Should the U.S. Be Spending This Much Money to Go to Mars?

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NASA/Bil Ingalls

Given the way the last half-decade has gone economically for the United States, it isn’t surprising that space exploration isn’t at the top of the nation’s list of priorities. This is why the NASA space exploration budget isn’t as well-endowed as one could wish.

Economic recovery and national security, cutting emissions and reforming immigration, there’s an endless list of issues that need to be dealt with and demand more precedence than than something like space exploration, whose effects and applications are too far in the future to be pressing concerns.

However, a compilation of financial stats from Vox recently made the point that the United States spends a great deal of money on things that are hardly priorities. Some of the items listed make sense, although they’re depressing. For example, the F-35 aerial fighter development program; national security and military spending is predictably more well-funded than space travel and research, because one protects the more immediate planetary region we live in, while the other opens new doors in the future, but isn’t rapidly applicable. So the fighter program costing more than sending man to mars — while a rather shocking expense comparison — isn’t a strange breakdown of costs.

Some items made less sense. For example, the postal service expenses being greater than the cost of exploring other bodies in our solar system, or the cost of improper Medicare payments reaching beyond the entirety of NASA’s budget. Speaking of losing money, many are aware that the cost of making both pennies and nickels is actually higher than the worth of the coins themselves. Which means that in 2014 there was a manufacturing cost loss of $105 million, while it only cost $14 million to put the Mars Opportunity rover into operation.

According to Vox, dead federal workers cost the government more than NASA’s Pluto mission, destroyed weapons are more than the Curiosity rover, and NFL stadiums have had more fiscal support than would be required to explore the moon of Jupiter. All in all, pretty astounding how much we could be doing with what, in some cases, amounts to monetary waste. And with 2016, it only seems appropriate to bring up a cost not mentioned by Vox: elections.

In 2012, according to OpenSecrets.org, a combined total of spending from candidates and various involved groups added up to around $3.6 billion. NASA’s total planetary science budget for 2015 was $1.34 billion, making elections over two-and-a-half times the cost.

Another area of spending — not on the part of the U.S. government institutions, but rather on the part of foreign entities to the U.S. government — is the total cumulative worth of gifts offered up to State Department members from foreign visitors every year. In 2013 alone, this total added up to be in the millions, certainly enough to fund various research efforts. Because who doesn’t think putting a man on mars would be cooler than another oak-stained armoire in the White House?

So will we make it to Mars? What is the future of space travel and research if it’s clearly not our priority as a nation right now? Luckily, the fate of space exploration isn’t entirely left in the hands of the federal government. The answer, it is commonly agreed, is the private sector, and perhaps the biggest competition at present is who will put humans on Mars first.

There are a number of ongoing efforts competing in parallel for that honor. There’s Inspiration Mars, and Mars One — the one-way trip that took all those applicants — as well as Space X. Inspiration Mars and Mars One are both non-profit groups, while Space X is a private company that would charge half a million for a ticket to the red planet. According to Extreme Tech, Space X estimated its arrival date in 2026, which would beat out NASA by nearly a full decade. But while the website and teaser trailers for the three big efforts seen above are flashier, there is something to be said for the safety and scientific circumspection of NASA’s approach. “While robotic explorers have studied Mars for more than 40 years, NASA’s path for the human exploration of Mars begins in low-Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station,” state’s NASA’s “Journey to Mars” page.

Not terribly glamorous, is it? But the fact of the matter is that it gathers a great deal of data that will be needed for a successful attempt at reaching Mars with healthy humans. “Astronauts on the orbiting laboratory are helping us [im]prove many of the technologies and communications systems needed for human missions to deep space, including Mars. The space station also advances our understanding of how the body changes in space and how to protect astronaut health,” stated NASA. This last point is of particular importance, as osteopenia, the loss of bone mass seen by astronauts in space, is a strong concern for such a long drawn out travel time.

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