Price, and value, of Mars

This first appeared as a Comment in the 10 June issue of Flight Interntional

The International Space Station has been in orbit for 15 years, and has so far cost around $150 billion – roughly $10 per year for every man, woman and child in the USA, Russia, Japan, Canada and Europe.
That sounds like a lot. Imagine asking, say, a couple with two small children if they’d like to pay $40 every year to keep a few astronauts in an orbiting home. Now ask them if they’d like to pay, say, $400 every year for the rest of their working lives to fund the vastly more ambitious dream of sending a few scientists to Mars, maybe in about 2035 if it turns out to be feasible.
Of course, it doesn’t really work like that – it’s worse. NASA has the biggest budget of all prospective Mars partners, so Americans would foot the lion’s share of the bill. NASA is generally popular, but Mars is too distant – in time and technology – to imagine mustering the political will to sustain US leadership of a coherent programme to get there. Moreover, many people inside NASA and its counterparts would fight against a Mars effort that sucks the cash from all other programmes.
Taxpayers, too, would probably rebel. The European Space Agency spends about €400 million ($545 million) per year on all its exploration programmes – sending spacecraft to study Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and even the broader Milky Way and Universe. That equates to about the cost of a cup of coffee for each
citizen, which sounds like rather good value.

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