both for themselves and their shareholders?

It’s an interesting question, with more than few ramifications. It’s not a simple one. What money-people might call waste in an academic setting can lead to unforeseen revolutions in both science and for all humanity — even for all other species on the planet. The big answers we get, the answers that are truly revolutionary, usually happen unexpectedly, hitting us square atop the head from out of the blue. It is nothing something you can pre-plan. This is true for both large, collective issues as well as our own private, individual epiphanies.

And what happens when we channel all of our money into companies whose business is making more money? Why would our money ever leave that corral? Of course, there are appearances generated, intended to lend credence to their purpose. But taken as a whole, the vast majority of the money never leaves that corral. No discovery and curiosity exists in that corral. Only greed, hoarding, self-gratification, and a lust for some abstract notion of power. Any benefit to humanity is merely incidental. Giving our money to money-people is the true waste of money, despite what money-people say.

I wonder what would happen if we gave our money to NASA, who could then hire whole generations of scientists in many disciplines, devoted to their passion of uncovering the nature of our existence. I wonder what would happen if we gave our money to doctors and biologists whose passion was understanding how our bodies work and keeping them healthy. In other words, what would happen if we made our hearts and minds the focus of our energy, instead of money?

In a few days, on November 29th, the orbits of Mars and Earth will position us on opposite sides of the sun. This solar conjunction will block all communication with Spirit for approximately two weeks. Winter is also fast approaching on Mars. The rovers will be commanded to sit still with their solar collectors aimed at some hopefully optimal position to collect enough sunlight to keep them alive through the winter. Spirit is barely finding enough energy to stay alive even now, before the onset of winter, after a recent, large dust storm dirtied much of its panels. Hopefully another little devil might find its way by, to do some accidental cleaning for us.

Right now, the power is so low in Spirit that it keeps switching into a safe mode in an attempt to protect itself. It stores its discoveries for several days at a time, and only speaks to a satellite orbiting Mars via its low power antenna. This satellite then speaks for Spirit, relaying its discoveries back to us. Spirit’s only hope for survival is to avoid its instincts to enter safe mode. Today, NASA is trying to shut down all the distractions so that just a bit of warmth might remain to see it through.