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Curiosity's Mars exploration: Is it worth the money? (+video)

The search for life on Mars has captivated the imaginations of many, but it is costly. Some say it's time to cut spending on NASA's Mars missions, while others say the research is important in the quest for understanding the 'meaning of life.'  

By Eryn BrownLos Angeles Times (MCT) / July 30, 2012

In this photo, Rob Manning, chief engineer, speaks to media at NASA Mars Yard at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Beside Manning is a model of the Mars rover, Curiosity.

AP Photo/Nick Ut

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LOS ANGELES

Saturn has its famous rings and Jupiter is the granddaddy of the solar system, but no planet has entranced earthlings quite like Mars.

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Humans have launched 40 spacecraft to the Red Planet, lured by the prospect that life might once have existed in what is now dry rocks and sand. The latest machine to make the journey is NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, a hulking, souped-up lab-on-wheels that will plunge toward the Martian surface next week.

But even as excitement builds, some wonder: Is Mars exploration a good investment?

It certainly doesn’t come cheap. It’s hard to calculate a total price tag, but over the 48 years that NASA has been launching missions to Mars, Americans have spent a significant sum. The Viking missions alone cost nearly $1 billion — in 1970s dollars. The twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity cost a total of about $1 billion to build and operate as well.

Curiosity, as the Mars Science Laboratory rover is known, is over budget at $2.5 billion.

Some in the federal government have suggested it’s time to roll back the spending. President Barack Obama’s fiscal plan for 2013 would cut NASA’s funds for Mars exploration from $587 million to $360 million.

Proponents insist Mars science is vital for the U.S. More visits to our next-door neighbor could answer lingering questions about Earth’s history, reinforce U.S. prestige and get more children interested in science.

It also could bring humanity closer to answering the ultimate question: Are we alone in the universe?

“It’s the search for the meaning of life,” said Alden Munson, a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, a science and technology think tank based in Arlington, Va.

America’s love affair with Mars can be traced to astronomer Percival Lowell, who turned his telescope to the Red Planet in the 1890s and thought he saw an intricate system of canals that must have been built by intelligent beings. He never found them, of course, but Martians became a science fiction mainstay.

Earthlings got their first up-close view of Mars’ rocky surface in 1965, when Mariner 4 flew by and photographed a surface that appeared as dead as the moon’s — lacking water or active geology, two prerequisites for life.

But later missions, from the Mariner 9 orbiter to Spirit and Opportunity, helped establish Mars as a useful comparative laboratory for studying climate and geophysics on Earth. They demonstrated that the planet was once warmer and wetter than it is now. Long ago, it may have been a hospitable cradle for life.

When planetary scientists assembled recently at the behest of the National Academies to set research priorities for the next decade, the search for conditions that would allow life to emerge on Mars topped the list.

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