Dr Charles Elachi interview: Mission to Mars

The man behind the Curiosity rover landing on Mars on why the billions spent on US space exploration is money well spent

Needless to say, all of the technological breakthroughs and the missions have come at considerable cost. The Curiosity mission alone is believed to have cost $2.5bn, and that investment has been made during a period in which America has faced a tough economic climate. In all, US spending on its space programme is worth about $18bn every year.

Then again, the benefits of that spending are everywhere to be seen. The technology that created the now-ubiquitous cellphone was originally developed by NASA to allow the agency to communicate with its spacecraft. The same is the case for cellphone cameras; NASA even gets a small royalty payment for each product that is shipped.

“When we were developing that technology, we didn’t know it would have those benefits, we were just doing it for scientific exploration,” Elachi recalls. “In fact one of the unique things I find in the US is that we do major investments just in gaining knowledge. We believe that gaining knowledge and education in the long-term will pay off, irrelevant of what the investment is.”

As regards funding, the JPL executive director also points out that he thinks the landscape has changed, especially post-Curiosity.

“I would say the tone has changed significantly between 5 August and 6 August [the date of the Curiosity landing],” he smiles. “And the main reason is that it has become even more apparent how excited the public is by this kind of endeavour. When I talk to politicians, I tell them that 50m voters were watching and that gets their attention very quickly.

“I am also delighted that there was an amazing response, particularly in the US and worldwide. It also shows something positive, because everything these days is negative, either about the economy or wars, and this is an example of something uplifting and positive, especially for young people,” Elachi adds.

As a result, and even though US federal budgets are tight, he is hopeful that there will still be strong support for what he and his team are trying to do.

“And, in a sense, it is a positive thing that reflects on the US…people all around the world look at the US as an exciting, forward-thinking nation, and as we share with all the world what we are doing, it’s not a selfish thing,” Elachi points out. “You can look at it as part of American diplomacy, in additional to the innovative and scientific benefits you get from it. In the end, I usually tell people from wherever they are in the world that it’s not my rover — we’re just the team that built it. It’s yours as well.”

Curiosity: Quick facts

Cruise vehicle dimensions (cruise stage and aeroshell with rover and descent stage inside)

Diameter: 14 feet, 9 inches (4.5 meters); height: 9 feet, 8 inches (3 meters)

Rover name: Curiosity

Rover dimensions: Length: 9 feet, 10 inches (3.0 meters)

(not counting arm); width: 9 feet, 1 inch (2.8 meters); height at top of mast: 7 feet (2.1 meters); arm length: 7 feet (2.1 meters); wheel diameter: 20 inches (0.5 meter)

Mass: 8,463 pounds (3,893 kilograms) total at launch, consisting of 1,982-pound (899-kilogram) rover; 5,293-pound (2,401-kilogram) entry, descent and landing system (aeroshell plus fueled descent stage); and 1,188-pound (539-kilogram) fueled cruise stage

Power for rover: Multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator and lithium-ion batteries

Science payload: 165 pounds (75 kilograms) in 10 instruments: Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer, Chemistry and Camera, Chemistry and Mineralogy, Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons, Mars Descent Imager, Mars Hand Lens Imager, Mast Camera, Radiation Assessment Detector, Rover Environmental Monitoring Station, and Sample Analysis at Mars.

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