NASA Wants to Ride-Share to Get to Mars

Europe is already footing part of the bill. Others may hop aboard.

Loading portions of the Orion service module into a NASA transporter in Florida.

Loading portions of the Orion service module into a NASA transporter in Florida.

Source: Kim Shiflett/NASA

Amid the Cold War scramble to best the Soviets in space, NASA got all the money it needed to put astronauts on the moon. Achieving the agency’s present-day goal of a Mars landing won’t be quite so simple. NASA officials have been coy about the total projected cost of the Martian mission, but analysts estimate that the tab could run anywhere from $100 billion to $1 trillion or more, making it inevitable that the U.S. will need help from its space-faring friends to reach the red planet.

On Nov. 30, NASA officials joined peers from the European Space Agency (ESA) and Airbus at NASA’s Plum Brook research station in Sandusky, Ohio, to mark an important milestone in the Orion program, which will ferry astronauts beyond the moon. The attendees witnessed the delivery of the first service module that will provide propulsion, power, air, and water for astronauts on the spacecraft.

The Orion service module is a template for the international cooperation and cost-sharing that will be key to reaching Mars. ESA covered the $470 million-plus tab to build the module, with the work performed by Airbus Group in Europe. Over the next year, NASA will carry out a battery of structural tests for a first flight to orbit the moon in mid-2018. That will also be the first full-scale test of the largest rocket in NASA history, the Space Launch System (SLS). If NASA’s Journey to Mars program progresses on schedule—plans call for about one manned mission a year starting in 2023—astronauts bearing the U.S. flag (and most likely a few others) will be bound for Mars by 2040.

In the era of the Apollo program, the space program captured more than 4 percent of federal outlays from 1960 to 1973—about $19.4 billion in total—enabling it to reach the moon in less than a decade. That’s roughly $156 billion today, adjusted for inflation. NASA has never put a big number on its Mars ambitions. One reason is to avoid “scaring” lawmakers, says Marco Caceres, a senior analyst at Teal Group, an aerospace consulting company. Caceres figures that the tab will reach at least $1 trillion, whereas a 2015 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report on space exploration estimates the cost of a Mars trip could be anywhere from a bit under $100 billion to $300 billion. “I think everyone expects that a multinational coalition is going to be involved at some level,” says Casey Dreier, advocacy director for the Planetary Society, a nonprofit that promotes space exploration.

The budget Congress approved in December endows NASA with $19.3 billion for the fiscal year 2016, with $3.3 billion tagged for Orion and SLS. The agency says it can fund flights into the 2020s to help test new technologies for a Mars trip. But it’s decidedly not averse to sharing the burden. “Partnership is an important element of this whole endeavor,” says Greg Williams, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for human exploration and operations. ESA hopes collaborating with NASA “will actually lead to having a European astronaut on a future space mission,” said Nico Dettmann, head of the agency’s development department, at the Nov. 30 event.

Only a few nations have the engineering and hardware capacity to help make the Mars mission a reality, and at least two of them face constraints on spending. China’s economy is in the midst of a slowdown, and Russia recently downgraded its space agency to a state-backed corporation, in a bid to reduce costs and corruption. The other emerging option, as Caceres notes, are private space companies that can fund the specialized work needed to make a Mars mission feasible. Space-obsessed billionaires such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos could lessen NASA’s dependence on financial help from abroad. Even without its enormous Cold War budget, Caceres says a link to the American space program remains a sought-after credential for many companies: “NASA still has incredible cachet.”

The bottom line: NASA wants partners to share the burden of getting to Mars, which some say could cost as much as $1 trillion.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE