“Weekly Standard”, Feb 9, 2004, pp. 18-19
A Trillion Here, a Trillion There . . .
Going to Mars isn’t nearly as expensive as you’ve heard.
BY JAMES OBERG
IT HAS ALREADY BECOME conventional wisdom that President Bush’s proposed mission to send man to Mars will cost a trillion dollars —even many trillions of dollars. At that cost, it’s no wonder public support for the White House space vision is wavering. But is that number credible? Where does it come from?
It has certainly been tossed around a lot since Bush’s January 14 speech. An Associated Press article suggested that “informal discussions have put the cost of a Mars expedition at nearly $1 trillion.” Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste used the figure in a press release: “While space exploration may be a noble idea, it is not feasible at this time. . . . Cost estimates for the new programs range from $550 billion to $1 trillion.” Robert Greenstein, of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities told NBC Evening News, “We’re probably ultimately talking about half a trillion to a trillion dollars from a budget that is already trillions of dollars in deficit.” The T-word has since been repeated by countless others.
But looking at the costs in the same way engineers have sized up past space programs suggests the price tag on Bush’s proposals will be five to ten times less than these frightening numbers. So why isn’t that what the public is hearing?
Space historian Dennis Powell complains: “The most misleading of the arguments is the one having to do with cost. The number being batted around—$1 trillion—was apparently pulled by someone from the thin vacuum of space. It is a made-up number. A fabrication.”
Now, it’s undeniable that space programs cost money. NASA currently spends about $15 billion a year, and the Defense Department gets $20 billion more for military satellites and rockets. Putting humans on more advanced spaceships—“Project Constellation,” as NASA calls the new effort—will cost even more. And of course for many people even the president’s recommendation for an additional billion dollars annually for NASA over the next five years is too much. But what kind of number is realistic? Answering this question requires a little history.
This is not the first time people have come up with super-high price tags for a manned mission to Mars. Back in the mid-1960’s, a number of scientists, none with direct experience in space-engineering budgets, issued what space workers call SWAGs (scientific wild-ass guesses) on the expected costs of a Mars mission. These were based on strained analogies with what they thought they knew about the Apollo program. For example, in 1965, Dr. D.F. Hornig, science adviser to President Lyndon B. Johnson, told a Senate committee, “If we compare the probable scale and technical difficulties of a manned Mars expedition with Apollo, it is hard to conclude that its probable cost could be much less than perhaps five times that of Apollo— that is, of the order of $100 billion.”
Space experts who actually did their homework, produced more firmly grounded prices. In 1966, rocket engineer Krafft Ehricke cautioned against extrapolating from the moon mission costs and predicted a “relatively low cost of developing a manned planetary capability” because “many of the preparations are identical with those required to attain a better orbital and lunar capability.”
Dr. Charles S. Sheldon II, an unsung genius of space policy analysis in his two decades at the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service, drew a very similar conclusion in the early 1970s: “If one assumes a [space] program will have other reasons to develop a reusable shuttle, a versatile space tug and a universal space station module (all to serve many Earth orbital economic, military and scientific purposes) then even the total costs of developing a Mars expedition become far different from the kind of $100 billion figure which has been common to the literature.
“People tend to overlook how much of the Apollo costs were associated with building a basic U.S. space capability rather than just going to the moon per se,” Sheldon continued.
“One might think of a Mars expedition . . . as much closer to the order of magnitude of $l0 billion rather than the $25 to $35 billion of Apollo or the $100 billion postulated so often for Mars.”
In the years right after the Apollo program, analysts in the British Interplanetary Society, based in London, did their own cost studies for a joint U.S.-Europe man-to-Mars program. Engineer Robert Parkinson reported: “The costs for such an expedition are largely a matter of accounting. . . . If we cost only those items specific to the mission the cost is modest—about $4 billion. . . . Given the right circumstances it is actually cheaper to send men than to try to do the same thing with dozens of robot expeditions.”
Obviously, the figures from these discussions of the 1960s and 1970s need to be adjusted for inflation, which is why, for convenience’ sake, these and later analysts of Mars costs began speaking in terms of a unit they called “one Apollo.” This was the amount spent during the Moon Race. It equaled $25 billion in 1970, and adjusted for inflation is now about $100 billion. (Thus to speak of a trillion dollar price tag is to say that a Mars mission will cost ten Apollos.)
At the beginning of the shuttle program, space budget analysts again considered what projects like a mission to Mars might cost. Humboldt Mandel, an economist and space engineer in Houston, argued that sending astronauts to Mars should actually be cheaper than the Apollo program:
“Advances in structural technology will make the structural masses required only a fraction of those estimates in 1960. The weights of the avionics components required to guide and manage so ambitious a flight have been reduced to negligible percentages of their 1960 weights. Even more significantly, the reliabilities required for long duration flights are now attainable within current states of the art in avionics, and at negligible increases in subsystems weights. Other advances in the weights of electrical equipment, motors, relays, and power generating devices have made the planetary vehicles of today’s design bear little resemblance to those of the 1960’s.”
Mandel did the arithmetic and concluded, “Even adding room for cost growth it represents much less than paid for the first manned lunar landing. In terms of contemporary Gross National Product equivalents, it is only a fraction of what Apollo cost.” These conclusions were based on methods that had accurately forecast the price tag of Apollo, and came within 3 percent of estimating the eventual cost of the space shuttle.
Mars costs, as Mandel suggested, can also be considered as a fraction of the economy. As a percentage of today’s gross national product, Apollo cost 2.8 percent; he estimated the Shuttle and the man-to-Mars programs would each cost one-sixth that. As a percentage of national budget, Apollo was 2.2 percent, the Shuttle was a fifth of that, and the Mars flight a third of the Apollo level. “We’ve convinced ourselves that going to Mars is such a tremendous undertaking, that when you see real numbers you tend not to believe them,” Mandel said. “The costs of landing men on Mars, by any measure, are only a fraction of those experienced during Apollo.”
Experts with proven track records agree. Returning to the Moon with spacecraft capable of extended stays is going to be expensive, but less than half the cost of Apollo. Once those capabilities are bought and paid for, the new vehicles needed for interplanetary flight—and their operating costs —may amount to as much as another “half Apollo.” Such estimates jibe with the talk during congressional hearings on January 27 of $170 billion for all the Bush space projects (NASA has as yet offered no precise cost estimates of its own).
These estimates still add up to only a fraction of the “trillion dollar” budgetary bogeyman that opponents of the program are frightening the public with, and they are spread over a period of decades. Compared to what is now being spent on education and health, this is “spare change” by any proportional consideration, and certainly not the “budget buster” critics have been claiming.
So where did the trillion-dollar SWAG come from? Historian Dennis Powell believes the bogus figure “derives from the half-trillion dollars NASA (kicking up its heels in delight) estimated would be the cost of a goldplated moon base and trip to Mars when George H. W. Bush first proposed it in 1989. Someone, somewhere, applied some goofy mathematical spinning to the price of NASA’s 1989 wish list and came up with the $1 trillion figure. It’s worth remembering that NASA didn’t get its wish list.”
David Portree, author of a book describing NASA’s many different plans for Mars, quotes Humboldt Mandell as explaining that this 1989 plan “was over-costed by a considerable amount.” The original estimates included a 55 percent reserve. The cost of a permanent Moon base in that 1989 plan, including the 55 percent “cushion,” would have been $100 billion in constant 1991 dollars between 1991 and 2001. The Mars expedition would have cost an additional $158 billion between 1991 and 2016 based on the same stipulations. Thus, a return to the Moon to stay and a mission to Mars would have cost a total of $258 billion, of which 55 percent ($141 billion) was cushion and $117 billion was the expected actual cost.
And even that was “gold plated.” As with previous studies, Portee explained, this team “opted for a ‘brute-force’ approach to piloted Mars exploration requiring such big-ticket items as heavy-lift rockets that dwarfed the old Saturn V, nuclear-thermal propulsion, and a lunar outpost.”
But this approach never gained much support. Indeed, “proposing it repeatedly over the past 30 years has succeeded mainly in ingraining the belief that Mars exploration must be exorbitantly expensive,” Portree concluded.
These perceptions have clearly not been expunged. And the current wild estimates may already be serving their political purpose. “Once the inaccurate numbers are out there, they can do damage,” notes Dr. Dwayne Day, a Washington-based space policy analyst and former investigator on the Columbia accident investigation board. “Now many members of the American public believe that a moon base will cost a trillion dollars.
“Reporters influence the political debate, and by being sloppy in their job they can change policy in ways that are unfair,” he continued, in a comment recently distributed over an Internet forum. “The possibility of the White House pursuing a lunar base program may have suffered real harm because some reporters used bad sources with bad information.”