OK, so there's been some contributed discussion to this blog recently about how wimpy the Mars exploration plans seem to be, and how getting a big rig over there to do it right is really what we need. I don't intend this blog to turn into a political forum, but seeing as it's *my* blog, here's my take on it:
Space exploration is difficult. Space exploration is risky. Space exploration is expensive. Every time a mission fails (because it is difficult), the public demands that the next mission not fail (become less risky) and therefore the price goes up (becomes more expensive). Remember that 90's NASA mantra, "Faster, better, cheaper?" The inside joke was that you could only choose two out of the three.
During the era of Apollo, Viking, and Voyager, space exploration was driven by political pressure, not by science. Each Viking lander cost $1 billion in the early 1970's. That's something like $5 billion in today's money. The Apollo program is estimated at about $100 billion in today's money. Even the Russian Luna rovers are estimated to have cost $1-2 billion each back then. Of course, we have developed more and better technology, bringing the cost of missions down, so using today's technology, a Viking mission might cost $1.5-2 billion. Current Mars Sample Return estimates run from $2 to 4 billion. The reality is that putting a huge drill rig on Mars is not able to happen in the curent climate, where space missions are seen as being driven by science, and society just doesn't think it needs that much science.
I'll accept criticism that NASA, like all big government agencies, spends a lot of its money on bureacracy and could really use more imagination. But even if you were able to somehow cut the costs in half, billion-dollar Mars missions driven by science, however supercool and fantastic science it is, are going to be nearly impossible to fund until society sees them as valuable to them. Let's make a cynical comparison here: the movie Titanic grossed 1.8 billion dollars. Yes, the world's people spent $1.8 BILLION to go see one darn movie. That's three Mars missions right there, for one single movie.
OK, end rant. No more politics. Back to science!!!