Can Curiosity save the space cat? The rover Curiosity has landed on the red planet on August 6 with much fanfare. It’s journey represents a remarkable technological feat. Yet there is an undercurrent of concern at the National Aeronautical and Space Agency’s (Nasa) promotion of this $ 2.5 billion project. The heroic era of space exploration that made Nasa a household word is rapidly coming to a close.
There is no shortage of mysteries in space, no dearth of children dreaming of becoming astronauts, and rocket and satellite technology is increasingly off-the-shelf. And the geopolitical competition of the Cold War is gone. So are the cash surpluses that allowed space powers like the United States, Russia and Europe to spend billions on planetary probes and space stations. Half-hearted talk of Curiosity looking for a Martian environment that may have once borne life is an attempt to revive a fading public passion for pure research. Barring a close encounter with little green bacteria, it is unlikely to succeed.
The most telling evidence of space exploration’s decline is its finances. Global space budgets have been level at $70 billion for almost a decade. Of this, $30 billion is for military purposes. The developing world too has seen its space budgets decline. The US, still dominant in global space spend, has shuttered iconic programmes like the space shuttle and ceded tasks like International Space Station maintenance. A study by Euroconsult, a consulting firm specialising in digital broadcasting and space and communication domains, shows the non-practical forms of space spending like exploration, human spaceflight and pure science are falling as much as 10% a year.
Humanity is not surrendering the final frontier. The sky buzzes with satellites. Private capital is flowing into niche areas like satellite launching and luxury tourism. Underinvestment over the past several years has meant even weather monitoring is now being affected and these aging satellites will have to be replaced. But satellites are profitable and low budget. The real issue is Curiosity and similar outer space explorers.
Their best hope lies in the rising expenditure of non-traditional space countries. In 2006, only five governments had space budgets of over $1 billion. Today that number is eight. India and China are among the fastest-growing new entrants. The ambition that once drove Nasa and Roskosmos can be seen in the “man on Mars” promises that animate the two Asian powers today.