Invoice for Mars Mission: $1 Trillion?

Sending humans into space has become mundane.  In addition to various government space programs, there are now private corporations either sending people to space or planning commercial space flights.  The holy grail of all this development is to send a human mission to Mars.

In 1969 the first humans stepped onto the surface of the moon in a program that cost between $20-23 billion.  Adjusted for inflation and current market prices, NASA estimated that the six moon landings of the Apollo program would cost $170 billion today.  That seems likes peanuts compared to the estimated cost associated with sending one mission to Mars by 2040.  Some estimates put that figure at close to $1 trillion.

Mars One Proposal

That figure is in dispute.  A Dutch entrepreneur believes he can send four people to Mars for $6 billion. His plan, under the umbrella of Mars One, is to send colonists on a one way trip to settle on the planet.  He will then send additional groups every few years to increase the population and bring in additional supplies.  Mars One claims they will launch the first crew in 2023 and has already received hundreds of thousands of applications from those want to be on the first ship.

The $6 billion price tag seems low, given that the Mars rover Curiosity cost $2.5 billion.  The trick behind the Mars One cost is that it only considers the hardware of the ship and the operational expenses associated with the program.  It relies on buying ships and equipment from other companies and assumes such technology will be available in time.  They also plan to offset the cost of the program by turning it into a reality television show, where people on earth can watch the training, launch, and mission life in the comfort of their homes.

Real Costs of Mars

Experts agree that the cost of reaching Mars extends far beyond the purchase of a ship.  In fact, a group of professionals from 20 different organizations are meeting throughout 2014 in a series of conferences to determine how to reach Mars in the 2030s.  Sponsored by the American Astronautical Society and Explore Mars, Inc., the first conference, in December 2013, identified several key steps along the road to sending humans to land on the Red Planet.

  • Coordinated human and robotic missions — these will lay the groundwork for a future Mars mission, including missions that test landing options, return trips, and eventually a manned orbital mission to the planet.
  • Deployment of a transitional deep-space facility and bridge facility in addition to upgrades to the International Space Station
  • Development and construction of space craft capable of transporting humans and necessary equipment for landing/settling the planet.
  • Development and construction of equipment necessary to survive on the planet for a short or long-term mission. This includes housing, food production and environmental controls that will survive in less gravity, extreme temperatures, and the stormy environment of Mars.
  • Research into the physical, health, and psychological effects of both the long space journey and the time on the planet in order to develop systems to ensure a positive experience for the Mars astronauts/settlers.
  • Administrative costs of coordinating R&D, technology, construction, and personnel across multiple governments, corporations, and non-profit agencies involved in the various Mars projects.

Adding all that together, it is easy to see that the cost of reaching Mars is probably much closer to the $1 trillion figure than the $6 billion proposal.

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