About this Author
DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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In the Pipeline

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August 6, 2012

A Brief Word From Mars

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Posted by Derek

I was up late last night, watching the folks at JPL celebrate the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity. (And needless to say, I was glad to see that the elaborate landing technology worked so well, as opposed to the back-up technique of "lithobraking", which is reliable but a bit hard on the equipment). I'm looking forward to seeing updates on Martian chemistry for the next few years.

And since we are well into the 21st century, it's only fitting and proper that we have a laser-firing, nuclear-powered robot rolling around on Mars. On to Europa, Titan, and Enceladus!

Comments (50) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News


1. RB Woodweird on August 6, 2012 7:51 AM writes...

I would not have bet the house on that elaborate landing plan working as well as it did.

A reminder that Murphy's Law is actually: Every point of failure in a system will eventually be found.

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2. Fred on August 6, 2012 8:23 AM writes...

They should get some great data-- and pictures-- out of this mission.

I'm looking forward to "Ensalada". Space Squids in a sunless sea.

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3. Itsfullofstars on August 6, 2012 8:33 AM writes...

I suggest leaving Europa alone.

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4. nitrosonium on August 6, 2012 8:33 AM writes...

waste of time and money

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5. FredB on August 6, 2012 8:35 AM writes...

Earth Attacks! Laser armed nuclear robot from Earth invades Mars.

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6. SP on August 6, 2012 8:41 AM writes...

Given the large overlap between the small government libertarian set and the robotic spaceflight fanboy set, which wins out when it's a government funded program that sends the nuclear laser robot to Mars?

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7. p on August 6, 2012 8:43 AM writes...

post 3 is beautiful.

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8. Iridium on August 6, 2012 9:13 AM writes...


I hope you are not serious

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9. Starchild on August 6, 2012 9:33 AM writes...


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10. Starchild on August 6, 2012 9:34 AM writes...


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11. Starchild on August 6, 2012 9:38 AM writes...

Good show #3!

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12. Starchild on August 6, 2012 9:39 AM writes...

Good show #3!

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13. Lyle Langley on August 6, 2012 10:00 AM writes...

@#8, Iridium...

I hope they are serious. It is a waste of money.

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14. Curious Wavefunction on August 6, 2012 10:04 AM writes...

All right, now when can we start designing drugs with that kind of accuracy and predictability? (That's a rhetorical question of course).

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15. milkshake on August 6, 2012 11:14 AM writes...

We were supposed to put astronauts on Enceladus by 1970, with Project Orion...

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16. Anonymous on August 6, 2012 12:19 PM writes...


So what do you suggest to do instead?
Which would be the goal you woul put the money in?

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17. Doug on August 6, 2012 12:21 PM writes...

@4/13 - I'll compute this as a 100% US project and do some rounding. I am more than happy to kick in $10 for just the totally balls out 'FU Mars, yes we CAN land a sky crane on your scrawny red ass' attitude. Who cares if anything practical comes out of this (and lots will)? That landing sequence deserves a standing O. Bravo.

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18. John Wayne on August 6, 2012 12:58 PM writes...

I am pretty confident that it will be easier for us to settle space than stop overpopulating and messing up our own planet. Projects like this aren't a 'nice to have,' they are our only possible ticket out of here.

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19. Lyle Langley on August 6, 2012 2:18 PM writes...

@16, Anonymous:
:So what do you suggest to do instead?
Which would be the goal you woul put the money in?"

This waste of money doesn't have to be put into one thing. It can be spread around. Space exploration - looking for "life" on Mars - is a colossal waste of money.

@17, Doug:

Wow, we showed that arrogant SOB Mars a lesson...

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20. nitrosonium on August 6, 2012 2:23 PM writes...

yes. i am absolutely serious. how does this possibly offer any benefit to anyone on this planet IF we find that there WAS life on some other planet? ok so it would answer some fundamental question about lief and then all the see i told you so religious-vs-scientific debates can begin. ok then what? where will we be? i am a scientist and have been for almost 20yrs so i understand about the importance of discovery of exploration. i just want there to be a practical use for all the $$$ we spend on things as a country. don't even start with "well what about the wars..??" i am a us marine and i know all about that. i am also against that colossal wasted effort.

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21. Paul on August 6, 2012 2:36 PM writes...

how does this possibly offer any benefit to anyone on this planet IF we find that there WAS life on some other planet?

If life is widespread in the universe, there must be a reason it hasn't contacted us yet. One explanation is the "Berserker Hypothesis": that some past civilization has seeded the galaxy with self-reproducing machines designed to destroy competing intelligences.

Learning that this hypothesis was true would be existentially vital information, far more important than a mere cure for cancer or aging.

As a first step, we'd want to know how widespread life is. Looking on Mars and the outer planet moons is a first step to that. We might discover panspermia is unexpectedly effective, which would suggest life might have readily spread to/from other stars as well.

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22. Lyle Langley on August 6, 2012 2:46 PM writes...

@21, Paul...

Hahahahaha....Thanks for the laugh. That should be an article on "The Onion". Now back to Comic Con....

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23. DH on August 6, 2012 4:11 PM writes...

I agree that as a matter of principle, space exploration for non-defense purposes is not a proper function of government. But, dammit, I'd rather see the government spend a few billion of our tax dollars on space exploration than spend hundreds of billions on all the other crap that it has no business doing. And if you cannot admire the sheer engineering genius of the landing scheme the JPL folks came up with, well, then you have no soul.

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24. metaphysician on August 6, 2012 4:50 PM writes...

Space exploration is pure research. Like any pure research, the answer to the question "what good is it?" is "we won't know that until after we *do* it."

Also, I'd rather the government spend billions on space travel than on nearly anything else. Better an investment in our species' future than throwing endless money away trying to eliminate one half of the bell curve.

#22- I find it curious that you didn't actually provide a counter argument. Apparently, you are one of those people with such short horizon of interest that you define anything that won't directly effect you, during your own lifespan, as "unimportant."

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25. karl on August 6, 2012 5:42 PM writes...

Why would a person waste time,
searching for things that have nothing to do
with the business of staying alive?
Better to wait 'till you're dead!

From 'Behind the Great Beyond", by Glass Hammer, on Shadowlands. (and if you don't recognize it as sarcasm, I can't help you...!)

As far as I'm concerned, MSL has been worth it just for the engineering practice. If it find anything interesting (life-related or not), that's just gravy.

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26. gippgig on August 6, 2012 9:57 PM writes...

MSL cost government $2.5 billion. We could have done it ourselves for $100 million (see AMSAT). The waste of money is government, not space exploration itself.

If there is life on Mars, life on Earth probably came from there (see Shergottites etc.).

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27. MarsAttacks on August 7, 2012 2:25 AM writes...


if somebody other than the government CAN do it, or other such feats for $100 million, they should, and beat government to the punch.

private industry hasn't even put anybody into true space yet, so, I wouldn't go boasting that it can land on mars without a hitch.

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28. iridium on August 7, 2012 2:51 AM writes...


"This waste of money doesn't have to be put into one thing. It can be spread around."
you did not answer the question: Which would be the goal you would put the money in?

"i just want there to be a practical use for all the $$$ we spend on things as a country."

That way to think it is part fo the resaon for economic crise.
We think too much short term.

Great discoveries always came from great dreams, even if very often their application was far from the original idea!
- America´s discovery?
- Internet?
I think this is a subject discussed in many palces already...

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29. Lyle Langley on August 7, 2012 8:09 AM writes...

@24, metaphysician:
'I find it curious that you didn't actually provide a counter argument. Apparently, you are one of those people with such short horizon of interest that you define anything that won't directly effect you, during your own lifespan, as "unimportant."'

Ahh...the classic argument of the internets - "if you don't agree with me you must be a wacko". Excellent - well played metaphysician, well played.

I don't have to give a counter argument. That waste of money doesn't necessarily have to be spent on something else. Just because it's there doesn't mean it has to be spent on something in particular. Looking for "life" (and I use that term very loosely), or putting a human on Mars is not important.

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30. FredB on August 7, 2012 8:31 AM writes...

Those who don't explore are left behind. If mankind didn't have a drive to explore then we would still be hunkered down in caves without internet access.

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31. Derek Lowe on August 7, 2012 8:38 AM writes...

#29, Lyle - just so I can get a fix on your position here, I was wondering if you could list some of the things that you'd classify as important to do with the same amount of money. I'm not saying this to immediately gainsay your choices - it's just that they could go in several different directions, depending on your outlook, and I'm curious about which outlook you have. Thanks!

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32. anon on August 7, 2012 9:18 AM writes...

WOW - I am surprised at the level of anti-space exploration sentiment being expressed here in the comments for this post (this is not sarcastic). I thought most readers of this were scientists or science-oriented.

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33. Hap on August 7, 2012 9:35 AM writes...

A waste requires either that 1) something fails to do that for which it was designed (and thus doesn't achieve anything at all for the resources that were spent) or 2) something uses resources that should have been used for something else. Since 1) is probably not true (although it could still be, I guess), then you're stuck with 2).

You can believe that Mars exploration is a waste of resources, but you can't say it authoritatively (unless you're God or an equivalent). Without agreement with people on an order of priorities that places Mars exploration low in such an order (if it's not first but is high on the orders of many people, then it might be the optimal choice overall from the list of priorities), you can't expect people to take your word on the value (or lack of value) of Mars exploration with authority. hence the request for what your priorities are (or what you would prefer money be spent on).

People might not agree with your priorities, but they can at least factor them into how they understand you. If you don't really have any better priorities, well, they can factor that into how they read your words, as well.

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34. Lyle Langley on August 7, 2012 10:03 AM writes...

Wow, a response from the Grand Poobah himself - I'm honored, I guess... I always find it interesting that when there is a disagreement on the internets it's always, well this person clearly isn't so and so. First, anon, #32, I'm a scientist, but, you know, there can be disagreements within the field. Hap, I for one say that the return on investment is so low it is a waste of money.

And most importantly, why does this money have to be spent at all? When you run a budget deficit there has to be cuts and sometimes things just don't make it - this, in my opinion, is first on that list - the proverbial unnecessary latte. Why redirect funds we don't have for a different "priority"? And, no, I'm not a Tea Partier either - quite liberal - just a pragmatist that doesn't feel we need to fund everything.

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35. Vader on August 7, 2012 10:23 AM writes...

I'm actually pleased with Curiosity, and since basic scientific knowledge is a public good, I think there is a libertarian case to be made for public funding of basic science.

But, okay, I'll play devil's advocate and suggest some other things $2.5 billion might buy.

It would pay for 6 hours of federal spending at 2011 rates.

It would pay for about a third of a Gerald R. Ford-class nuclear aircraft carrier.

It would pay for the undergraduate education of perhaps 25,000 students.

It would pay for perhaps 5 billion doses of rehydrating salts for Third World infants suffering from rotavirus.

It would pay for perhaps 100,000 doses of polio vaccine, not counting the costs of the military forces needed to keep the Taliban in northern Pakistan from blocking vaccination.

It would fund Los Alamos National Laboratory for about a year and a half.

It would pay for five years of Budweiser beer advertising.

It might pay for development of a single blockbuster drug. Derek can probably refine this estimate.

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36. nitrosonium on August 7, 2012 3:45 PM writes... do i say i love you without sounding...well..a little inappropriate

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37. Dr. Manhattan on August 7, 2012 4:31 PM writes...

"...One explanation is the "Berserker Hypothesis": that some past civilization has seeded the galaxy with self-reproducing machines designed to destroy competing intelligences."

Are we back to talking about Pfizer and it's acquisitions again?

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38. Eric on August 7, 2012 5:44 PM writes...

#3 - what a beautiful post

for you -

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39. Eric Jablow on August 7, 2012 8:49 PM writes...

#35 - It would pay for five Solyndras.

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40. Iridium on August 8, 2012 2:25 AM writes...


It´s strange you take it personally.
Nobody (at least not me) thinks you are a "wako", as you say.
But, since you didnt want to spend the money, and this is a interesting diuscussion, I think was fair to ask what was your alternative proposals.

I am quite sure that the "if you have no money you must cut research" is not an answer I agree with...but it is your opinion and you can post it.
Maybe you should move to Italy: they decided that since they have insufficient investments in basic research...and they have money cut more in research is the answer...we will see how that turns out on 5-10 years time scale!

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41. Lyle Langley on August 8, 2012 8:02 AM writes...

@40, Iridium...

I'm not taking anything personally, the use of the word "wacko" is just internet speak - not tin foil like wacko. However, when the big man speaks, there is a nerve that has been hit.

And, once again, I'm not taking the attitude of "if you have no money you must cut research" as you state. However, economics are such that we, as a nation, need to make sure the money is spent wisely - not funding research just to put a remote controlled car on a planet because we can.

@35, Vader:
"t might pay for development of a single blockbuster drug. Derek can probably refine this estimate."

Because Dr. Lowe has so much experience putting drugs on the market?

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42. Vader on August 8, 2012 8:53 AM writes...


"Because Dr. Lowe has so much experience putting drugs on the market?"

More than I. And he pays closer attention to these things than I do. Is that so surprising?

You seem determined to pick a fight with everyone whose buttons you can find. Chill, man.

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43. Derek Lowe on August 8, 2012 9:50 AM writes...

#41 Lyle:

Calm down a bit - I may be misreading you, but like Vader (#42), I'm getting the impression that you're here to fight. If that's not the signal that you want to be sending out, take note.

I showed up in this thread because, frankly, many of the people I've met who have the "space exploration is a waste of money" viewpoint haven't been very intelligent or very well-informed. It's just been a reflex reaction on their part. So when I run into someone who holds that view but who might be coming at it from a more thoughtful perspective, I like to find out where they're coming from.

And as far as I can tell, where you're coming from is "we need to spend the money wisely", with the implication that putting a rover on Mars doesn't make the cut. That doesn't clear things up very much, though, since that's sort of what I'd assumed you thought even before I asked the question. Somewhere there's a boundary between "wise" and "unwise" expenditure - I think everyone would agree on that - and we're just trying to find out where different people would draw it.

So, are there any space/astronomy research programs that you would not cut? If by "wise" you imply "likely to have tangible physical effects for people here on Earth", then there are quite a few that would probably fall on the "unwise" side of the line. How about high energy physics (such as the Higgs boson work)?

Eventually, one gets to biology and chemistry. Much of that is supposed to be more tangible than the Higgs boson, but do you see any factors there to help draw the line?

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44. Lyle Langley on August 8, 2012 11:14 AM writes...

@42, @43:
I'm very chilled and calm, thanks. Just making an observation regarding drug discovery experience, nothing more, nothing less.

I also find it interesting, that in your experience, those people who disagree about space exploration are "unintelligent"? Because all intelligent life forms are in favor of space exploration... You could paint a room with that broad brushing there, Dr. Lowe.

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45. Derek Lowe on August 8, 2012 12:23 PM writes...

#44 Lyle -

As you're probably aware, "drug discovery experience" doesn't correlate as well with "putting drugs on the market" as one might think, especially when you're up at the early research stage (as I am). Your "just making an observation" line is, in my experience, the refuge of someone wanting to have it both ways. My apologies if I've misinterpreted you.

As for space exploration (and its detractors), it's true that many of the "waste of money" viewpoints I've heard have come from people who have gone on to make statements that did not increase my opinion of their intelligence. I refer to things ranging from "that money could have ended poverty" all the way down to assertions that the moon landings were faked.

But not all. As I mentioned, when I come across someone with intelligent criticisms of space exploration, it's something that I'd like hear more details about. My last post was attempt to elicit some. Instead, I get more fencing moves - ripostes, point-scoring. Do you have anything substantial to add?

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46. cynical1 on August 8, 2012 1:51 PM writes...

How are we going to develop air-dropped remote controlled tanks and robotic soldiers to blow up all the terrorists, kill women, children and destroy villages if we can't put a simple little 1 ton buggy on Mars? For those of you dissing the money spent, technology like this will ultimately help us kill each other better. And that's what life on Earth is all about! (Read the news if you don't believe me.) Just look at how much better we've got at killing each other since we first put a man on the moon. Oh sure, some bozo can fly a plane into a building but can you kill your enemies using a remote-controlled drone from halfway around the world? I don't think so. Not unless you got a lot of fancy technology out of your space program. Besides, the last man (or woman) on the planet will be able to find some succor in the fact there's probably life somewhere else in the Universe since we figured out that Mars could have it. Right?

Or maybe, we'll be able to land a rover on the giant meteor that's heading towards our planet and be able to blow it up rather than sending poor Bruce Willis there to die doing it for us. You could save the whole planet with this sort of technology, right? Who's going to fight the Transformers when they get here?

And if all of that isn't enough, given all the positive media exposure, it's possible that this Mars landing will resurrect Val Kilmer's career when he makes "Red Planet II". And you can't put a price tag on that!

You just got to have some imagination to realize the benefits that all of us will receive from this Mars landing, that's all.

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47. Lyle Langley on August 8, 2012 2:55 PM writes...

Dr. Lowe--

There are no moving fences or point scoring(?), maybe you've watched too much of the Olympics. As you've generalized the "anti"-space crowd as unintelligent buffoons, I could go the same way and say the pro-crowd simply wants to see what they've all dreamed of growing up watching Star Trek and reading comic books and are unwilling to see the waste of money this program really is - for the simple argument of any research is better than none.

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48. MIMD on August 9, 2012 12:18 AM writes...

I heard about the landing on a Boeing 747 flying from Sydney, Australia to the US. The pilot announced the landing success as something he thought the passengers would be interested in.

The 747 had a ground speed of 747 MPH due to strong tailwinds. Almost Mach 1. Incredible!

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49. MIMD on August 9, 2012 12:20 AM writes...

#48 Yes, the 747 was doing 747 MPH! That was not a typo.

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50. late to the party on August 9, 2012 9:24 AM writes...

Although most have probably moved on by now I thought I would share this.

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