How much would it cost the U.S. to complete a historic trip to Mars? And how would it compare to the cost of the Apollo travel to the moon in the 60s, as well as when contrasted with the costs of mounting wars?
Pascal Lee, director of the Mars institute, an international non-profit research organization partially funded by NASA explained and broke down the costs of an expedition to Mars. Lee said that the Apollo lunar landing program cost $24 billion and this was in the 1960s but the money was spread over 10 years. The cost of fulfilling the Apollo dream at that time was equivalent to 4 percent of the country's GDP. Lee said that in order to gain more perspective on the depth and scale of the costs, he recalled that the U.S. also spent $24 billion per year at the Defense Department during the time of Vietnam War. It means then that going to the moon with funding spread over 10 years cost the same to run the Department of Defense for one year of war expenses.
Now, more than 50 years later, the NASA budget stands at $19 billion a year which is only equivalent to 0.3 percent of GDP, so it means that it's less than 10 times of what it cost in the 1960s. The Department of Defense receives $400 billion a year. Lee thinks then that doing a human mission to Mars "the government way" could not cost less than $400 billion. Lee said that was going to the moon, going to Mars, we just need to multiply that by a factor of 2 or 3 in terms of complexity, and he said that we are talking about $1 trillion, spread over the course of the next 25 years.
Lee also said that it's not yet within the realm of close possibilities for the country to send plain Janes to Mars. That's because Mars is an incredibly lethal environment, several things and conditions can result to horrible death if one is exposed unprotected. The prospect of having kids growing up in Mars is not happening anytime soon. What Lee said they envision is something like Antartica, where maybe a handful of people there at a time performing research for a few decades. He also mentioned about another group that wants to turn a Mars mission into a reality show and fund it through commercials, but Lee finds those unrealistic.
The biggest cost is not even rocketry which Lee said is about the easiest part. It is to develop all the new systems that would allow us to go to Mars and be productive explorers there. On Mars, there's the issue of gravity being only about one-third of the Earth's so there's a space suit with a felt-weight of 125 lbs. Lee said that's way too heavy so there's a technical challenge to cut the mass of the space suit the U.S. currently have in half. He said that pretty much is easier said than done. Lee also pointed out that they would be looking for life, so they have to develop technology that can dig down beneath Mars' inhospitable surface to find ice or water and to also develop the means of transporting ourselves to locations where that water exists. The set-up is far more complex than Apollo.
Lee also said that the reality of Mars is unforgiving, but that's also the very same reason that makes an expedition to it interesting, challenging and exciting. He said it is like President Kennedy said that "We would go to Mars not because it was easy, but because it is hard. During the time of Apollo, the biggest benefit to the U.S. was to show the Soviet Union that the Western way of life was better and more capable. The scientific benefit was also immense as it gave a huge shot of "steroids" to science, technology, engineering, mathematics education. The number of graduates in the fields of science and mathematica more than doubled in mid-60s and early 70's.