The Cost of Curiosity

Taken on Sol 32, this is the frist time Curiosity used its Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera on its arm to take this portrait of the top of its Remote Sensing Mast showing the Mastcam and Chemcam cameras. It’s as close to a headshot as Curiosity can take. Credit: NASA/JPL

The other day I was in a coffee shop, quietly writing and sharing a table with a woman also on a laptop. She caught me staring blankly out the window and asked what I was working on; apparently I looked troubled. I told her I was working on a new angle for my sixth or so Mars article that week. She seemed interested so I told her about Curiosity, the heritage technology that’s helped NASA make multiple successful Mars landings, and how the Sky Crane will open up a new future of exploration.

The idea that reusing technology saves money in spaceflight and that developing new technology now may cut costs on future missions caught her attention. She urged me to play up that angle because the amount of money NASA spends on these missions is stupid.  “Curiosity,” she said, “cost half the nation’s defense budget.” That’s when I noticed her cross necklace and asked what kind of writer she is; turns out she’s a Christian motivational writer. That’s when I wished I had the figures on hand to illustrate just how little we spend on space exploration. But I didn’t so I quietly got back to work. But I did decided that I ought to write a blog post putting Curiosity into perspective so that the next time someone tells me NASA wastes money I can tell them how wrong they are. 

Taken on Sol 29, Martian dirt on Curiosity’s wheels. Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission is a flag ship mission with the rover Curiosity at the centre. It cost $2.5 billion, a figure that tends to stop people in their tracks. But when you look at how that money was spent it becomes less scary.

Development on MSL began nine years ago, so that $2.5 billion created jobs for 4,000 Americans who worked on the mission for nearly a decade. The technologies developed for MSL, notably the Sky Crane, are now part of NASA’s repertoire. Just like the landing system from the Viking missions has been reused on every lander since 1976, the technological developments behind MSL will help keep future mission costs down.

Beyond creating jobs and developing technology, $2.5 billion is really not all that much compared to some other things we’ve spent money on.

The obvious comparison is to Apollo. The final cost of the program that spanned more than a decade and put a man on the Moon was $156.5 Billion (in 2010 dollars). The effort was one of the greatest non-military technical endeavours. It rivaled the construction of the Panama Canal in size and the Manhattan Project (to build the atomic bomb in World War II) is comparable in a wartime setting.

Mission Control cheers the successful splashdown of Apollo 11 in July 1969. Credit: NASA

Apollo’s $156.5 billion price tag created jobs; nearly 400,000 people worked on the program and contributed to its success. The technologies developed for the program, and some of the tests done during the 1960s, are still used by NASA today. Curiosity’s guided entry into the Martian atmosphere, for example, is the same technology that was developed for and used on Apollo’s guided reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.  But there are more, and perhaps better, non-space points of comparison.

Curiosity’s landing coincided with this year’s summer Olympics held in London, which had a $14.5 billion (in US dollars) price tag. The return British taxpayers can expect is a legacy for the city’s east end, and the world can hope to inspire a new generation of athletes. It’s worth pointing out that the money spent on the Olympics stays in the city – jobs, largely in security during the games, and tourist revenue. Of course the athletes, the ones we celebrate at the games, aren’t paid. Only the lucky ones secure corporate sponsorship.

But that might not be the best comparison since the London Olympics were paid for by British taxpayers. One of my favourite things we spend a lot of money on in America is Valentine’s Day.

A chocolate-themed artist’s concept of NASA’s February 14, 2011 rendezvous between the Stardust-NExT mission and Comet Tempel 1. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (via Universe Today)

According to the National Retail Federation, Americans spent upwards of $17.6 billion celebrating the holiday in 2012 – that’s enough, in one year, for seven Curiosity-type missions. That figure breaks down to an average of $126.03 spent per person on things like chocolates, cards, and jewelry. Curiosity, over the full 9 years, cost every American just $8. That’s less than the price of a movie ticket on a Saturday night in most cities.

Alternative medicine is another interesting way that Americans spend their money. A 2007 survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Americans spend an average of about $34 billion annually on alternative treatments. In 2007, $3 billion of that amount was spent on homeopathy. That’s right: in one year Americans spent more on homeopathy than Curiosity cost over nine years.

Curiosity’s tracks in the Martian dust on Sol 29. Credit: NASA/JPL

Another figure I wanted to quote to this woman was how little Curiosity cost compared to what church properties don’t pay in taxes. Were the US government to tax church properties, the revenue would be somewhere between $300 billion and $500 billion a year. Even on the low end of that scale, that’s 120 Curiosity-type missions. I’m not suggesting Churches should pay taxes – they’re classified as charitable organizations along with other religious institutions and similarly charitable organizations. I just think it’s an interesting point of comparison.

The other thing this woman said that I wanted to counter was her claim that Curiosity cost more than half the country’s defense budget. Even if she misspoke and meant to say that NASA costs more than half of what we spend on defense, she’s so wrong. In 2011, the US spent $878.5 billion on defense; NASA got less than $19.3 billion.

In sticking with the military end of things, one of the most common figures cited about how little money NASA gets – and how little Curiosity cost – is in comparison to the US’s spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Curiosity photographed the bedrock exposed by the descent module’s blast. Credit: NASA/JPL

The total costs of both wars allocated by Congress in the last ten years is $1.38 trillion; $807.4 billion in Iraq and $570.9 billion in Afghanistan. These figures don’t include soldiers’ regular pay or potential future costs like medical care for veterans or the additional interest payments on the national debt that come from war spending.

Admittedly, this is a really hard comparison to make. Supporting and caring for the men and women who put their lives on the line in a time of war is of course important. But the astounding cost of these wars compared to one mission that will teach us about our place in the universe is striking. Not to mention a strong impetus to end both wars.

One of the first, rear hazcam images from Curiosity after landing. Credit: NASA

The problem most people have with the price tag of a mission like MSL seems to be that it doesn’t provide an immediate return. After the excitement of landing, which of course wasn’t as exciting as the “7 Minutes of Terror” video is for most people, the first images from Curiosity seemed lackluster. They appeared around the internet with captions like “I spent $2.5 billion and all I got was this lousy postcard.” Even amazing pictures of the rover’s tracks along the surface – some from orbit even! – are drawing questions about why we had to spend so much money to give some nerds an RC car to drive on Mars.

The questions Curiosity is out to answer, the ones past missions continues to shed light on, and the ones future missions will investigate impact all of us. This is saying nothing about the spin-off technologies that come from the space agency, like Lasik that grew from the technology that makes autonomous orbital rendezvous possible.

I think the real question is when did people stop looking at the world and universe around us as a wonderful mystery worth solving?

Comments

  1. Jasper says

    I assume for some people ignorance is bliss. Hearing or reading a (misleading) story and claiming them as truth afterwards. Unfortunately, these people apparently don’t feel the need to check the facts and they’re getting a completely wrong picture.
    These people, did they also react this way at the average cost (± $1.5 Billion) of a complete shuttle turnaround? Of which there were 135?

    As a European, I often get the idea the amount of misinformation on spaceflight in the US is quite big. If we’re talking about spaceflight, some people even seem to believe Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in a space shuttle. A lot of Americans appear to believe there won’t be a manned American spacecraft for decades. Most of them seem to forget the period between the ASTP (1975) and STS-1 (1981), in which the US actually did not send any people into orbit. Now there are Americans in space.

    Although I fear the lady in question might stick to her own ‘truths’ because some people just are too busy staring into their own navel to notice the world around them, I very much appreciate your effort to show the facts as they really are. Keep up the good work!

  2. says

    I wonder why she correlated the defense budget with Curiosity: does she use the defense budget as a metric for exorbitant government spending and thus malign both, or does she think that the government should use the hypothetical “half” on MORE defense spending as an example of how supposedly little we spend on maintaining our “Christian birthright” as some of the Tea Partiers would like to claim.

    • says

      She simply tried to compare the spending to many different areas where the Government spends our money because the comparison between this and the military budget had already been suggested not because any one of the facts should be the standard of judgement for any of the others because although the money all comes from the same place not all issues are equal each must get what they need and deserve. If one is going to claim that we are spending is unfairly spread they should have the facts to back it up even if those facts happen to disprove your hypothesis at least you learned the truth.

  3. says

    Christian motivational writer? No point in trying to explain the exploration of the cosmos to her. Hell, she probably thinks the Earth is flat, and that the Universe is five thousand years old.

    Good to see you didn’t waste too much time on her. You can set people straight who have a normal level of ignorance, but you can’t fix stupid.

    • says

      I’m pretty curious on why you paint all Christians with such a wide brush. Stereotype much? Feel better about yourself spouting inaccuracies about an entire faith?

      • says

        “(W)hy /(do) you paint all Christians with such a wide brush?”
        Because those are the very things that the Bible, the foundational document of the Christian faith, says—and surveys have shown that a large percentage of Christians believe them to be true. It’s not a stereotype if it’s a fact.

        • says

          “… and surverys have shown…”

          Cite your sources. Oh, you can’t? I’m not surprised since what you and Mike are saying is completely false. Not all Christians, and certainly nothing near a majority as you’re attempting to claim, believe the Earth is flat nor do they believe the universe is 5,000 years old.

          How would you feel if I started making racial stereotypes like you’re doing with the Christian faith. Would you call me a racist? What would that make you?

  4. Fernando Sanchez says

    Amy…..Even though i do not fully support the Curiosity Agenda you need to understand that this mission have the potential to bring almost 75 percent of the whole planet Mars to us. Curiosity comes with NUCLEAR POWER so it can roam forever …..I am crossing my fingers we do not fall on a sand trap…..Chill out…..

  5. says

    What scares me is where she got her misinformation. Most people like that didn’t research anything; they just parrot what they heard somewhere else. (COUGHfoxnewsCOUGH)

  6. addison says

    Your comparisons are great.

    Just want to add another not related to Curiosity, more to the Space Shuttle.
    But related to NASA’s budget.

    And they had a great quote about immigration enforcement:

    “If you add up the budgets of the responsible agencies since 1986, the bill is $219 billion in today’s dollars — roughly the entire cost of the space shuttle program. Unlike the space shuttle program, though, there’s no end in sight. ”

    http://www.npr.org/2012/09/12/160758471/u-s-grows-an-industrial-complex-along-the-border

  7. Stu Young says

    Some months ago, I jotted down some figures, supposedly from a report completed at Brown University (unfortunately I didn’t record when the report was released, or look for independent confirmation of same): the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq–together with the counterinsurgency efforts in Pakistan–are estimated to cost, all told, $4 trillion.
    The human cost, from the same report: 225,000 dead.
    Thank God, some defense contractors got something out of it…

  8. says

    I think Neil D. Tyson says NASAs entire budget is about a HALF A CENT on the dollar and there’s a campaign online asking the government to up it to just one full cent on the budgetary dollar. A pittance that would double their operating budget, create more jobs and inspire our youth to get interested in science, exploration and engineering! It’s a cheap price to pay for something like that.

  9. Jordan says

    An even better comparison would be to compare the cost of the Curiosity programme over the last nine years to the total cost of all the Olympics held over those same nine years.

  10. Kevin Caslow says

    Didn’t you have a computer in front of you? You couldn’t take the time to open up her perspective? There has to have been somewhere on the web were you could have shown her that the cost of NASA per year for each American which includes all missions future and current costs an American about a 16 ounce cup of Starbucks latte per year. Each American…$5 a year…That’s a Neil DeGrasse Tyson figure. I’m a Christian. Not all of us are Fox News junkies. Keep generalizations out of your viewpoints and you’ll come across as a better person. I’m positive that as a Christian, I represent the majority of our people. The internet is full of trolls who have nothing better to do than to slander. Most of us just keep quiet. I love Curiosity! I can’t wait till the satellite we sent to Pluto gets there! Nice article BTWay.

    • Scott Gordon says

      NASA budget is tracking around US$18 billion a year. Split it between about 300 million Americans and you’ve got US$60 a year or US$0.16 a day, per person. A lot higher than you quoted but still small change in the scheme of things [compare eg. to the US Defence Department which is about US$4,000 a year per person when you add in interest payments on debts, and supposedly has a bigger space program than NASA].

      If Americans can’t afford 16 cents a day for NASA then their priorities have serious problems. They surely spend more on pretty much anything you care to think of.

  11. says

    It is good to see so many open minded people, even if there are always a few in the crowd who can never seem to see the bigger picture. I hope that we might be ready to begin doing some orbital clean-up in the near future and have seen some of the reusable 1st stage rockets that may give us just the opportunity we need to begin collecting all the old junk to be recycled for the next generation. My parents watched a man walk on the moon and now it is up to my generation to clean up the mess that was left behind. (LOL)

  12. says

    when did people stop looking at the world and universe around us as a wonderful mystery worth solving?

    They only pick at this because of all the corrupt spending going on. Me, I’m setting up my first telescope tonight! Pumped! (46 year old Pro Photographer here people!) Hoping to learn about astrophotography and astronomy.

    What we should do is build a spaceship for corrupt business men, lawyers and Washington DC insiders and send them off to some far off galaxy and study them, How long it takes for them to eat each other and screw each other over.. to be ahead, to have more and more. There is enough in this universe and on Earth to supply for all if we can get past greed.

    A friend of mine has a theory on all that empty space up there in a clear night sky, he says it’s heaven (God’s World) the glue that holds it all together. Well.. a little deep I guess.. but wow! Any topic universe is mind bending to me! Visit my site if you like astro-photography – I’m just starting out learning about all this..

    I enjoyed this article. I say, Let’s get on with it! Woman on Mars! The men will only mess it up,.. or blow it up!

  13. Mark H says

    Science versus Religion. While its not the main point of the article it is the underlying theme that readers seem to have picked up on.
    I’m not a sports person so I think the cost of the Olympics is a total waste of money and would have been better spent on the space program. But that is just my biased opinion I’m sure the keen athletes of the world would argue just as passionately in favour of the Olympics.

    And so it is with the Christian woman, she is entitled to her opinion and there is more than a good chance that all the cost comparisons would not change her mind in the least. But she must be good at her job because she motivated you to write a great article ;)

  14. says

    I’m going to slam a science writer who’s on my side for a lack of vision. Ms. Teitel fails to understand the magnitude of what curiosity, the intellectual pursuit not merely the Mars Rover, does for us.

    The disciplined, intelligent pursuit of answers to our deepest questions about the universe leads us to face challenges in every area of thought. We will learn things about the way human brains work from dealing with the necessary autonomy of Mars Rovers, for example. Unlike the majority of the advances of technology over the 20th Century, though, these don’t come as the result of war, and we hold on to them and “recycle” technologies (as we did on a variety of deep-space probes. starting in the late ’70s) because they have applications to the next step of both exploration and to the things we want to do more easily in daily life.

    After Apollo 17 we abandoned the Moon in the most Neanderthal retreat from the intellectual frontier of the 20th Century. The afterglow of the space program, reflected in advances in computers, telecommunications, and dozens of other fields masks the cost of that abandonment. For forty years we have lived off the fruit of people, especially men, educated in the sciences in the expectation of a great adventure. Now, though, the percentage of males in higher education, especially the sciences, has plummeted. Americans in general and American men especially are literally sneered at in the graduate schools of this country. In the 1970s America chose to be a vision-free zone and, as President Kennedy noted in a speech delivered the night before he died “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

    The greatest benefit of a visionary pursuit of our sense of wonder happens in the minds of the young. Ms. Teitel wrote her article while speaking to someone whose mind was anchored to the Earth, and perhaps to fear. What she should have known to say to the Christian writer was that the ultimate act of faith is to commit a people to the pursuit of understanding the creation we have been given, and that both the material and spiritual fruit of that quest can be beyond imagining.

  15. Mark H says

    I’m going to slam a reader for his unbelievable lack of tact. Lee fails to understand that the article is titled “The Cost of Curiosity” not “The Vainglorious Visions of Curiosity”.

    I was reading a NASA blog about the recent evidence for an old streambed on Mars and they also didn’t veer off into some sermon about the magnitude and vision of Curiosity because that wasn’t its aim. Ms. Teitel has stayed on track but Lee is trying to criticise it for being something it was never meant to be.

  16. says

    Somewhere on the Internet, I saw (something like) this quip recently: “Over the past ten years, NASA spent $2.5 billion sending a one ton, nuclear powered mobile science lab to Mars. In the past year, the Department of Homeland Security spent $8 billion keeping shampoo off of airliners.”

    I shake my head…

  17. Rob says

    Just take away all their precious fancy electronic gadgets, and than tell them this is the way the world would be like when the space race never happened.

    And than start taking away all the other things that were invented during, and after that period while in space.

    Ignorance might be bliss, but some people just don’t have a clue….

  18. scott says

    I think this article would be just as great without the tiny knock at religion.
    Nice work, though. I’ve been meaning to tell you how much I love your writing. I get really excited about space, and your excitement for all things space really comes through in your work. I’m thrilled to see where else your writing takes you! Keep it up!

  19. CJ says

    I’m new to your blog but I wanted to say how much I enjoyed this article. I plan on sharing it with friends and family who have expressed the same skepticism over space exploration costs. When you hold up a mirror to the nations other spending habits it makes Curiosity type missions seem like a bargain. The challenge now is to keep the images and science coming back from Mars interesting for the average person who has lost interest in the mission since it landed.

  20. kemcab2012 says

    I have a tendency to point people toward http://wtnasa.com/ to show how supporting basic space science research improves the base level for us all.
    Kidney dialysis? Thanks NASA.
    Satellites, GPS, camera phones, weather tracking? Thanks NASA.
    Hurricane and storm prediction based on space shuttle led research? Thanks NASA.
    Wing tip development for planes that greatly improves fuel economy and passes the savings on to consumers? Thanks NASA.
    Air revitalization technology now used in coal mines to protect miners? Thanks NASA.

    There is a great gap in the mind of the average taxpayer when it comes to understanding how foundation science leads to innovation and improvements for everybody. It’s hard to fathom that spending money to study the universe outside our own planet can help us here.

    As an example, one of the most oft complaints I hear is, “How does NASA feed the poor across the world?” They provided the technology used by satellites for farm equipment tracking, crop measurement, and weather analysis that farmers can be use to improve crop yield. That leads to greatly increased food production used to feed people across the world.

  21. gabriellerab says

    Neat article. I’ve watched the continual gutting of NASA’s budget with some sadness, although I think private space initiatives might provide a nice alternative. As for the fact that most people don’t appreciate science/exploration unless there are immediate returns… this is a big challenge for those of us who do science and want to get people excited about it. I actually used the Curiosity mission (and the media hype that exploded after John Grotzinger got excited about his work on NPR) as an example of the challenges for scientists trying to communicate their enthusiasm in this blog post I wrote: http://incubator.rockefeller.edu/?p=559. Let me know what you think and share with others if you like it. :)

  22. Jeremy says

    I just did a quick back-of-the-notebook calculation, $2.5 billion spend over 10 years means the 7-minutes of terror cost about $3300, which is pretty cheap considering the going rate for say, superbowl commercials at around $8 million/minute.

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