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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.'  

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The amount of money Americans devote to Mars is tiny compared to annual expenditures on other NASA projects, said Munson, who noted that in 2011 alone, the agency spent more than $4 billion on the International Space Station and the fleet of space shuttles.

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The James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope that is designed to help scientists study the very early universe, is costing NASA $8.8 billion.

Even that price tag is dwarfed by the more than $600 billion the Defense Department will spend in 2012.

Jewitt put it like this: Americans spend more than $7 billion a year on potato chips.

“We’re talking about a small amount of money in the grand scheme of things,” Paige said.

Still, in the heat of an election season, some find it hard to justify Mars spending as long as the deficit remains high and the basic needs of many citizens aren’t met.

This time around, in the run-up to Curiosity’s high-profile landing, it’s hard to find people willing to criticize Mars science in public. But back in 2004, when President George W. Bush was pushing an ambitious plan that included manned missions to the Red Planet, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (then a Democrat) said the billions of dollars NASA would require would be better spent “right here on Earth” on health care, education and domestic security.

Even those who’ve caught the Mars bug and are excited about Curiosity worry that with the new rover, NASA has “put all the eggs in one basket,” said Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer and founder of the MarsSociety, which advocates for manned missions to the planet.

When NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander both failed in 1999, work was already under way on several other missions that turned out to be successful, Zubrin said. But there’s not much waiting in the wings this time around.

Plans to send a lander to scoop up Martian soil and return it to Earth, as well as to visit Europa, have been postponed to save money.

After Curiosity, NASA’s planetary scientists have only one major mission lined up: an orbiter called MAVEN, which will explore the Martian atmosphere and climate. It is scheduled for launch in 2013.

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©2012 Los Angeles Times

Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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