I have a confession to make: This article is actually only about the myth that sending humans to Mars will cost $1 trillion, but ironically, that myth is almost as much of a myth as the other two. Not that the federal government isn't perfectly capable of spending unimaginable sums of money on practically any project, but looking at current scenarios being considered for human missions to Mars, claims that such missions will cost a trillion dollars or more just don't add up (it would require the type of fuzzy math referred to by politicians). Will NASA need some budget increases to accomplish these missions? Probably, but these would almost certainly be modest increases to a budget that is already less than one half of one percent (0.004) of the federal budget.
Budgetary Context Makes all the Difference in the World
To be clear, if you add up expenditures of any federal program for a long enough period of time, you will reach $1 trillion, but the total of NASA's budget since its founding in 1958 still doesn't add up to anywhere near this amount of money -- even with adjusted dollars -- so it will be a long time before Mars missions would reach $1 trillion. Example: At the current rate of spending -- assuming Mars missions consumed an average of fifty percent of the NASA budget -- it would take approximately 100 years to reach a total of $1 trillion.
Unfortunately, this false narrative has been extremely damaging, and it is well-known that most Americans believe NASA receives far more money that it actually does. This false perception has done more damage than any technical challenges to Mars exploration because it's not only the general public who have an inflated understanding of space exploration expenditures, but many policy-makers and candidates for higher office also share this misperception.
The Difference between Potholes and Mars
For instance, when a student asked Donald Trump whether he would support human missions to Mars, the candidate's answer reflected the disconnect between budgetary fiction and reality. While he didn't reject the concept outright, Trump stated that we need to fix infrastructure (potholes) in the U.S. before sending humans to Mars. To be clear, the infrastructure in our country does need to be fixed, but that has little bearing on space exploration. It's not a matter of apples and oranges. It's more like a matter of apples and supertankers -- or skyscrapers. They are not even remotely in the same category. In reality, the dilapidated infrastructure in the U.S. is a vastly more complicated and expensive problem. Even if we canceled NASA outright (and all those funds were redistributed to infrastructure -- which they wouldn't be), it would barely make a dent on the state of our deteriorating bridges, highways, and other infrastructure while at the same time it would destroy the opportunities for great scientific discoveries and advances offered by NASA programs
A New Apollo is NOT What We Need
It is highly likely that NASA will still lead missions to Mars, but it is also becoming clear that we will not and should not try to create another Apollo Program. We have a vastly different political, economic, and international landscape than we did back in the 1960s. These missions will likely be partnerships between international entities, industrial/commercial players, and others. And there is growing interest in private missions as well. While it's unclear whether private missions to Mars will be viable in the next few decades, commercial/industrial entities certainly will play an ever-increasing role in future Mars missions.
Unquestionably, NASA and other partners need to be held accountable -- and that we need to harness as many new innovations and partnerships as practical to execute these missions within budgetary reality. But, whether you support space exploration or not, we all should consider the fact that over the next 15-20 years, the amount that is spent on NASA will not be dramatically different whether we go to Mars or not. Let's spend that funding well and do something bold and inspiring for the country and the world. Just imagine the technological breakthroughs that will be achieved, the inventions created, and the challenges overcome in building a mission to Mars. History has shown that the advancements from human space exploration are no myths.
Chris Carberry is CEO of Explore Mars and Co-Chair of the Humans to
Mars Summit http://H2M.ExploreMars.org