NASA's Curiosity rover was designed to search Mars for places capable of supporting life. But the $2.5-billion mission has another, unofficial objective: To serve as a goodwill ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge at a time when funding for planetary exploration is in jeopardy.
Just as Curiosity is equipped with an array of high-tech instruments to fulfill its scientific goals, the rover has many tools at its disposal to press its public relations agenda. There are video games, iPhone apps, Twitter accounts and even an inspirational song by hip-hop superstar will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas.
"All the Mars rovers have been very good public outreach," said Alan Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute. The bells and whistles of the Curiosity program, he said, represent "the next generation of doing it in a more modern way."
The efforts appear to be paying off. Interest in the Mars Science Laboratory mission, as it's officially known, has grown so intense that JPL staffers who normally promote the rover's doings are working to ratchet down expectations for a scientific presentation Monday at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. With pundits speculating in the blogosphere that Curiosity had found ingredients for life in the Martian soil, the lab released a statement this week saying the rover did not have "definitive evidence" of organic material.
Throughout NASA's 54-year history, science and PR have been inextricably linked.
NASA was formed as a response to the 1957 "Sputnik surprise," when the Soviet Union launched the first man-made satellite. "The United States suddenly spent a whole lot of money on science and engineering," said JPL historian Erik Conway.
NASA channeled billions of those dollars to high-profile missions at JPL. It poured about $1billion into the Viking program that sent two landers to Mars in the 1970s and spent $865million on the twin Voyager probes that visited Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in the 1970s and 1980s.
In those days, NASA didn't have to work so hard to keep the public's attention. "This was the era when kids got given chemistry kits instead of Nintendos for Christmas," said Janet Vertesi, a Princeton University sociologist.
But as the Cold War thawed, the appetite for big-budget efforts waned. The agency's budget fell by about 18% between 1992 and 1999, and Daniel Goldin, who led NASA at the time, pushed for "faster, better, cheaper" missions.
-- Amina Khan, Los Angeles TimesCopyright © 2015, CT Now