Misplaced Curiosity

This Aug. 26, 2003 image made available by NASA shows Mars photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope on the planet's closest
This Aug. 26, 2003 image made available by NASA shows Mars photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope on the planet's closest approach to Earth in 60,000 years. NASA’s robotic rover Curiosity landed safely on Mars late Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012 to begin two years of exploration. The mission cost $2.5 billion. (AP Photo/NASA)

If you came staggering into the ER with crushing chest pain and I, your doctor, fixated instead on your gnarly toenail fungus, you'd wonder if I knew what the hell I was doing. I might understand myocardial infarctions and toenail infections equally well, but my inability to differentiate between the imminently pathologic and the eminently cosmetic could be the death of you.

In that way, NASA's latest mission to Mars just seems like misplaced curiosity, even to a science geek like me. For certain, there's been no shortage of techno-astro-jet-propelled wonder, and you'd have to have the scientific aptitude of George W. not to get a piloerectile buzz out of watching the Curiosity come to a safe landing. The people who made that buggy fly are some of our nation's best and brightest, the rock stars of rocks and stars.

But forget about the rover's pinpoint landing. The Earth's current ecological status makes the overarching scientific goal of the mission -- "to assess whether the landing area has ever had or still has environmental conditions favorable to microbial life" -- seem way off base.

Here we are, perched on Carl Sagan's pale blue dot, a planet tricked out with everything a living organism might need: water, oxygen, carbon, stable temperatures, not too much sunlight, not too little -- everything but a wet bar. Planet Earth is a diamond, a spectacular gem amidst galaxies and galaxies of lifeless rock piles, so as a local businessman pleads, why go anywhere else? Why so curious about Mars? It's no crime to be Earthnocentric.

I hate to spoil it for NASA, but the habitability of Mars is low, very very low, and it's going to stay that way for a long time. It will be many millennia before we'll be pasturing Martian Holsteins or, for that matter, vats of E. coli bacteria. Meanwhile, Earth remains in a highly habitable, move-in condition -- except that we've got some serious climatic Homeland Security issues to deal with if we're going to keep it that way.

And so last week's news that NASA plans to double down on its Martian bet, with a $1.5-billion Red Planet explorer that will launch in 2020, seems all the more wayward. John Grunsfeld, head of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said it wasn't yet clear what the rover would do -- maybe collect and store rock samples or... bring them back to Earth, where we can use them as paver stones on the road to ecological ruin!

Why don't we focus our curiosity on the questions that really need answering?

It's understandable that many people have questions about climate change; the bright minds at NASA certainly do. In fact, they've listed the uncertainties on their website. Scientists don't understand long-term changes in the radiant energy of the sun. They don't understand how aerosols, dust, smoke and soot interact with climate, in some cases warming the atmosphere, in some cases cooling it. Clouds have an enormous impact on climate, but as NASA humbly admits, "current climate models do not represent cloud physics well." We don't understand ocean currents, or where the moisture will or will not fall on a warmer planet, or how much the seas might rise. About half the carbon we belch into the air each year is removed by natural processes, but we don't understand them. We don't understand, we don't understand, we don't understand.

Until we do understand these problems, and until we've developed solutions to deal with them, I'm not especially curious about Mars. "Danger, Will Robinson, danger!" With so much climatic uncertainty and so much at stake here at home, we can't afford to get lost in space.