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article imageOp-Ed: Big science gets the big prize with discovery of water on Mars, now wake up NASA

By Paul Wallis     Jul 31, 2008 in Science
It’s been one of the most frustrating bits of science since cookery was invented, trying to prove the presence of water on Mars. Soil samples have finally definitely been identified water. Maybe NASA will remember it's a science agency, not a donut shop
This is really big news, and will be for decades to come. Water is one of the basic requirements of a Mars landing. It’s intended to use water as a source of hydrogen and oxygen in many Martian exploration scenarios. Now they know how to find it, how to identify it, and where it is. New ball game.
It’s also a possible indicator of life, although there’s a long way to go before any level of reliable information for identifying a possible (or past) Martian ecosystem will be a real expectation.
The big, most important part of the water on Mars news is that complex chemistry is now very likely. It may be buried under the dust, or inside the rocks, but where there’s water, there’s major league chemistry, and that’s exceptionally good news for the future.
The Sydney Morning Herald:
The spacecraft's robotic arm has dug several trenches in the Martian soil near the planet's north pole and been heating soil samples in a series of small "ovens."
It had earlier spotted chunks outside the rover that scientists had identified as ice, but data sent back by the most recent soil sample for the first time showed water inside Mars' dirt, researchers said.
Despite Spirit and Opportunity’s epic, cost effective missions, NASA seems to be continuing its spreadsheet based approach:
Phoenix landed on Mars May 25 and its mission was to last three months. Instead the US space agency will spend another $US2 million ($2.1 million) for a few extra weeks of research, chief scientist Michael Meyer said in a press conference from Tucson, Arizona.
This is the problem. There’s probably some gerbil in a suit with a massive overbite and a brain that blew into Tuscon on a speck of dust saying “But how can we monetize it?”
Think, damn you.
That "few extra weeks" is more practical science than can possibly be done on Earth using theories, however good.
Science isn't a lottery. You have to do the work.
Even in this era of Fig Leaf Science, with illiterates and handling the purse strings and the policies, leaving priceless projects like the ion engine rotting on the ground, the work has to be done.
NASA’s apparently endless descent into the abyss of organizational accountancy has never been anything but a liability to the science.
If Columbus had been working on these parameters, America wouldn’t have been discovered, at least not by him.
To defend the science, the dollar-based demon has to be exorcised. It’s not only obstructing science, it’s using a set of rules that were written in the 1960s, for totally different reasons. This isn’t 1960.
The whole cost base and funding schematic has to be made viable, and has to be bringing in informed commercial investors. I’m not saying privatize NASA, God forbid.
But the money has to come in from some level where the driving force is science and results, not trying to balance a budget which is woefully inadequate. There are plenty of scientists and technologists in the private sector who know the value of the space program, and what’s a good idea and what isn’t. They can translate to Big Capital the meaning and value of Big Science.
Water on Mars means huge possibilities. It means science and technology far beyond any of the existing platforms. It’s the very first step for humanity clear outside the bassinet.
, lack of initiative, and what can only be called lethargic development of new technologies, whatever the reasons.
Payloads, relative to cost of rockets, are ridiculous, only a few tons. Far more efficient payload/cost ratios, and much faster, drives are required.
That means someone has to start doing the work, so the science can be done.
NASA risks becoming a spectator in its own field, if it doesn't reform itself with the times and the needs of the times. As a coordinator, a forum, and a leader, it still has a big role, but maintaining that status will depend on staying relevant, and not shooting itself in the foot with functional problems it should be solving.
This particular piece of string doesn’t have an end.
Mars is the start of the marathon. To be in the race, you have to have a working set of running shoes, not a series of excuses for not running the race.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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