Kickstarter for Mars?

I know this sound ridiculous on the surface, but have we reached the point where someone should be doing a Kickstarter project for a manned mission to Mars? The NASA budget continues to limp along at about half the inflation-adjusted size of the 1966 Apollo peak. Proposals for manned missions to Mars keep getting cancelled and reproposed, but they are always far enough down the road that it’s a future president who will have to come up with the funds. Inside Washington circles, it seems like NASA is the unloved dog that is still too cute for anyone to put down.

Yet outside of Washington, NASA and some of the private space ventures are quite popular. In national polls, NASA gets approval ratings in the 55-75% range, compared to 30% for the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, Congress has been struggling beneath 20% for over four years. Politicians would kill for NASA’s numbers – especially right now after Curiosity’s successful Mars landing – and yet the only thing they’re killing is NASA’s budget.

So, maybe it’s time to bypass the politicians altogether and raise the money privately.

Let’s talk numbers. NASA’s budget for 2012 is $17.7 billion (USD). Worldwide, government space agencies are spending about $27.5 billion, of which about $10 billion is for manned flight. That’s a lot, but it’s not much compared to the US or global economies.

That’s how much we’re spending now for a modest amount of manned activity in low Earth orbit. What about going to Mars? How much will that cost? Well, the problem is that no one really knows for sure, but estimates range from the fantastically low $4 billion to the unfundable $1 trillion. Other numbers from recent NASA estimates have put it in the $40-60 billion range, with the cost to be spread over ten years.

Which numbers should we believe? Well, past space projects (and technology projects in general) lead me to believe that it won’t cost nearly as much as the initial high-end estimates. Aerospace engineers are smart guys – like rocket-scientist smart – and they tend to figure stuff out once they put their minds to it. So, I’m willing to throw out the trillion dollar estimate as that of a pessimist who is predisposed against the idea.

But on the other hand, it’s never quite as simple as you think it’s going to be, and cost overruns add up, so whatever we think it’s going to be when we lay down the initial specs, we can count on that cost to go up by 50% to 100%. I think that pretty much blows the $4 billion estimate out of the water.

But somewhere in between, say $50-100 billion, spread over ten years… that seems quite reasonable. It’s also a number on par with what we’re currently spending on manned space missions worldwide, i.e. that earlier $10 billion. On the one hand, you could say we’re already spending that and not getting to Mars, but we are getting something for it. It’s also a measure that there is an aerospace industry ready to absorb that kind of money and do something with it.

Ok, anyone got $100 billion to spare? Well I don’t, but I’ve easily got $100 I’d throw at this. Heck, I’d throw $100 at it every year for ten years. I mean, really, $100 is about the cost of taking my wife out to dinner and a movie (plus the babysitter). To see us put people on Mars in the next decade, I’d gladly give up a date like that once per year.

But how many people are like me that way? Well, if everyone in America felt the same, that would yield a budget of $30 billion annually. Well, let’s say half that because, after all, my wife is part of that $100 date. Still, that’s $15 billion. But not everyone in America is as pro-NASA as I am. Even with a 66% approval rating, that’s a third of the people who don’t like it. So that knocks us down to $10 billion per year, which is about on target.

Of course, it’s easy to say you like NASA, but parting with Mr. Franklin may be a little harder, so perhaps it’s unrealistic of me to think that 66% of Americans would toss their hard earned cash into such an effort, but this doesn’t have to be done by NASA. With private enterprises like SpaceX building and launching their own vehicles like the Dragon capsule, this could conceivably be an entirely private venture, funded by individuals and corporations across the globe. And for that matter, while many people would only drop in their pocket change, others would pony up for more.

Logistically, it would have to be funded and engineered in stages. That would probably slow things down from ten years to fifteen or twenty, but it would be one of the best ways to build credibility. At each stage we would learn more about the shape of the problem and refine the designs for the next stages.

Certainly, we are going to learn a lot from the Curiosity mission, particularly whether or not there is accessible water in the Martian soil. That mission cost has been estimated at $2.5 billion, or about $8 per US citizen. Given how excited everyone is about it, I think we got our $8 value from just watching the landing.

And I think that kind of thing would be key to ramping up the funding momentum. With each success building towards the ultimate manned missions, excitement would build, and that would drive the funding. More rovers, sample return missions, test runs of new drive systems, all could be played for the kind of buzz we’ve seen this week, and the funding for future missions could be timed to tie into that.

Visible successes – and yes, even tragic missteps – would make us all feel like we’re part of it along the way, so when we see that first boot print on Martian soil, we could all say, “I made that happen.”

On the other hand, it might be too much to ask. The only other secular funding effort on this scale is the American political process, and $10 billion is more than is raised/spent even in a presidential election year. But I’d like to think we could get even more excited about going to Mars than prevailing over the hippie/redneck across the street.