February was a heartbreaking month for NASA, as it officially said goodbye to its darling rover, Opportunity. The little robot conjured visions of “Wall-E” and Number 5 from “Short Circuit.” Like those fictional movie characters, Opportunity displayed unbelievable resilience that made it heroically human. Sadly, it died from a devastating dust storm, in the poignantly named Perseverance Valley on Mars. Opportunity set many records: it outlived its expected lifespan by 55 times, traveled the farthest of any rovers, captured more than 224,000 photographs and gathered countless soil and rock samples.
In an expanding universe, it is crucial to remain vigilant about understanding the ever-changing conditions that can adversely affect humankind. In addition, gaining a better understanding of the science of our universe will benefit life on Earth, even in the absence of looming disasters. Unfortunately, like Opportunity, NASA is itself experiencing a dust storm of budget cuts, bad publicity and misinformation. The agency has been underfunded for more than three decades. In fact, NASA struggled for a decade to fund the project that ultimately designed and launched Opportunity and its twin sibling Spirit. Sadly, Spirit rover died in 2010 and another rover that ultimately replaced it, Curiosity rover, also had some glitches in February. Opportunity was a success for NASA against such bad news and a bleak background of failures that plagued the Hubble Telescope and disasters like the Challenger and Columbia. But Opportunity is no more. Still, its legacy should not be forgotten and its achievements should catalyze much-needed funding for NASA.
NASA makes great contributes to both scientific development and to the U.S. economy. A 2013 report by the Tauri Group showed that NASA invested nearly $5 billion in U.S. manufacturing in 2012 alone, with almost $2 billion allocated to the technology sector. Another report showed that for every dollar invested in NASA, the agency generated $10 for the economy. In addition, NASA generates thousands of in-house and contracted jobs and contributed to revolutionary inventions, including CAT scans, prosthetics, LEDs and invisible braces.
Despite these contributions, NASA’s budget cuts continue decade after decade. In 1966, over 4.4 percent of the federal budget was allocated to the space program. This year, the government only allots about 0.4 percent to NASA. Compare this to the 13 percent allocated to the U.S. Department of Defense; that much money could fund NASA 30 times over. In fact, the money spent on the bank bailout of 2008 exceeded the life-time budget of NASA.
Congress plans to increase NASA’s budget for 2018-2019, after more than a decade of stagnation. Nonetheless, this increase is modest and several programs were terminated. Yet, NASA has lofty goals of returning men to the moon and sending unmanned spaceships to Jupiter’s moon Europa. But because of underfunding, support for the International Space Station will end in 2025. NASA learned a lot by participating and supporting the International Space Station, such as testing its critical systems used later on Mars. Some of the technology was even used on earth, such as methods of growing high quality protein crystals. In addition, programs involving the study of Earth, including research on global warming and the effects of greenhouse gases, have already been terminated. Terminating these programs, impacts our understanding of our changing environment and removes our opportunity to halt or reverse any conditions that may adversely affect our survival.
Landing on Mars loomed large in human imaginations. Authors like H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs captured our collective dreams to land on our planetary neighbor. Opportunity’s success was representative of years of hard work and more than just fulfilling a pipe dream. The evidence gathered by Opportunity provided real value and supplied us with information that could not be obtained otherwise. For example, we now have incontestable evidence that liquid water once existed on Mars. What happened to that water could lead to more research that may one day save our species. In a universe filled with many unknowns, our survival and our planet’s depends on a growing understanding of space. Investing in NASA is crucial, so that we avoid potential mistakes that could haunt us for generations.
Laura Neff (19Ox, 21C) is from Kinnelon, N.J.