Mars Critics Say Billions Are Ill-Spent
By JOSEPH B. VERRENGIA
The Associated Press
Saturday, March 6, 2004; 7:46 PM
NASA's celebration last week of gritty evidence that Mars once had enough water to support life has spawned more questions:
Where's the water now? When did it disappear? Are there any fossils of living creatures, or even microbes?
But prominent scientists outside the space agency are beginning to ask a harder question: Does Mars represent what is out of whack in American science and exploration?
"So what if there is water up there?" said George Washington University sociologist Amitai Etzioni, who served as a domestic affairs adviser in the Carter White House.
"What difference does it make to anyone's life?" he said. "Will it grow any more food? Cure a disease? This doesn't even broaden our horizons."
Even some physical scientists who understand the incremental nature of research are less than enthralled.
"It's all very exciting," deadpanned marine biologist Sylvia Earle, who holds the world's record for untethered undersea exploration - the oceans' equivalent of spacewalking. "It confirms what many of us had suspected for a long time."
Mars enthusiasts say the discovery of water evidence in the rocks by NASA's two roving robots is important precisely because it confirms what researchers had been discussing for years. Science is strewn with plausible ideas that experimentation has disproved.
"In this case, there was no substitute for finding out directly," said Case Western Reserve University physicist Lawrence Krauss. "This shows that Earth is not a closed system, that there was water elsewhere.
"It is a precursor to potentially something far more exciting," he said. "If we discover a fossil? Boy, that will rank up there with the all-time greats."
Today's $820 million mission using the robotic rovers Opportunity and Spirit may be just the beginning of Mars spending, and that has scientists in all fields a little worried.
The Bush White House wants to return to the moon and eventually send astronauts to Mars, perhaps by 2035 - an effort that would cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
Considering the projected $477 billion federal budget deficit and the competition for scarce taxpayer dollars, many scientists say it makes more sense to concentrate on pressing scientific issues that would improve life down here.
Both Etzioni and Earle, in separate interviews, suggested the world's oceans are the most obvious, and promising, scientific target.
© 2004 The Associated Press