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Curiosity Comes Cheap - Why the latest Mars rover (and all planetary exploration) is a steal

Posted by Casey Dreier

09-08-2012 8:43 CDT

Topics: Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory)

It’s happening again, sure as clockwork. Unable to tear themselves away from the lazy narratives that the media hold on to like so many safety blankets, the usual tropes about MSL Curiosity’s cost are popping up in almost every news story or interview about the mission.

Here’s a good example. Here, Adam Steltzner (Curiosity EDL Lead Engineer) is being interviewed by Shepard Smith on Fox News. Note that this is the morning after he and his team’s greatest professional achievement in their collective lives. Pay special attention to the attitude of the questioner:

It’s not enough that the landing was a complete success. It’s not enough that JPL and NASA have gone almost 15 years without a major robotic mission failure. No, it always comes back to the tired questions of “can we afford this?” and “why should we pay for it?”

Here, the media, let me answer these questions for you. I’ll save you the trouble of having to ask them again:

1) Yes.

2) To develop advanced technology and push the limits of engineering capability, to question our place in the cosmos, and to pursue the eternal desire of exploration unique to our species.

There. That wasn’t too hard, was it? And let me add the additional note, which is something that we all must keep in mind. This is the sad irony of this entire narrative:

The Curiosity mission was cheap. In fact, our entire planetary exploration program costs almost nothing.

Let me explain, because I’m sure that the number 2.5 billion is popping into your head right now (see how insidious the narrative is?).

Curiosity had a total cost of 2.5 billion dollars, yes, but it’s not like NASA went over to the Rover Depot, plucked the glamor model off the shelf and whipped out Uncle Sam’s credit card.

No, NASA spread the cost of this mission out over eight years. The money spent went into salaries of highly-skilled engineers, programmers, managers, and independent contractors in over twenty states across the country. Things like the cost of rocket to launch it to Mars are included in that total, too, which accounts for nearly a fifth of the amount.

If you you just divide the total cost by the number of years NASA has saved for it, you come out with about $312 million per year. This works about to approximately 1.8% of NASA’s yearly budget and approximately diddly-squat of the total federal budget. That’s about $1 per year for every American, aka, nothing. Think of it this way: say you lose one dime every month this year. Whoops! You’ve lost more money than you spent on Curiosity.

For this tiny amount of money, we’ve developed some of the most advanced machinery ever created. We advance our scientific understanding of the universe. We encourage the development of highly-educated problem solvers and provide some of them with jobs. We’ll make discoveries and raise new questions that no one could have previously dreamed of.

A larger topic that I’ll discuss in a separate post is our whole Planetary Exploration budget, which is a division inside of NASA responsible for every robotic mission to the planets. And I really mean every mission: New Horizons, Juno, Voyager, Cassini, MER Opportunity, Curiosity, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, and the rest. All of those are funded out of the pool of money reserved for planetary exploration, which is filled to the tune of about $1.5 billion a year. That’s really it. Americans spend more on dog toys every year than the cost to run all of these missions. Just think about that the next time someone in the media asks the question, “can we afford this?”

That’s the crux of this sorry joke. Not only can we afford it, we can afford to spend a lot more. Instead, we choose not to explore. We choose not to know what’s out there. We choose to pretend that Curiosity is some budget-busting mission when really it’s one of the best deals we get from our tax dollars.

We need to change the narrative. The next time someone you know comments about the cost of Curiosity or any other NASA mission, respond with, “Yeah, I know! It’s so cheap! It’s amazing how much they can achieve despite their funding.”

Finally, if you are a scientist and you face this type of question, don’t answer defensively! A defensive answer serves only to legitimize the argument. A respectful answer that denies the validity of the question is the most important way to respond.

Slowly, we can change the question from “why so much?” to “why so little?”

See also: this is a good, long letter from the associate director of Science at a NASA center in the 1970's arguing the value of space exploration.

See other posts from August 2012


Or read more blog entries about: Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory)


Winston: 08/09/2012 10:14 CDT

1. The discovery of life or past life on another planet would be perhaps the most significant discovery in the history of science. Robotic missions are the lowest cost way to find it. 2. Robotic missions develop artificial intelligence and robot technologies that are also highly useful here on Earth. 3. Being the world leader in any science or technology attracts the best talent in the world to the country which leads in that area. We want to be that country.

guy: 08/09/2012 10:29 CDT

Now, wasn't MSL one billion dollars over budget, and entirely emblematic of NASA's inability to constrain costs on flagship missions, and might not this "narrative" put pressure on to reign things in for the future instead of the permissive "it was cheap" which would allow it to happen again, and threaten other missions?

Sleeperman: 08/09/2012 10:50 CDT

Agree completely. Cost criticism has been going on since Apollo, at least. The problem is, funding space science just doesn't buy enough votes.

reader: 08/09/2012 11:07 CDT

I am sure other scientists that got their missions cut due to MSL overruns do not quite see it as "came cheap" The amount of overrun equals roughly two Discovery class missions that did not fly, doesn't it ?

Casey Dreier: 08/09/2012 11:10 CDT

@Guy: Yes, it was overbudget from its initial outlay. That will tend to happen with flagship missions due to their technical difficulty. Please note that I'm not excusing NASA for project overruns–it's frustrating for everyone. My point in this article, however, is that the cost criticism is applied to *every* mission, whether or not it was on-budget. It's the default angle for almost every news story, and it has to change.

Sleeperman: 08/09/2012 12:27 CDT

Seems to me that virtually ALL government programs end up costing more than advertised. NASA amounts to a piss in the ocean compared to the vast amounts wasted on social engineering, wars on drugs, etc.

Kevin: 08/09/2012 02:25 CDT

It's unfortunate that it went over budget. However, I would contend that a NASA mission going over budget doesn't even begin to compare to the many missions that have either gone over budget or have been scrapped by the military and spending many billions: Unfortunately, the NASA over-budget narrative isn't how to rein in spending. The narrative becomes, "Why are we funding them again? This is a waste of taxpayer money. Cut their funding and their programs." And that becomes the result. Now you lose even more projects. NASA, and science in general, is an easy area to cut because people do not see an immediate impact in their lives from the results, unlike Social Security, Medicare, or military. It's also easy for flagship projects in research to go over budget because you are working on things that haven't been done before, or, having been done, have only a handful of previous missions (some of which having failed) to provide a backdrop on how to successfully repeat it. I agree with Casey. The approach shouldn't be about every project being a waste of taxpayer money, to a view of how very little we actually spend on non-immediate-result-producing space exploration and science.

Michael Stat: 08/09/2012 02:41 CDT

So what are the chances that given Curiosity's success and the huge amount of publicity and interest it's been getting, that the Planetary Exploration budget for 2013 won't actually be cut down from 1.5 to 1.2 billion when the final budget is passed? I really want to see a new Flagship mission get started, preferably to Europa.

Zorbonian: 08/09/2012 03:16 CDT

In my case, you are pretty much preaching to the choir here. But how to get this point across to the moronic news agencies -- and better yet -- how to ban Fox News in the U.S. like the Canadians did (though I know Fox News is not the only moronic news agency - just the most). And, how to get this point across to our self-serving politicians? If we were really half as smart as the voting population of other highly industrialized countries, we would get rid of both of these parties and get in a party that works for the good of the country. But we're not that bright.

Zorbonian: 08/09/2012 03:28 CDT

This really is peanuts - 1/2 cent on the tax dollar compared to 10 cents on the tax dollar during the 60s when we had to get to the moon "just to beat the Russians to it". We shouldn't need that kind of reason to be doing something that will enrich us all in the long run. But you know? I really think we should take some of the nearly $200 million in TOBACCO subsidies and put it toward the Planetary Exploration budget.

reader: 08/09/2012 04:17 CDT

The entire NSF budget is just north of $7B. How is $2.5B "cheap" in comparison ? I think all of us space fans, scientists or not keep forgetting how disproportionately large amount compared to the rest of the publicly funded research we are spending on space - which is pretty much just a hangover from having the cold war era space race in the first place. Compare NASA budgets to ESA, JAXA or CNSA or the rest of the world, and you'll see its not cheap by any means. If you want to answer the pointed questions, answer them rationally with what the value proposition actually is. And if you think hard about it, it actually becomes very difficult to defend projects like JWST even compared to terrestrial failing megaprojects like ITER for example.

Lisa: 08/09/2012 04:46 CDT

I really want to like this, because I agree with almost everything you say. But as a reporter, this blanket condescension of "the media" really rankles. If you cherrypick your news sources, sure, it looks like The Media has all swallowed one narrative. But "the media has all swallowed one narrative" is also a narrative to swallow. Neither are true. Anyway, the solution can't be for reporters to just stop asking "can we afford this?" The public is probably thinking it, and it's our job to answer those questions. Sometimes journalists ask questions we very well know the answer to because we want it to come from a more authoritative voice. (I unfailingly get better quotes when I pretend I don't know any physics.) Your suggestion at the end for how scientists could respond is a useful way to move the conversation forward -- scientists can actually shape how "the media" tell their stories, and I think have a responsibility to do so. But trust that some of us know what we're doing. (PS, hi Casey! When did you start blogging for the Planetary Society? Congrats!)

Joe: 08/10/2012 12:46 CDT

Very good article. I'd like to offer my independent thoughts on the value of investments in space exploration. My instinct says the value far outweighs the costs, and the benefits - both direct and indirect - are substantial. As one example: the money is mainly spent via salaries for skilled technical folks. These dollars are directly injected into the communities in which this talented employees reside. They spend it locally, and it recycles through the economy. Other studies of this type of spending show multipliers of between 0.8 and 3.0. Quite literally, with the right kind of spending in the right community, the increased economic activity nearly generates enough in taxes to pay for the original spending. On that basis alone, this is a near-break even investment, if not a generated of a small excess. Of course, you gain many, many other benefits from this other than direct economic activity. The work directly generates additional science and engineering, with many spinoffs. Some of these spinoffs are commercialized, and serve to strengthen the competitiveness of other US companies. Occasionally, you get really big breakthroughs that generate game-changing products and pay back dramatic efficiency increases to industry. This are all quantifiable, and I would guess when added to the first benefit, above, you now how a greater-than-zero sum game, with more direct $$$ returning to the economy than you spent. And oh yes, you've got some great science and knowledge as a huge bonus. FInally, I think the most important element of this is the inspiration that these missions provide to the young, next generation. Simply put, if we're going to maintain the US standard of living, we MUST have a generation of educated workers in STEM fields. These missions are perhaps the very best way to motive that generation. If MSL motivates just an additional 1 in 100 kids to consider a STEM career, it will be worth every penny many times over. Given the 45,000,000 million workers to come from the next generation, at 1:100, you've added nearly 500,000 STEM professionals to the US economy - the very engine of our future growth. This is a nearly priceless outcome that will pay rich rewards to the US for decades to come. I don't speak in the abstract. I was a young high school student when Columbia flew Young and Crippin on the first flight in 1981. I was so motivated by that, I turned to a STEM field as a result, and today, 30 years later, I hold a Ph.D. in engineering, spending my career finding ways to make our country secure and competitive for the future. Thank you NASA. Your business model is stellar; if only we can tell this story to a wider audience and gain their support.

fthurber: 08/10/2012 02:26 CDT

The mainstream media is pretty clueless and obnoxious about the rover at the press conferences. All they want to know about are possible problems; they are just looking for someway to criticize this mission.

Zorbonian: 08/10/2012 04:03 CDT

Yeah... I have to admit that I don't have much respect for the American media. I am American (proud ?? Sometimes... :-), but we could learn a lot from some of our other 1st world "colleague" nations. The news media in the U.S. gives credibility to "nonsense" - and puts the microphone up to the mouths of these nonsense spouters, whereas in many other countries they do not even give them credibility. Believe me, this is not the same thing as not having freedom of speech - people can say whatever they want, but they just are not put in the limelight. Here, the media encourages us to listen to "Joe Stupid" spouting off about things that simply are not true, and by doing so, it is in the collective consciousness and given credibility. All over the world, on a multitude of topics, the truth is quashed due to financial interests, and we see it going on every day here in the American media.

fthurber: 08/10/2012 08:54 CDT

I think that the cost of MSL spacecraft by itself was something like 1.8b. Does anyone have a handle on how much it would cost to clone it? I would think that it would be considerably less than 1.8. It sure would be nice to have a Mawrth Vallis mission...

fthurber: 08/11/2012 11:35 CDT

The worst of the reporters at the press conferences has to be Bill Harwood of CBS News. You can see him here at 42:25 practically begging the team to describe some system faults:

Zorbonian: 08/11/2012 02:52 CDT

Sorry, Joe (above post) - my reference to "Joe Stupid" has absolutely nothing to do with you - it's just a phrase. In fact, you obviously have a high level of understanding of what's going on. Next time I will use "Mr. or Ms. Stupid" instead. ;-) Most people just don't realize how great the economic and social benefit to us all this type of science really is. fthurber, I saw what you are talking about in the press conference - yeah - he's pretty bad. I see possible financial interest at work here, to get the funding cut. But the panel team responded very well.

Sam: 08/12/2012 11:42 CDT

Innovation is good for our standard of living. However, extracting this resource from our workforce isn't always easy. It is often not enough to just pay somebody to invent a better mouse trap. The folks involved in space exploration are into their jobs for more than just the money. For many of them, it is really the "coolness" factor that gets them up in the morning, and drives their dedication to their work. As tax payers, even if we don't share their enthusiasm (I most certainly do share their enthusiasm), it is in our interest to fund their private ambitions because the innovation they bring to their work come to us very, very cheaply. It would be great if they were as inspired by solving the current economic crisis, or poverty, world hunger and disease, but that is not how they are built - and creative intelligence does not come to us in just the way we please. As tax payers, we are exploiting their internal drive and motivation in the hopes that what they discover and invent will have applications beyond what was originally intended. As Marx would say, their enthusiasm (seen in the videos after Curiosity's touch down) is generating a lot of surplus labor, and like good capitalist, we are expropriating it in order to invest it in more earthly concerns.

chimpanzee: 08/15/2012 03:51 CDT

As a former JPL'er (mid 80's), I am well aware of mismanagement/corruption. The source is Caltech which runs JPL (under NASA contract), also the fact that NASA is a US Gov entity. Here is recent testimony by a former JPL'er from Pasadena Star News of OVERBILLING Fraud: From a Pasadena Star News article on JPL layoffs: ========== UsedtoWorkforCaltech: CalTech is the teaching aspect. And JPL is the applications side of the house. When I worked there, I learned that Caltech were being billed ERRONEOUSLY by certaincompanies for about $643K monthly. Because the Manager did not know how to correct the problem, and BECAUSE THE ERROR IN BILLING HAD GONE ON FOR SOOOOOO LONG, the Manager opted to leave the billing as is. I could not believe that to save face, rather than to save the institution money, she would rather continue paying an erroneous bill of $643K PER MONTH. PER MONTH !!! [ that's 7.7 million dollars...FRAUD, invites the Feds for investigation. I.e. OIG/Office of Inspector General for NASA, which reports to Charles Bolden (NASA Head) with DoJ/Dept of Justice as Enforcement Agency ] When I found and proved the error, I gave her all the paperwork so SHE could look like the hero. She could have adopted any kind of presentation to make herself look good. CalTech and JPL are quite corrupt. By the way, if you are a foreigner, you stand a better chance of getting hired. They don't care if you're a citizen of not. And they overlook visa's and citizenship papers. All you need is a PhD and with CalTech and JPL, you're IN !!! ======== I know of a SECOND case of a throughly INCOMPETENT female mgr, tied to Astronomy Outreach at JPL. It's going to WIPE OUT the success of MSL. The implication is a THREAT to National Security (US Air Force spy satellites, which use a ground-based solar observation telescope network), which will invoke the Patriot Act. Expect to see OIG entering JPL (& other places), with people hauled to Federal Prison. I was a part of the MSL Outreach effort, so I know this firsthand. There is a Cancer of incompetent/corrupt non-technical people, which is ruining it for the qualified JPL technical staff. It's a reflection of Corporate culture & this country in general.

chimpanzee: 08/15/2012 04:19 CDT

An interesting article on Mars Viking mission budget (with anticipated cost overrun) in climate of fiscal budget cutting:

Carl Sagan's famous argument for NASA funding: trivial compared to US Military cost overruns. Hate to say it, but BOTH NASA & US Military face the same bureaucratic/mismanagement of US Gov. Waste & Corruption. In grad school, my officemate commented on his summer internship at Argonne National Lab as "lots of waste".

chimpanzee: 08/15/2012 04:21 CDT

An interesting article on Mars Viking mission budget (with anticipated cost overrun) in climate of fiscal budget cutting:

Carl Sagan's famous argument for NASA funding: trivial compared to US Military cost overruns. Hate to say it, but BOTH NASA & US Military face the same bureaucratic/mismanagement of US Gov. Waste & Corruption. In grad school, my officemate commented on his summer internship at Argonne National Lab as "lots of waste".

EzJack: 09/05/2012 10:10 CDT

The cost is the suffering of the ignored. Our money and efforts should be better spent until the problems of this world are solved.

joe: 11/26/2012 11:06 CST

I worked at Nasa Glenn for a year and a half. First government related work for me. What an eye opener. It's a jobs program. Space exploration should be privatized as soon as possible. I wonder what the parched farmers of this countries interior think about mega billions spent looking for ancient remnanents of water on Mars.

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