The Curiosity rover cost U.S. taxpayers approximately $2.5 billion to develop. But before you cringe at that figure and join the tired chorus of critics who contend that space exploration is too expensive, let's take a look at what each of us is really paying and getting in return.
Using a recent estimate of 143 million U.S. taxpayers, Curiosity has cost each U.S. taxpayer a very modest $17.48 (probably less given other sources of federal revenue). And since the rover's costs have been spread over nine years, the cost per taxpayer over that time period has been about $1.94 per year.
What a bargain! We can sit in the comfort of our homes watching the mysteries and wonders of an alien planet unfold on our TV or computer screens — all for less than $2 a year. Heck, I once paid $50 for a pay-per-view boxing match, only to see it end after three rounds because Mike Tyson had bitten off a piece of Evander Holyfield's ear.
According to NASA associate administrator David Weaver, the Curiosity rover is "the most sophisticated scientific system ever sent to another planet." And with its nuclear power source, it has the potential to last several years and travel hundreds of miles over the Martian surface.
Curiosity's suite of scientific instruments is designed to study the climate and geology of Mars, and to transmit panoramic images back to Earth that will no doubt be stunning. But the rover's primary goal will be to determine if the Red Planet could have ever had an environment suitable for life. If the chemical building blocks of life, or "biosignatures," are discovered, it will be one of the most profound moments in human history. If our tiny solar system has at least two planets that supported life, it's likely that the cosmos is teeming with it.
The success of the mission is by no means assured. The landing sequence, which scientists and engineers have dubbed "seven minutes of terror," is the most dangerous part. As they hope NASA's innovative new "sky crane" successfully lowers the rover onto the surface, the wait for a positive landing signal will be full of drama and anxiety.
So, if you happen to be awake after midnight on Sunday, you might want to turn on your television or computer for what promises to be an exhilarating experience. If you're a U.S. taxpayer, you've already paid for it, so you should take the opportunity to enjoy it. Whether the mission fails or succeeds, I bet it will be the best $2 you've spent this year.
Chris Gibbons is a Philadelphia writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.