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Geek Speak: Going boldly

If you're like anyone else in America, you have probably been watching the Olympics. Well, I haven't been (save the archery, I know we didn't do well, but I love it); I have been focused on something else happening recently. We landed on Mars. Again. Automagically. It was incredibly cool, and incredibly exciting.

Having an awesome name (just like Spirit and Opportunity), the Curiosity Mars science laboratory landed Monday. It was incredible. We've got pictures now, and it is as cool as I hoped. But it isn't just the cool factor of getting something manmade to the next planet out, which is a big enough deal anyway, but what is really great is what we can learn from the rover.

We are almost certain there is water on Mars. That's huge; that's beyond huge. There is every possibility that there is or was something alive on Mars. Obviously not walking, talking aliens, but something. Anything alive would be the biggest discovery since how to control electricity. It would force us to rethink absolutely everything (well, those people who don't already think there is life somewhere else). They are going to follow up Spirit and Opportunity with new tech, new ideas, new cameras and a calibration target (so we can see the real colors of Mars), thought up by none other than Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and expect to be there for at least two years (remember, Spirit and Opportunity were only supposed to last 90 days, and Opportunity is still on).

Basically, Curiosity is a geology lab the size of a small car. It is going to send data back on all sorts of things with pretty much one end goal - figuring out what we need to do and what we need to take with us when we try to send an actual person to Mars to see what we can do there, to see what the value of the planet is, and to work on ideas for how to get even farther. To boldly go where no one has gone before.

And now I am going to get a little political. You get all this for less than one percent of your tax dollars. And that budget is being cut. In your taxes, you probably pay less than a single penny for a mission like this. This is one of the most dramatically amazing things humanity has ever done in its entire history, and it is such a vanishingly small part of the federal budget. That one percent is the entire annual budget of NASA. This specific mission, and everything surrounding it, for the past few years, totals $2.5 billion. The military budget for Fiscal Year 2012 is more than $700 billion. So the total mission budget for Curiosity is less than one percent of our annual military budget. That's minuscule, nearly nothing.

Except for the '60s and '70s, the entire budget for NASA has almost always been less than 1 percent of the annual federal budget, and it's never exceeded 5 percent. The cost of going to the moon, of maintaining an orbital space station, of sending multiple missions to mars, sending things like Voyager out farther than anything else mankind has ever done, these amazing things, is so totally dwarfed by the routine cost of building planes and missiles and picking fights with other countries to demonstrate that we need to spend so much each year as to be outrageous. The annual cost of NASA has been about the cost of one or two dozen military aircraft (depending on the aircraft in question). The cost for all of this is so, so much less than we spend on just about anything. NASA's FY12 budget is just under $18 billion, so less than half of one percent of the federal budget.

These projects are the most incredible things that we, as human beings, accomplish, and in the long-term, have the greatest potential for benefiting humanity. Discovering new lands on Earth has been the impetus for innumerable scientific, medical, social discoveries and advancements. There is nothing I can think that is more important for human beings as a species, and we are gutting the budget for it.

People say we are giving this all over to private enterprise, but all of the great discoveries were begun by governments, even back to things like Columbus discovering the Americas. And then, as soon as people saw profit in it, corporations started getting involved. Yes, corporations can do more more cheaply in space, but they will never try to advance us as a species the way government programs will. They will do whatever has the most profit in it, and there is little profit in exploring the unknown, until someone can patent something. We will never truly explore the final frontier until we get the government to pay for it, and the cost of the programs is so incredibly small that to not have then is abjectly evil.

So, please, call congressmen, senators, anyone, tell everyone, spread the word. This is a huge, huge deal, and it is dying. Only a show of political support for funding will bring it back.

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