Priceonomics

Photo credit: NASA/Terry Zaperach

Forty five years since man first walked on the moon, are corporate sponsors and a Martian reality television show the key to reaching Mars? 

To understand why that might be, consider this simple financial fact. Last December, India launched its Mars Orbiter Mission into space at a cost of $73 million. As pointed out by The New York Times, its budget represents a mere ¾ of the production cost of Gravity, the Oscar-nominated space drama. 

In other words, Hollywood spent $27 million more faking a survival story in space than India spent to send an actual spacecraft to orbit Mars.

The Times also declared India’s mission “proof that a trip to Mars doesn’t have to break the bank.” Numerous publications analyzed how India could explore space on a budget: from the lower salaries of Indian engineers to the reusing old designs.

The idea that the United States faked the moon landing by filming the entire Apollo Mission on a Hollywood set is a popular conspiracy theory. The irony is that both now require surprisingly comparable budgets.

India’s program cemented its “space on a budget” status with the Mars Orbiter Mission. Americans and Indians alike compared its $73 million budget to that of Maven, NASA’s $671 million Mars Mission. But as Gravity is to the Mars Orbiter Mission, Avatar is to Maven. If you include marketing costs in addition to its production budget, Avatar cost its producers a cool half billion -- not far removed from Maven’s budget.

It’s the non-monetizable nature of current space exploration that makes huge sums of money available to fund Hollywood’s missions to Mars but not real ones. The same fact explains why funding is available to build the world’s tallest skyscraper or wage war, but not to fulfill a universal dream of building a moon colony or standing on Mars. 

This has led a number of space enthusiasts to describe the constraint on putting man on Mars as a business model problem rather than a technology problem. And one entrepreneur claims he is ready to solve the business model problem by turning a mission to Mars into the largest media event of all time.

Selling the Mars Mission

Former wind energy entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp founded Mars One in 2011 with the goal of establishing a human settlement on Mars within the next 10-15 years. 

It’s an ambitious goal, to say the least. But Lansdorp believes that existing technologies can take men and women to Mars, and that only funding is needed. He plans to raise that funding by turning the mission into a media spectacle that will rake in money by signing up corporate sponsors, selling naming rights to the spacecraft, and charging big bucks for the broadcasting fees to both the landing and the “reality show” of astronauts being chosen for and making the journey. 

The idea was first proposed in a 2010 issue of the Journal of Cosmology by Rhawn Joseph -- a man who theorizes that humans evolved in a planned manner from “cosmic seeds” that brought the first life to Earth and who recently sued NASA for ignoring what he identified as a fungus-like lifeform found by the Opportunity Mars rover. 

The idea may not be as kooky as it sounds. 

The idea that existing technologies can take humans to Mars is not exactly a universally held opinion. And Mars One has announced its intention, for example, to use hardware like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which has not yet been tested. Still, none other than astrophysicist and space evangelist Neil deGrasse Tyson has stated that:

“If China says it wants to put military bases on the moon or on Mars, we’re back. We’d be on Mars in two years if that were the case, no doubt about it.”

Plenty of experts have cast doubt on Mission One’s planned budget of a mere $6 billion for a Mars mission. A proposal at a NASA conference for an “austere” Mars mission still put the price tag at $100 billion over 18 years -- comparable to the International Space Station, which was initially quoted at $10 billion. While other NASA estimates drop to $50 billion or so, when President Bush toyed with plans for moon and Mars missions, a former top NASA official estimated a $130 billion price tag

Perhaps the most optimistic quote, from aerospace engineer and Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin, still is triple Mars One’s budget at $20 billion. But an article in the same issue of the Journal of Cosmology (from more mainstream authors) also proposed a one-way mission to Mars, like Lansdorp plans, as a means to reduce costs and accelerate space exploration.

Despite the doubts, enough people of merit believe in the idea to have signed on and lent credibility to the venture. The team members include several individuals with relevant experience. That includes Dr. Norbert Kraft, a former NASA expert on the psychology of long-duration spaceflight who designed selection criteria that has whittled Mars One’s pool of applicants from 200,000 wannabe astronauts to 1,058. And Mars One’s list of advisers and ambassadors includes NASA’s former chief technologist, an angel investor, a Nobel prize winning physicist, and, of course, Paul Romer, the original producer of the reality TV show “Big Brother.”

A mission to Mars should not require a gambit like Mars One’s media circus to make it happen. The comparisons of Mars rover budgets to Hollywood production costs reminds us of the relative bargain that a space mission represents. As Neil deGrasse Tyson tirelessly evangelizes, NASA’s budget is only half a percent of our taxpayer dollars, yet has bought us men on the moon, an International Space Station, pictures of deep space, and much more. Further, although space missions don’t offer immediate profits to fund the ventures, they are an investment. They produce new technologies, inspire a culture of science and innovation, and bring us closer to the promise of a private space sector. 

NASA could probably use a bit of Mars One’s pluck. Selling off naming rights to the next NASA space shuttle doesn’t strike us as a bad idea if it gets us to the Moon, an asteroid, or Mars sooner. But until people listen to Neil deGrasse Tyson, we’re stuck with the plan of the producer of Big Brother making a reality show out of a mission to Mars. We don’t mean that as a slight -- we wish them well.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google PlusTo get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list. Cover photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.



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