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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?