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More reasons to go to Mars


Arizona Daily Wildcat

By Sheila Bapat
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
December 6, 1999
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Christmas may not be an occasion to celebrate for NASA officials and UA senior research scientists if their new baby, the Mars Polar Lander, continues saying absolutely nothing.

As of yesterday, the much-hyped exploratory probe that is supposed to send images and data from the Red Planet to Earth failed to do so, causing officials to wring their hands in frustration.

Their cause for worry goes beyond the simple fact that the $165 million project might turn out to be an enormous failure. NASA seems to be down in its luck for the second time in a row; the highly-anticipated Mars Climate Orbiter was lost in September. This may lead to a cut in federal funding and less national support for the program as a whole.

Despite what appears to be a slumping performance, the public should not give up on NASA so quickly. While it may seem logical to believe that the space program deserves less funding because of its less-than-successful recent missions, this view fails to see the greater value of NASA. NASA is valuable for the nation as a whole because of the educational opportunities it gives universities like the UA.

The original impetus for creating NASA was largely political. NASA received so much support early after its inception to win the space race it was running against Russia. Currently the hype over space exploration seems to have fizzled worldwide. Federal funding of NASA has depleted since the 1980s, and the national budget will not be in the spirit of giving a larger portion of the budget to space exploration if the Mars Polar Lander Mission fails.

Although there is no longer a compelling political reason to continue supporting NASA so fervently, this should not overshadow the greater importance of the space program.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to continue supporting NASA is research opportunities for universities. The UA receives more annual funding from NASA for research than any other university. Its involvement in the Mars Space mission has given the university an incredible opportunity to expand its own research capacities.

Researchers, students and international colleagues at the UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory designed and built the very tools that are being used in the Mars Polar Lander Mission.

A UA camera team built two cameras for this mission and will be posting pictures from the satellite.

Assuming, of course, the Mars Polar Lander starts working.

True, this particular mission might be a disappointment. But this does not justify cutting funds for a program that is so beneficial for research universities like the UA and for the furthering of space exploration altogether. Running a space race against other global leaders in space exploration is, in the long run, a much less valid reason to support NASA than the educational benefits it can provide through consistent federal funding and national support.

"In the worst case that we never heard from the lander, I would not say that it's been all for naught," said UA Planetary Sciences Professor Bill Boynton. "People really need to understand these missions are very expensive and are not done just for the sake of science. They're done in part to allow students the opportunity to research. The taxpayers have already received their money's worth."

The bottom line: space exploration is valuable not merely to beat other nations to the task of landing on the moon or getting pictures from Mars. Its value lies in its contribution to science education as a whole. To deny NASA of proper support would in essence shoot down a valuable national science education program.

While politics is inevitably a motivation to support NASA, the greatest reason to continue supporting NASA is found in the UA's title as one of the nation's leading research institutions.

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