The Curious Case of Curiosity: Why Don’t We Care More?

Curiosity Photograph of Mars

Monday, August 6th, 2012, 1:32 AM EST. NASA space rover Curiosity completes its 352 million-mile journey in space and lands, successfully, on the planet Mars. NASA experts claim that the rover’s advanced technology, which will transmit unprecedented amounts of information about the Red Planet back to Earth, makes realistic President Obama’s goal of landing human beings on Mars by the 2030s. The whole endeavor, to paraphrase our Vice President, is a big deal. So why don’t we care more about it? Why is any other news story topping pictures from Curiosity–such as the one above of a mountain on Mars?

I recognize that it is difficult to isolate any particular reason for the existence of such an intangible trend. A complete explanation would include a combination of certain sticky realities about our society in 2012, a discussion of historical patterns, and time contingent considerations such as the global recession. However, I do think it is worthwhile to highlight one factor in particular which I think has caused us (that is, Americans living in the year 2012) to underrate the importance of an event like the Mars landing. Specifically, NASA has failed to provide a satisfactory raison d’etre in the post-Cold War era. Consequently, without the Soviet Union, interest in and valuation of NASA and its ongoing missions has drastically declined.

Ever since its inception 54 years ago, NASA’s existence was justified to the American public, at least implicitly, in two ways: exploration and functionalism. The former would usher in a new golden age of discovery. The latter would provide positive externalities to other parts of American society. Delicious powdered fruit drink aside, NASA and its missions contributed to countless American scientific achievements. Most famously, of course, NASA played an important, if mostly symbolic, role for the United States in the Cold War, highlighted by the moon landing. Ironically, in the waning days of the Soviet Union, NASA also served as a conduit for cooperation between the two nations. Regardless, during the Cold War, NASA derived most of its functionalist support from its unique ability to “defeat” the Soviets time and time again.

After the Cold War ended, NASA’s raison d’etre was reduced almost entirely to space exploration. Those who had supported NASA for the positive externalities it provided had mainly done so because of the Soviet Union. Without the Soviets, their interest in NASA and its missions fell off. Two groups comprised the Americans who had supported NASA because of the explicit space exploration agenda: those with unconditional support and those with contingent support. When the economy suffered, the latter group expressed a new-found dissatisfaction with NASA politically (through a push to cut NASA funding during lean times) and commercially (through a lack of interest). These Americans simply dropped NASA from the agenda in favor of more pressing matters–the economy, health care, etc.

As a result, the only remaining Americans with serious interest in the continuing missions of NASA were a small minority–a small part of one group that had supported NASA during the Cold War. Media outlets report stories according to the public interest that they believe those stories will receive. Consequently, we receive stories based on commercial viability, not on significance. Thus, we might hear about the initial rover landing but miss out on the real story: the findings of the rover in the upcoming days, weeks, and months. The effect becomes self-reinforcing since we then interpret the commercially viable stories as the significant ones, which the media then picks up on, and so on.

Even if the ongoing story may only capture the imagination of a minority of Americans (I am, admittedly, one of these Americans), Curiosity rolls on. And, thankfully, NASA has extensive coverage of its findings, with accompanying pictures and video.

For more of his thoughts on space exploration and other things he actually knows about, follow William on Twitter

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