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This view combines several frames taken by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity, looking into a valley to the west from the eastern side of a dune at the eastern end of the valley.  The team operating Curiosity has chosen this valley as a likely route toward mid-term and long-term science destinations.  The foreground dune, at a location called "Dingo Gap," is about 3 feet (1 meter) high in the middle and tapered at south and north ends onto low scarps on either side of the gap.

This view of the surface of Mars combines several frames taken by the Curiosity rover early this year.

PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA/JPL-CALTECH/MSSS

Marc Kaufman

for National Geographic

Published April 22, 2014

Sending astronauts to Mars could be done at a small fraction of the cost of developing and flying the F-35 fighter jet, according to a rough estimate put forward by a panel of NASA, industry, and academic experts. The panel will present its findings at the second annual Humans to Mars conference starting Tuesday in Washington.

While a two-decade campaign to prepare a manned mission to Mars would certainly be expensive, it would cost nothing close to the $1 trillion figure that has sometimes been cited, the panel concluded. Instead the mission could be funded out of the current NASA budget, with allowances for inflation, along with contributions from other countries.

"One of our goals has been to destroy that '$1 trillion to send a human to Mars' myth, and we have," said Chris Carberry, executive director of the nonprofit ExploreMars group, organizers of the conference.

"It's feasible, it's affordable, and it can be done without impacting the federal budget or the NASA budget," he said. "This message is getting across, and there's more support now in Congress and the public for [sending] humans to Mars than ever before." (Related: "Proposed Mars Missions Challenge NASA Health Standards, Panel Warns.")

Close-up color photograph of Mars. Impact craters are visible on the surface of the planet.
Impact craters are visible in this close-up color photograph of the Martian surface.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CORBIS

Big, Elusive Numbers

The expert panel puts the total cost of a 20-year program culminating in a manned mission to Mars in the range of $80 to $100 billion. NASA already spends around $4 billion a year on exploration programs; most of that is devoted to developing the Orion spacecraft and a new rocket that would one day carry astronauts to Mars or other deep-space destinations. The agency spends nearly $4 billion more on operating the International Space Station in low Earth orbit.

The idea that a manned mission to Mars would cost $1 trillion seems to be an urban legend, born a decade ago from a combination of sloppy reporting and bad arithmetic and then repeated many times. In contrast, the F-35 fighter program, which has been plagued by delays, really could cost more than $1 trillion, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office.

In the decade since the unaffordable-Mars myth was born, said Harley Thronson, a NASA senior scientist and a member of the expert panel, NASA and commercial space companies have gotten better at building and operating rockets for less money. At the same time, advocates of a manned mission to Mars have scaled back their ambitions, at least for the initial mission—framing it as more of a Lewis and Clark expedition than a transcontinental railway.

"We don't need to carry out every activity humans want to do on Mars—we just have to get there and back," Thronson said. "By focusing only on what we need to do, we achieve enormous cost savings." Some of the cost, he added, might be borne by international partners and private space companies—unlike the Apollo moon landings, which were paid for solely by American taxpayers.

A Mars mission cannot and should not be similar to the Apollo program, said another participant in the study, Joe Cassady of Aerojet Rocketdyne. The Mars program would play out incrementally over 20 or more years, taking advantage of technology improvements and lessons learned from the International Space Station and other space missions.

"What is absolutely essential is that we agree on a long-term path and pretty much stick to it," Cassady said. "No more 180-degree redirections; we need to get everyone on the same page."

Panoramic photo of Mars taken by Curiosity rover.
The Opportunity rover took this composite self-portrait about three weeks before completing a decade of work on Mars.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA/JPL-CALTECH/CORNELL UNIV./ARIZONA STATE UNIV.

All Together Now

That seems to be happening. The Humans to Mars conference will start Tuesday with a talk by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who is on record as saying that preparing for a human mission to Mars in the early 2030s is among the most important goals of the agency. That reflects the expressed view of President Obama.

What's more, support for that goal is to be found on both sides of a badly divided Congress. After the House Space Subcommittee passed a NASA authorization bill earlier this month, Chairman Steven Palazzo said, "The agreement before us today makes absolutely clear that NASA's goal for the human spaceflight program should be to send humans to Mars."

Ranking Democratic member Donna Edwards concurred, adding that the amendment is "requiring NASA to develop an informed and realistic 'road map' to get this nation to Mars."

"I think many in the space community believe NASA's planning for a set of missions to ultimately get us to Mars has become more coherent and consolidated," said John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute, which is cosponsoring the Humans to Mars event. "There's little debate that Mars is the goal."

Cost Still Matters

There is far less agreement about the issue of affordability, however. Last week, Logsdon said, several members of the NASA Advisory Council—which advises Bolden and NASA—said that any plans for a landing on Mars in the 2030s were unrealistic, given budget constraints. Sending astronauts to orbit Mars without landing might be possible, they said. (Related: "Mars Flyby Proposed for 2021 NASA Astronaut Mission.")

Many scientists, of course, still question the need for manned missions to Mars or anywhere else. Harley Thronson's former deputy at NASA, Giulio Varsi, said that in a world increasingly embracing driverless cars, drones, and virtual sports, remote-controlled missions are clearly the way to go.

Such arguments have always been buttressed by the extreme cost of manned missions. ExploreMars's Carberry hopes his group's findings on the affordability of a Mars mission will convince some skeptics.

Last year, he said, ExploreMars commissioned a poll that showed broad enthusiasm among the American public for a human mission to Mars-especially once misimpressions about the size of the NASA budget were corrected. Poll respondents put NASA's spending at about 2.5 percent of the total federal budget. In fact, the space agency spends less than 0.5 percent of the total.

34 comments
Russell Dooley
Russell Dooley

am i missing something here? isnt this our third time to mars roboticly? time for us humans to own the red planet

arjun nandakumar
arjun nandakumar

MANNED MISSION TO MARS... Next step of human kind ... Nice... But the time lag between Earth and Mars could cause some side effects right?

Michal Smigiel
Michal Smigiel

I see some very good and applicable science that can be done by martian colonizators. Today we have got problems with pollution, climate change and global warming. Some say that maybe we will need to work with our atmosphere to stop those threats. Using some chemicals that will clear it. Whatever, I'm not an expert. But I want to point one fact about Mars. Doing anything with Earth's atmosphere without preparation and experiments is extremely dangerous. It would be an experiment that we all would participate. And we would not have a possibility to stop it. And if this experiment would be failed then maybe...WE WILL ALL BE FAILED. And now look at Mars. If we want to live there than we have to do very much with the atmosphere there. And there is no risk. Few people will stay there in safe buildings completely cut off the outside world. They could make there experiments for decades searching for the theory of terraforming the planet. And some day they will find the answers. How to terraform the planet without killing those who live there. And who knows? Maybe then they will save our, Earthians lives by apllicating it on our planet and making it once again clear and comfortable for us. And that's only one thing that can be done on Mars without risking killing the entire humanity. New powerfull power plants that rise risk of axplosion so big that Chernobyl would become small firework? On Mars no risk. Biological experiments that could get out of control? Maybe better on Mars? I'm not a scientist so I don't know what can be done else and maybe somer of the things that I have mentioned are wrong. But one thing is sure - we all live on planet Earth. And if we would do something very wrong here then we could dissapear. But if we would do something wrong on Mars than only a group of very brave people will lose they're lives for the good of humanity. Both are tragedy but after the second one we can at least say that they were heroes and do the honours for them. After the first one we will become like dinosaurs.

Frank Eichstadt
Frank Eichstadt

Prepositioning bots on the surface of Mars and sending crew to Mars orbit where they can operate bots remotely in near real time is the future we can afford and should realize first. Bots are only slow because of the latency issues. ISS is paving the path for long-duration beyond-LEO missions. GETTING CREW TO AND FROM THE MARTIAN SURFACE IS UNNECESSARY, and given the resulting contamination of the planet, its also bad science.

Maybe once we've explored remotely to a sufficient extent and are a LOT smarter about Mars than we are today, a foray to the surface could come next. It' taken humanity eons to explore Earth,and we're not done yet. Be patient...exploring Mars will take decades if not centuries.

Jose Hipolito
Jose Hipolito

Hey! everybody had forgotten, how men explored the earth 500 years ago, if everyone of you as americans believe that you can not reach that part of the universe, then the Chinese will, they will be sending their best spaceman there, at all cost, human or machine. What is important is for you to believe and not to be skeptic about it, be proud as American acting as leader of the human race in exploring the edge of this universe.. @ Richard Haddon, I like your spirit, go on inspire all those who think they can,

Alex Boates
Alex Boates

It is going to be essential to deligate Mars Autonomy before anyone from any nation sets foot on the planet. There is no thinking too far a head in avoiding conflict. Passports for astronauts and stamps on the page before they go, with UN assembly recognition.

Jim Fling
Jim Fling

I understand mans desire to explore. Manned mission to Mars has little value for those of us who will pay for the trip for a few. It's true we all reaped many benefits from our quest to go to the moon but very little new knowledge or benefits would be gained from a Mars visit.   It is a terrible environment with no air, microscopic dust, awful lethal radiation.

We are doing good science with robots on Mars. There is no need to go there.

We spent and are spending more than 100 billion $ on the space station with humans abroad. By the scientific communities own admission, there has been very little scientific gain from more than a decade of people living and trying to make sense of being there.

I think it's ironic that there are many people working and billions of dollars being spent to develop robots that can do a fraction of what a human can do here on earth. With the limitations of the environment on Mars a humans capability will be not much more that a sophisticated robot. 

Kelvin Smith
Kelvin Smith

Why does this article make no mention of Mars One, the attempt at a privately funded colonization of Mars? Several hundred thousand people recently applied for the opportunity to take a one-way trip to Mars in 2023 (or a follow-on trip). I'm skeptical they can really raise the needed money with advertising and sponsorships, but it's more than idle speculation, and they've got a much lower price tag since they don't have to send a big enough rocket to bring people home.

Kelvin Smith
Kelvin Smith

Why does this article have no mention at all of Mars One, an attempt at a privately funded colonization of Mars? Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have applied to go to Mars on a one-way trip in 2023 (or one of a planned series of later trips). I'm skeptical they can really raise the money, but it's more than hot air, and it would seem worth a reference here.

K C
K C

A 'selfie' on Mars. Worth every penny. ;)

Richard Columbare
Richard Columbare

I understand we have the capacity to send a man to Mars.   My problem with that is from the pictures taken by the Mars Rovers ,it looks like Mars is a rocky barren desert with no breathable atmosphere,it's worse than Afghanistan and with no oxygen.    So other than the accomplishment of  the space trip it seems a waste of effort.    And as for making Mars a forward base for space exploration,just by looking at the impact craters on Mars ,it would preclude any structure built on the surface.

Timothy Luoma
Timothy Luoma

Unfortunately, the earth's pollution would have to be extremely severe to match Mars' current atmosphere, giving little credence to the argument that we need to establish a colony there because we would need another planet for the human race to survive.  Perhaps we do need to work on reducing pollution as our last resort.    

michael hartman
michael hartman

The USA alone is not going to "cure Earth's environmental problems and human kinds serious social ills". The relatively small cost of a manned Martian mission would reap huge dividends in terms of scientific knowledge and technology. Not to mention an enormous boost in American pride. GO FOR IT !!!


Charlie Seattle
Charlie Seattle

Lets cure Earth's environmental problems and human kinds serious social ills first.

Richard Haddon
Richard Haddon

@Andrew Booth If manned missions do not have much purpose then life on Earth does not have much purpose. And to assert that remote airborne surveillance and attack has more purpose than human exploration is simply insane if not criminal.

Humans are not limited in their ability to survive. They are clever, funny, infinitely adaptable, and the greatest thing ever to evolve on the Earth. They have colonized every terrain on Earth, from the baking parched deserts of the Sahara to the frozen wastes of the Antarctic. They even walk on the Moon. On the MOON. They are already exposed to every type of Solar and cosmic radiation, in Earth orbit and to a lesser extent on the ground without suffering any ill effects at all. Manned interplanetary exploration is an extension of human adaptability, it drives progress towards a safer future for all and is essential for the survival of the life of this planet. Humans are the future - not machines. Machines in space are merely tools used by humans for preliminary reconnaissance.

Your argument is wilfully distorting or fabricating facts outright in order to fit the a priori conclusion you plainly wish to draw; i.e. that manned space exploration is inefficient and without purpose. So why do wish to assert such a false conclusion? What have you REALLY got against manned space exploration, the one field of endeavour that otherwise unites the planet in a common peaceful cause, that you will apparently go to any length to discourage it? What do you mean by that exactly?

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

I don't think manned missions do have much purpose now - certainly when compared to the advantages of orbiters and roving machines. A good example are the UAVs that now conduct airborne surveillance and attack missions far more efficiently than humans can.

Humans are very limited in their ability to survive for long in any environment that diverges even slightly from normal. Too little or too much of one element or mineral in our diet or atmosphere usually has the most debilitating or fatal results. Humans will be exposed to exactly those conditions during any trip to Mars as well as on the surface. What about prolonged exposure to cosmic rays or sun flares for example. 

Machines in space have proven themselves ever since the Mariners and Voyager probes. Those are the future of space flight - not manned missions.  

Joseph Davis
Joseph Davis

The whole argument that remote-controlled missions are better is just nonsense, at least in my opinion, and in the opinion of many others. Our robots today, and even in the near future, are and will be clunky, slow, and inefficient. Yes, Opportunity and Curiosity are amazing machines, and I'm very glad at all that they have accomplished and are accomplishing, but they are very slow and clunky. 


A human on the other hand, even in a bulky suit to protect him/her from the elements, exposure, and radiation, is much more efficient. A human, who can think of what to do and write down notes right on the surface of the planet will do so much more in an hour than the rovers can do in months - years even. Plus, seeing a human on Mars will do so much to boost enthusiasm about not only science and space, but will put more kids and college students into STEM classes to become engineers, mathematicians, and scientists, which the world needs, greatly. 


A human can go into places, like a cave or other small place, where a robot couldn't go because it wouldn't have power, or wouldn't fit. Places where there could be thriving life that we would just never know about if it weren't for a human's ability to go there and perform the science right there.


So to those saying that a human mission to Mars is pointless: take some time and reconsider this. 

Richard Faulkner
Richard Faulkner

Recent orbital images of Mars,show us brines,flowing down the sides of crater walls, during the Martian Spring,& Summer.

This means there is most likely seasonal brines,flowing down the insides of cave walls,especially near the Martian Equator.

The brines would pick up plenty of nutrient-rich minerals,as they slowly flow down the inside cave walls,and pool at the base of the cave walls..

Any microbes or organics,or bacteria,living,or once living,along the bases of Martian Equatorial cave walls will be very well protected from radiation,as would any crew, looking for life,in the caves. ;-)

C. Dufour
C. Dufour

Given the choice between a fighter jet for the purpose of war that will become obsolete in 10 years or a manned mission to mars that will redefine humanity. The choice should be clear

Marko Ladavac
Marko Ladavac

@Russell Dooley We cannot reach moon with human crew, let alone Mars. About owning it... well we have no idea who placed it's paw on it at all. As far as it can go some alien civilization could consider Mars as their own rock.

Russell Dooley
Russell Dooley

@Frank Eichstadt  sorry  i dont think the human race has that much time left before very bad things happen here( ie politics and current social patterns)   even the bible is howling end times here.

Marko Ladavac
Marko Ladavac

@Alex Boates You are partially forgetting that we are NOT alone, and someone is probably considering Mars as their own rock! :)

Russell Dooley
Russell Dooley

@Alex Boates sorry  ownership is 9/10ths the law  .......so set up shop and own it get it done  make room for everybody just like they did the west here in the U.S. in the 1800's not saying its perfect  but hey we gotta get a move on!


Stuart Herring
Stuart Herring

@Richard Columbare So, we build subsurface habitations -- deep enough to be proof against radiation and small-to-medium meteoroids.  Big meteoroids would be more of a problem -- but they would be a problem on Earth too, and you don't see people advocating for not building on Earth's surface.  We play the odds, building many places with the knowledge that most of them won't ever get hit.  So too can we (ultimately) build many places on Mars, Luna, etc.

Stuart Herring
Stuart Herring

@Timothy Luoma Earth's current atmospheric CO2 level is 0.039%. The Martian level is 96% -- but your main problem with breathing martian air would not be the chemical constituents.  The problem is the LACK of constituents, at 0.006 atmospheres.  Since we'll be building pressurized habitats anyway, we'll simply make sure that martian atmosphere is not included.  A no-brainer, really.

Stuart Herring
Stuart Herring

@Charlie Seattle We've been working on those things, off and on, with varying degrees of success, for at least hundreds of years.  How much successful, sustainable change do you see as a result?  How much do you expect from continuing to throw money (and soldiers, and drilling rigs, etc.) in that direction?  (In other words, since we can't really expect to fully solve those problems soon, we should not blithely say that "We'll fix that first.")

This is not to say that various ills cannot be eradicated, or at least ameliorated.  But some of our better techniques and technologies for such efforts have resulted from ... you guessed it ... SPACE development.  Go look up "space program spinoffs"; you'll be amazed.

Stuart Herring
Stuart Herring

@Andrew Booth "Too little or too much of one element or mineral in our diet or atmosphere usually has the most debilitating or fatal results. Humans will be exposed to exactly those conditions during any trip to Mars as well as on the surface."
---No, they won't. We already routinely take food to the ISS that is nutritionally complete, without excesses or deficiencies of minerals and other nutrients.

"What about prolonged exposure to cosmic rays or sun flares for example."
---There are already several techniques that we can use against such radiation while traveling between Earth and Mars, such as a "solar storm shelter" in the center of the ship, surrounded by tanks of water. There will be time for the space-weather observers to issue a warning if a severe flare is seen, since the dangerous particles take significantly longer to arrive than the photons do.
Another proposal I've seen involves temporarily charging the outside of the ship (or the storm shelter) to a high positive voltage, whereby to deflect significant amounts of the protons from a flare.

Also, the shielding afforded by the structure of the ship will be enough to reduce cosmic-ray doses to a level equivalent to those encountered on Earth.

Charlie Seattle
Charlie Seattle

@Richard Faulkner  


Humans will be wise to develop Lunar and Martian habitats underground. Free solar radiation and meteorite protection.


I have often wondered if Nevada underground nuclear explosions in the 1950's created huge fused glass lined circular chambers that could be used.

Stuart Herring
Stuart Herring

@Charlie Seattle The bomb-test sites, unfortunately, are unlikely to be neat (or near-neat) glazed bubbles -- lots of fractured and caved-in rock is much more likely.  Also, the remnant radioactivity could pose a problem to humans trying to use the cavities for labs or experimental living quarters....

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